Carmen Proetta, whose account of the Gibraltar shooting contradicted the official story (“Death on the Rock” Thames TV 1988)
Death on the rock
Some time before 4 March 1988, UK authorities became aware of a plan by the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) to carry out a terrorist attack on Gibraltar. They expected the attack to take the form of a bomb hidden in a car. Soldiers were sent to Gibraltar to help the police arrest the suspected IRA members. They were told that the suspects were dangerous and likely to be armed. The soldiers were instructed not to use more force than was necessary to protect life.
When the suspects crossed the border from Spain to Gibraltar, they could have been arrested. But they weren’t. They were allowed to enter Gibraltar and go to the area where it was suspected that the bombing would take place. There, the three suspects – Daniel McCann, Mairéad Farrell and Sean Savage – were shot and killed by the soldiers. It was later discovered that they were unarmed and carried no device which could set off a bomb, although eventually a car containing explosives was found in Spain.
The European Court of Human Rights cast no judgment on the soldiers who carried out the shootings and said that the use of force can be justified if there is an honest, but mistaken, belief of danger. But the Court also said that allowing the suspects to enter Gibraltar was a serious miscalculation by those in control, which made a fatal shooting likely. Coupled with their automatic resort to deadly force, the authorities had failed to adequately take into consideration the right to life of the three suspects. It was a use of force which was more than was absolutely necessary to defend others.
This case was controversial. The judges were split 10 against 9. When we’re talking about the state taking life, the only justification can be necessity. There has to be no other way. If there is another way, taking life is disproportionate.
Risk to life
“Melanie Rabone hanged herself from a tree in Lyme Park, Cheshire. She was 24 years of age and was the loved daughter of Mr and Mrs Rabone.”
This powerful statement by a judge still doesn’t capture the extent of the tragedy. Melanie was admitted to hospital after a suicide attempt. She was assessed as being at ‘high risk’ of another attempt. But she was allowed to go home, instead of being kept in hospital to receive care. The next day she went to Lyme Park, carrying her own noose in her hands.
Melanie RaboneMelanie’s parents believed the hospital had been negligent: the hospital knew how vulnerable she was, but still let her leave because she was a ‘voluntary’ patient, that is, she wasn’t detained at the hospital. The existing UK law could not help them. Melanie was 24. In the eyes of domestic law, a parent’s loss is only recognised if their child is younger than 18. In the eyes of the existing law, her parents suffered no loss. But in the real, breathing, feeling world Melanie’s parents had suffered the greatest loss they could.
The Human Rights Act overcame this gaping hole in domestic law. The Act enshrines a right to life. This means public authorities, including the National Health Service, a duty to take active steps to protect individuals under threat – including from themselves. Breaching this duty is unjustifiable when there is a real and immediate risk to life, and reasonable actions could protect that person. The Supreme Court accepted the hospital had an important duty of care to Melanie. The judges said it was simple and feasible to stop her from leaving this care. Melanie’s right to life had therefore been violated, and her parents were indeed victims.
After the judgment, Melanie’s father said it achieved something worthwhile. Because of it, fewer parents would suffer the horrors contained in the statement at the beginning.
When should police be able to listen to our private phone calls? Is being suspected of a crime a good enough reason? What if you’ve already been acquitted?
In 1984, James Malone was accused of handling stolen goods. During the the trial, the prosecution used evidence that could only have been obtained through listening to one of his phone calls. Malone believed this was just the tip of the iceberg – he’d suspected for a number of years that both his phone conversations, and his letters, were being spied upon. When challenged, the police admitted that they had tapped his phone, but argued that this was legal as they had obtained a warrant from the Home Secretary.
James MaloneMalone was acquitted, but even after the trial, he continued to hear strange noises as though somebody was listening to his calls. He asked for any remaining devices to be removed, but was told nothing could be done. Finally, he brought a case against the police, arguing that the simple fact of obtaining a warrant did not mean that tapping his phone was or ever had been legal.
The European Court agreed, ruling that James Malone’s right to a private life had been violated. While the European Convention on Human Rights means that surveillance may sometimes be necessary to prevent crime, in this case the UK had not been acting in accordance with the law. The requirement to obtain a warrant was in practice arbitrary, as there was no guidance available saying in which circumstances these would be granted. So today, the police can listen to your phone calls, but they need a reason which will stand up in court.
The Conservative government wants to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. We don’t yet know what that will look like. Meanwhile, public debate is fogged by misinformation and lack of understanding. Human rights advocates need to convey to people why human rights matters to them.
These three short stories about real human rights cases were first posted on a new site, RightsInfo, which provides clear and reliable information about why human rights matter. The stories were written by the RightsInfo Project Volunteers and edited by Adam Wagner. RightsInfo is turning 50 key human rights cases into plain-English stories and publishing one each weekday. You can find the full list here.