The Court of Appeal is currently hearing arguments as to whether a man alleged to have links to the so-called Islamic State (IS) should be deported. While many of the facts of the current case, including the state to which the man is to be deported, remain subject to reporting restrictions, a number of issues are clear: The Government allege that the man in question poses a threat to national security and on that basis seek his deportation. For his part, the man claims that he has previously been tortured in the country to which he is to be sent and that if he is deported he will face a real risk of being ill-treated again due to the allegations of his links to IS, which he denies. Such challenges to deportation orders are not uncommon in European states; a notable example was the United Kingdom’s embattled attempt to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan which was finally successful in 2012.
Like the United Kingdom and all other EU member states, Ireland is a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The central legal issue in cases such as this stems from Article 3 of that Convention and the 1989 decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Soering v UK. Article 3 States that ‘no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’ The Soering case established that if an ECHR contracting state expels an individual to another state where substantial grounds exist for believing that he or she would face a real risk of suffering treatment proscribed by Article 3, then the ECHR contracting state would violate that provision by so doing.
The European Court of Human Rights has therefore read an implicit prohibition of return to a risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment into the text of Article 3. Furthermore in 1996 and again in 2008 the Strasbourg Court held that this implicit ban on sending individuals to states where they may be ill treated is absolute. In other words the behaviour of the individual or the threat that he or she poses to the host state, no matter how serious, cannot be taken into account to justify the deportation if there is a real risk that he or she will be ill treated. Article 3 therefore enshrines a very robust and not uncontroversial protection against return to ill treatment.
This means that if, in the case currently before the Court of Appeal, the applicant’s legal team can show substantial grounds for believing that he will be at real risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment following deportation, then according to long standing jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights –and contrary to the High Court’s finding on Monday– the threat that he poses to Irish national security cannot be taken into account when deciding whether or not he should be deported. If the existence of such a real risk is established the Irish Government simply cannot deport him to the proposed receiving state without violating Ireland’s human rights obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. On Wednesday, 30 December, the European Court of Human Rights indicated a rule 39 interim measure to the Irish Government, which means that even if the injunction is lifted by the Court of Appeal the Government cannot, without violating the European Convention, deport the man until his case has been fully heard.
This case provides an example of the friction that can often arise between national security and the protection of individual human rights. In many ECHR contracting states deportation is often the preferred option in national security cases. This is because information indicating that the person is a threat may be inadmissible as evidence in a criminal trial or because such a trial may require the disclosure of information that could jeopardise on-going security operations. Because of these sensitivities some governments feel it vital to maintain the ability to deport individuals identified as threats to national security. The restraint of deportations under the ECHR has therefore long caused consternation among some ECHR contracting states where deportation plays a significant role in counterterrorism policy. This has seen the advent of the negotiation of diplomatic agreements with potential receiving states and the use of special closed-evidence tribunals such as the Special Immigration Appeals Commission in the UK. The outcome of the current case may raise important questions about how the Irish legal system is equipped to handle such challenges.