The first judgment by the Human Rights Court presented difficult questions of law that remain valid today – how do countries protect their citizens from terrorist violence whilst upholding their human rights commitments?
The man who brought the case was Gerry Lawless, a builder’s labourer who, by his own admission, joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1956, when he was 20, to fight against what he saw as British oppression in Northern Ireland. He was detained without charge in a military camp, but was offered release if he undertook to ‘respect the Constitution and laws of Ireland’ and give up his IRA membership, which he refused to do.
At that time, a country could derogate from its obligations under the Convention during a state of public emergency. The judges decided that there was a ‘public emergency threatening the life of the nation’ and that Ireland had acted correctly. Lawless lost.
While the case was long and onerous, it set a precedent for the legal recognition of international human rights and was a first step in building the authority of the Court.