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Why we all have an interest in bringing Northern Ireland’s killers to justice

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We are good people. Therefore, if we deliberately inflict pain on another, the other must have deserved it. Therefore, we are not doing evil… We are doing good. The relatively small percentage of people who cannot or will not reduce dissonance this way pay a large psychological price in guilt, anguish, anxiety, nightmares, and sleepless nights. The pain of living with horrors they have committed, but cannot morally accept, would be searing, which is why most people will reach for any justification available to assuage the dissonance…

–  Carol Tavris & Elliott Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me),

The Daily Mail this week featured a brutally candid – and unrepentant – testimony from a member of a secretive British army unit that operated in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s.

The author, writing under the pseudonym “Simon Cursey”, tells us that at the time he was deployed, “Northern Ireland was close to civil war and the IRA seemed beyond control. The regular Army… were hamstrung by the law. They couldn’t use the tactics employed by the IRA…”.

“Someone high up” therefore decided that “an undercover unit was needed to seek out the enemy and confront them head-on”.

In contrast to the regular Army, the “Military Reaction Force” were able to operate outside of the law, and were instructed to mirror the IRA’s brutal tactics.

“The aim was to beat them at their own game, striking fear into their hearts with clinical brutality. We were a deadly ghost squad, a nightmare rumour .  .  . a Shadow Troop…”

“During briefings phrases such as ‘deal with’ and ‘eliminate’ were used. We were given dossiers on the most dangerous people – and yes, we had a ‘shoot on sight’ list, including Gerry Adams among many others.”

“Call it torture if you wish”

In addition to the “shoot on sight” policy, the unit were involved in the violent interrogation of suspected IRA members:

“We weren’t looking for confessions, but information. Call it torture if you wish, we didn’t care then and I don’t care now…”

“We were told to enter the room, break one of the suspects’ arms and then grab the other one. With that kind of shock treatment, prisoners soon begin to talk.”

This would certainly seem to fit the definition of torture outlined in the  United Nations Convention Against Torture, whose terms include “any act by which severe pain or suffering… is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession”.

Plausible deniability

If the unit’s activities were exposed, says Cursey, it was understood that the UK government “would deny all knowledge”. Nonetheless, “We were told these new intensified operations had Westminster backing as part of a deeper political game aimed at forcing the terrorists to negotiate”.

At the time, the UK government was insisting that its forces in Northern Ireland operated under the law and in accordance with strict rules of engagement. In March 1972 – the same month that Cursey says he was recruited to the Military Reaction Force – the government had explicitly banned the use of five harsh interrogation methods which though unpleasant, fell significantly short of breaking people’s arms.  An official investigation had reiterated that “everyone would agree that torture, whether physical or mental, is not justified under any conditions”. Official briefings from the time insisted that “any suggestion” that soldiers were employed to carry out assassinations was “nonsense”, and that “The fact that such claims are made is in itself an indication of the degree to which the plain clothes surveillance patrols hurt the terrorists”. 

Justifying torture and extra-judicial killing

Cursey, however, argues that the torture of IRA suspects was justified because “These were brutal killers and we had no time to waste – lives depended on us”. He claims that “The information we gained allowed us to compromise terrorist attacks. My unit saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent lives”.

He also insists that while, even at the time, “The press had a field day with claims such as ‘Army murder gangs are out on the streets murdering innocent people’. We never targeted innocent people – we didn’t need to. There were more than enough guilty ones…”

Infallible intelligence?

One thing that comes through very strongly in Cursey’s account of his torture and targeted killings in Northern Ireland is a belief that all of his victims were “guilty”, despite their never having been tried or convicted in a court of law.

Originally Cursey had been ordered to shoot “anyone carrying a weapon”. The list of targets was subsequently expanded to include “groups manning barricades or vigilantes patrolling late at night”, alongside the named individuals on the “shoot on sight” list, such as Gerry Adams.

Cursey admits involvement in the May 1972 killing of a Catholic man named Patrick McVeigh. In justifying this he claims that the victim “had been standing with a group of ‘vigilantes’ that included some particular IRA bad boys on our list”.

Cursey notes that “All the IRA players looked ‘civilian’ of course”, but insists that “there was no such thing as an unarmed group of vigilantes in Belfast in those days”.

The implicit suggestion is that Patrick McVeigh was involved with the IRA and therefore a legitimate target, and that those he was with must, by definition, have been armed.

What Cursey doesn’t mention in his Daily Mail article is that an MRF soldier was subsequently tried for murder over the attack, that McVeigh and all those with him had tested negative for firearms deposits, and that there is no evidence of Patrick McVeigh being involved with the IRA. His family continues to campaign for justice over his death.

Cursey’s admission that his unit systematically tortured suspected IRA members to obtain “information” also, obviously, raises further questions about the reliability of that information – information on the basis of which other supposedly “guilty” people were targeted for assassination or interrogation. His article offers no evidence to support his claim that “The information we gained allowed us to compromise terrorist attacks” and that  “My unit saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent lives”.

Cursey nonetheless insists that he has “no regrets” and that “if I was approached and asked to go back and do it all again, I would be tempted”.

Self-deception and self-justification

“In the horrifying calculus of self-deception, the greater the pain we inflict on others, the greater the need to justify it to maintain our feelings of decency and self-worth” – Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but Not By Me)

Notwithstanding the lack of evidence to support it, Cursey’s self-justifying narrative seems quite understandable. It would be difficult for many of us to live with ourselves after having committed multiple acts of murder and torture without rationalising those acts and convincing ourselves, very firmly, that what we did was right: We never targeted innocent people – we didn’t need to – there were more than enough “guilty” ones to choose from. We never killed anyone who was unarmed. The people we tortured were all “brutal killers”. The information we gained from them saved hundreds or even thousands of lives. To accept the alternative – that some of those we killed or tortured might  not have been the “killers” we supposed them to be, or that the horrific things we did might actually have led to more deaths by fuelling the terrorist movement we were trying to defeat – would be far more painful.

When the perpetrator is “one of us”: Why we all have an interest in bringing Northern Ireland’s killers to justice

Perpetrator-psychology is examined in detail by the social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson in their book “Mistakes Were Made (but Not By Me)”:

Once a perpetrator has decided on a course of action, he or she will justify that decision in ways that avoid any conflict between “We are the good guys ” and “We are doing some awful things.” …During his four-year trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, Slobodan Milosevic, the “Butcher of the Balkans,” justified his policy of ethnic cleansing that caused the deaths of more than 200,000 Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Albanians… Serbs had been victims of Muslim propaganda . War is war; he was only responding to the aggression they perpetrated against the innocent Serbians. Riccardo Orizio interviewed seven other dictators, including Idi Amin, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Mira Markovic (the “Red Witch,” Milosevic’s wife), and Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (known to his people as the Ogre of Berengo). Every one of them claimed that everything they did— torturing or murdering their opponents, blocking free elections, starving their citizens, looting their nation’s wealth, launching genocidal wars— was done for the good of their country. The alternative, they said, was chaos, anarchy, and bloodshed. Far from seeing themselves as despots, they saw themselves as self-sacrificing patriots.

But there is a twist:

if the perpetrators are one of us, many people will reduce dissonance by coming to their defense or minimizing the seriousness or illegality of their actions , anything that makes their actions seem fundamentally different from what the enemy does… Most people want to believe that their government is working in their behalf, that it knows what it’s doing, and that it’s doing the right thing. Therefore, if our government decides that torture is necessary in the war against terrorism, most citizens, to avoid dissonance, will agree. Yet, over time, that is how the moral conscience of a nation deteriorates. Once people take that first small step off the pyramid in the direction of justifying abuse and torture, they are on their way to hardening their hearts and minds in ways that might never be undone…

One of the most valuable social functions of a fair and comprehensive criminal trial is that it can systematically de-construct the self-justifying narrative of people who commit terrible abuses. Day after day, the prosecution has an opportunity to confront the defendant, in an open and public forum, with the evidence of what they have done, allowing them to contest the facts of the case, and exposing the weakness of their responses. 

The perpetrator themselves may continue to cling to self-deception and self-justification. Yet a systematic and public process such as this offers an opportunity for the wider community, who have less of a personal investment in the perpetrator’s guilt or innocence, to get an objective view of the facts, distance themselves from the perpetrator’s actions,  and re-affirm the underlying moral principle that has been violated.  In doing so, we can help prevent the kind of deterioration in “moral conscience” that Tavris and Aronson warn of, and deter similar “mistakes” in future.

Exposing the UK government’s role in torture and extra-judicial killing

Beyond the horrific details of his own case, Cursey’s testimony raises wider questions about the conduct and integrity of the UK political establishment that should arguably be of concern to us all.

If the “Military Reaction Force” did indeed have “Westminster backing” in carrying out torture and extra-judicial killings, then this would imply that these tactics were, at the very least, known of and approved by the UK Ministry of Defence – and that this was happening at the same time as the UK government was publicly disavowing any involvement in torture, and insisting that its soldiers were acting within the law.

Many of those involved in the conflict in Northern Ireland are still alive today, including Lord Carrington, who was Secretary of State for Defence from 1970 until 1974. He and others in the command chain must surely now have serious questions to answer.  

 Simon Cursey’s article in the Daily Mail was followed this week by a major exposé by BBC Panorama, featuring on-camera interviews with several other members of the Military Reaction Force.

A report from the Belfast Daily reveals that:

Declassified documents from the National Archives show how concerned Whitehall was to prevent details of the [Military Reaction Force] unit being made public… One document read: “There can be no useful purpose in admitting the existence of any such organisation” and “There seems to be considerable advantage in maintaining as much confusion as possible”.

If Cursey and his former comrades are telling the truth, then it would appear that the British public was being systematically deceived by the UK political establishment about the nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and the war that was being fought in their name.  And if this is the case, then we all have an interest in understanding how this deception happened, and how we can reduce the chances of it happening again.

Further information: Inside Castlereagh: “We got confessions through torture”, Ian Cobain, Guardian, “From Palestine to Belfast: Post-War Counter-Insurgency – A Very British Family Affair”, Ciaran McAirt, Campaign for Truth”, The McGurk’s Bar Massacre, Ciaran McAirt, Campaign for Truth.   

Amnesty International recently published a detailed report on the legacy of abuse in Northern Ireland, and are now calling for a “comprehensive mechanism… to answer the unanswered questions and ensure people finally have a chance to hear the truth and see justice”. Please consider supporting this call here.  

Written by Richard Wilson

November 23, 2013 at 4:17 pm


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From the peacebuilding group Ubuntu:


Eight years have passed since 164 Congolese citizens were savagely killed, some burned alive, on 13 August 2004. The victims were slayed while under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi. Hundreds of others were injured. The overwhelming majority of victims – many of them women and children – belonged to the Banyamulenge community. They had sought refuge in Burundi to escape from political oppression in South Kivu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. A report dated 18 October 2004 jointly produced by the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), the United Nations Operation in Burundi (ONUB) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concluded that the attack was clearly directed against the Banyamulenge refugees and apparently, ethnically and politically motivated. Various sources, including the above UN report as well as a report by Human Rights Watch, compiled credible evidence leaving little doubts over the responsibilities in the massacre. The evidence clearly indicated that the Burundian Forces Nationales de Libération (PALIPEHUTU-FNL), the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), the Congolese army (FARDC) and Mayi Mayi militia were directly involved in the Gatumba massacre.

The UN report asserted that many of these foreign armed groups operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi border region harbour resentments against the targeted group and others such as FARDC and Mayi Mayi militia may have political motives for preventing the refugees from returning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. PALIPEHUTU-FNL, then a rebel movement led by Agathon Rwasa, openly confessed its responsibility in this massacre. The ideology underlying the commission of the genocide in Rwanda one decade earlier was evident in the perpetration of the Gatumba massacre in August 2004. The UN report documented the fact that the attackers chanted such slogans as “we will exterminate all the Tutsis in Central Africa”; “kill these dogs, these Tutsis”; “today, you Tutsis, whether you are Rwandese, Congolese or Burundian, you will be killed”.

The massacre was widely condemned by several countries from around the globe as well as by supranational institutions such as the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations. Many of them pledged to support endeavours aimed at bringing the perpetrators to justice. The United Nations urged countries in the sub-region to cooperate in investigating the massacre and bringing perpetrators to justice. Eight years after the event, no single step has been taken to deliver justice for the slain and surviving victims of the Gatumba massacre. The uproar that accompanied the commission of the crime has faded and victims face the sad prospect of never seeing justice done. The peculiar circumstances of a crime committed against Congolese citizens, on Burundian territory, by Congolese national army and armed groups reportedly originating from three different or neighbouring countries of the region complicate, if not annihilate any prospects of domestic prosecutions against perpetrators of the crime. Victims are nonetheless still crying for justice. The inaction of Burundian, Congolese and other sub-regional authorities imposes a duty on the international community to get actively involved in delivering on the promise of justice made to them in the aftermath of the crime.

This eighth remembrance of the victims of the Gatumba massacre occurs at a time of revived tensions in eastern Kivu, the homeland of the slayed victims. Sources of the continued tensions include the unresolved socio-political and legal issues including elusive promises of justice and redress. Crimes committed in the DRC over the last decades have claimed numerous victims from the various communities living in the country. All victims deserve justice. Owing to the particular circumstances of the massacre and to the involvement of numerous actors, domestic and international initiatives aimed at delivering justice to the victims generally ignore the victims of the Gatumba massacre. This is evidenced by the non-coverage of the Gatumba massacre in the 2010 UN Mapping Report.

On this eighth remembrance of victims of the Gatumba massacre, UBUNTU notes that since the crime was committed, no active steps have been taken to bring perpetrators to justice. UBUNTU therefore urges:

• The international community to deliver on the promise of justice made to survivors of the Gatumba atrocities in the immediate aftermath of the crime.
• The United Nations to use all appropriate means to bring Agathon Rwasa and other perpetrators of the massacre to justice.
• The Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other sub-regional countries to cooperate in rehabilitating the victims.

For Ubuntu: Dr Felix Ndahinda and Alex Mvuka Ntung

UBUNTU is an organisation created by individuals from eastern DRC for purposes of contributing to initiatives aimed at preventing violence and working towards sustainable peace and conflict resolution in their native land and the wider Great Lakes Region of Africa. UBUNTU membership includes individuals who survived the Gatumba massacre. UBUNTU is one of only few actors who have constantly tried to remind the international community of the unfulfilled promise of justice for victims of the Gatumba massacre. It is an international peace-building and non-profit organization based in Brussels.

UBUNTU – Initiative for Peace and Development
Rue Creuse 60, B-1030 Brussels, Belgium, Enterprise no: 891.545.509, Approved by the
Belgium Royal Decree of 26th.07.2007.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 13, 2012 at 11:22 am

World’s most notorious ‘alternative medicine’ practicioner arrested on genocide charges

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Somehow, it seems strangely appropriate that the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic – who has just been arrested after evading justice for 13 years – should have been holed up in Belgrade working (under excessive amounts of facial hair) as a practicioner of ‘alternative medicine’. The Guardian charitably refers to Karadzic as a ‘doctor’, but the website of the clinic where he was working has a distinct air of quackery about it. Much of the text is in Serbo-Croat, but we can deduce from the logo that Karadzic’s dayjob may have had something to do with “human quantum energy”.

The inherently fraudulent character of much of what purports to be an ‘alternative’ form of medicine has been well covered elsewhere. But less well-documented has been the odd relationship between ‘alternative medicine’ advocates and the dizzying conspiracy theories around HIV and AIDS. For several years during the early part of this decade, the South African government, under the influence of such theories, attempted to block the distribution of lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs. Professor Nicolli Nattrass, an economist at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand, has estimated that this delay may have cost upwards of 340,000 lives. If she is right, then it seems possible that the South African government’s dalliance with the ‘alternative’ theories on HIV and AIDS may have dwarfed even Radovan Karadzic’s genocidal excesses.

In Don’t Get Fooled Again, I look in depth at the noxious cult of ‘AIDS denialism’, the damage that it has caused around the world, and at some possible psychological explanations.