One of the most infamous cases involving diplomatic immunity and a fatal incident occurred in 1984 in the United Kingdom. This case is often referred to as the “Death on the Rock” incident.
In March 1988, three members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary organization seeking the end of British rule in Northern Ireland, were shot dead by the British Special Air Service (SAS) in Gibraltar. The IRA members, Sean Savage, Daniel McCann, and Mairead Farrell, were believed to be planning a bombing in Gibraltar.
The controversial aspect of the incident involved the fact that the three IRA members were shot multiple times, including after they were already on the ground. This raised questions about the necessity and proportionality of the use of force.
One of the SAS members involved in the operation, Danny McCann, became a central figure in the controversy. McCann was later identified as the person who fired the fatal shots at one of the IRA members. The controversy deepened when it was revealed that Daniel McCann was not the same person as the IRA member with the same name who was killed in the incident.
The case took a diplomatic turn when it was discovered that the SAS members involved were operating under cover as “diplomatic couriers.” As a result, they enjoyed diplomatic immunity. The use of diplomatic cover in this operation raised questions about the abuse of diplomatic privileges for covert military actions.
The British government defended the actions of the SAS, citing concerns about a potential terrorist attack. However, the incident sparked international outrage and a diplomatic dispute between the United Kingdom and Ireland. The families of the deceased IRA members brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights, alleging violations of the right to life. In 1995, the court ruled that the operation had been “excessive” but stopped short of labeling it as unlawful.
The “Death on the Rock” incident remains a controversial and debated episode in the context of diplomatic immunity and the use of force in counterterrorism operations.
Another infamous case involving diplomatic immunity and a fatal incident occurred in 1984 in the United Kingdom, known as the “London Libyan Embassy Siege.”
On April 17, 1984, during a demonstration outside the Libyan Embassy in London, a small group of anti-Gaddafi protesters scaled the embassy walls. The Libyan government, led by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, responded by instructing embassy staff to fire on the protesters from within the building.
During the ensuing violence, shots were fired from the embassy, resulting in the death of Police Constable Yvonne Fletcher, a 25-year-old officer of the Metropolitan Police. She was hit by a gunshot while monitoring the protest and died shortly afterward. Eleven others were injured in the incident.
Following the shooting, the Metropolitan Police surrounded the embassy, but the standoff continued for 11 days. Eventually, the occupants of the embassy were allowed to leave and return to Libya, as they were protected by diplomatic immunity.
The United Kingdom severed diplomatic relations with Libya in response to the killing of PC Yvonne Fletcher. However, despite the serious nature of the crime, those responsible for the shooting were never brought to justice. The lack of accountability for Fletcher’s death remained a source of tension between the UK and Libya for many years.
The case raised questions about the extent to which diplomatic immunity should apply in cases of serious crimes, particularly acts of violence resulting in the loss of life. It also highlighted the challenges of holding individuals accountable when their home countries refuse to waive diplomatic immunity.
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