Liz Truss announces that the British Bill of Rights is back on the agenda

The new Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, said in an interview that the abolition of the Human rights Act and its replacement with the British Bill of Rights is back on the agenda.  On the 10 August, The Times had suggested that it was not going forward.  As we speculated on this blog a while ago, the sheer amount of work needed to negotiate new trade agreements with the world and our exit from the EU, is going to consume parliamentary effort and ministerial time on an enormous scale.  Will they have time and energy to spend time haggling with the Lords over a new bill with all the rest that is going on?  Then there are the complex relations with Scotland and Northern Ireland to consider.  This pledge has been around for 10 years now yet Liz Truss gives no timetable.

We are committed to [abolishing the Human Rights Act]. It is a manifesto pledge. We are looking very closely at the details but we have a manifesto pledge to deliver that   Liz Truss

Liz Truss – picture gov.uk

The result will at best be a modest change in the law unless we are going to withdraw from the European Court itself.  This will have widespread effects especially in eastern Europe where the Court’s activities has had a positive effect on human rights.

The shame of it is that the public anger about the ‘terrorist’s charter’ and other nonsenses are fostered by the media and few of our MPs and Ministers seem to have the courage to stand up to them.  The Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express are often loud in their criticisms but connection to actual facts is often weak.  But even periodicals like the Spectator – a venerable political weekly – is not above publishing tendentious material.  The hostility to the act is in part we argue, due to the privacy clauses which give some protection to those who have suffered press intrusion for no good reason other than boosting newspaper sales.

Abu Qatada is frequently produced as evidence that the act doesn’t work and meant, allegedly, that we were not able to deport him.  Firstly, if he was such a terrible man, why was he not arrested and prosecuted here?  Secondly, the failure of the Home Office and the then Home Secretary Theresa May to deport him was not the HRA but treaties we have which prevent us returning people to countries where torture is routine (as well as the HRA).  Qatada would not have had a fair trial in Jordan because, at the time torture, was common there.

We often read that duties and responsibilities are to be added as there are many – not just on the Conservative back benches – who are unhappy with ‘rights’ and feel that such rights should only be available to those who act responsibility.  How this would work is not explained.  Who’s to judge what ‘responsible’ means?  A police officer at the time of arrest feels that the person behaved irresponsibly and therefore decides not to allow the person access to a lawyer – a provision in the HRA?  Some rights are absolute and do not depend on good behaviour.  Other rights are qualified anyway.

It is hard not to see a parallel with the Brexit debate.  Years were spend denigrating the EU and then when it mattered, those like the previous prime minister, David Cameron, wanted to persuade country to Remain, he lacked conviction.  He was hoist by his own petard, or more colloquially, ‘stuffed’.

A concerted campaign has been waged by the media against the act and stories produced which only occasionally have any relation to the truth.  We have suggested before to refer to Rights Info to get the background and a sober assessment of some of the fictions.

Whether the BBoR ever sees the light of day remains to be seen.  It is likely that this is a rash statement by the new Lord Chancellor which may quietly drift into the background when the difficulties and disadvantages are explained.  But it will continue to lurk until a sufficient number of MPs – like those in the Runnymede group – stand up and speak positively about the act and the benefits it has brought to thousands of ordinary citizens who have used it to secure basic rights, stories that rarely find their way into print.

Salisbury MP, John Glen is among those who have publicly called for the act to be abolished.


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Sources: The National; The Times; http://www.parliament.co.uk; Spectator; Daily Express

 The war in Yemen (again)

UPDATE: 21 August

Full page article in the Observer newspaper on the subject of arms sales to Yemen.

In many previous posts we have drawn attention to the war in Yemen which receives far less coverage than events in Syria.  In particular, we have drawn attention to the role of the UK government in supporting the Saudis with weapons, political cover and providing – quite shamefully – British service personnel to advise them on the military activities.  We wrote last year to our local MP John Glen who replied with a bland letter from a Foreign Office minister, Tobias Ellwood which began to unwind in the following weeks.

We have also highlighted the role of British arms suppliers and the many billions of pounds of weaponry which has gone to the Saudis to enable them to continue the bombing campaign in Yemen.  Bombing has been indiscriminate and hospitals; mosques; weddings and schools have been targeted.

The FCO has now admitted that its responses have been less than honest in a statement slipped out on the last day of parliament.  The claim that human rights law was not being breached is now no longer claimed only that they were not being assessed.

Picture: Middle East online

So our involvement in the Yemen conflict has been shameful in the extreme and the fact that Britain is profiting from it as well only makes matters worse.  The government has been lucky in the world has been distracted by Syria and Yemen only appears in the news now and again with little sign of media traction.

A leader article in the Guardian on 18 August, set out again many of the points it and others have been making over the last year or so.  It points out that we have licensed £3.3bn (yes that’s BILLION) of weapon sales to Saudi over the past year alone according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.  The cost to the Yemenis has been immense with 6,500 dead and 2.5 million displaced.  Save the Children point out that one in three of under-fives suffers malnutrition.  The World Bank; UN and EU agencies estimate £14bn of damage to the economy.  And so on and so on.  We and the US are the main culprits in terms of support and arms sales yet there is no sign of an end to the conflict.  The Saudis are apparently pretty hopeless in their bombing activities despite the help they get from our service personnel.

But – there is a glimmer of good news with CAAT winning the right to a judicial review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.  The government has resisted this naturally enough but CAAT has won through.

The UK government – with the USA – has helped support terrible humanitarian and economic damage on this country.  It has behaved less than honestly.  When and if the conflict ends there will be need to carry out massive reconstruction.  Once again we have been involved in destabilising a country with little thought to the aftermath.  Parliamentary scrutiny has been lamentable.


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UK government’s role in the abuse of people in Bahrain revealed

The Observer newspaper on 14 August 2016 contained revelations about the UK government’s role in training the police force in Bahrain which has a reputation for ruthlessly suppressing public protest and dissent.  The newspaper has been able to obtain a confidential agreement signed on 14 June this year, by the UK’s College of Policing and Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior.

It is alleged that this is a commercial arrangement between the two organisations which somehow omits any mention of human rights.  The College of Policing’s site is full of stuff about ethics and integrity and says:

We are committed to ensuring that the Code of Ethics is not simply another piece of paper, poster or laminate, but is at the heart of every policy, procedure, decision and action in policing.

The code itself is 23 pages long.  The College has earned £8.5m from its international word since its formation in 2012.  The Home Affairs Select Committee has criticised the College for its ‘opaque’ affairs and it has taken a leak to enable us to see some of the details of what was agreed.

At one level there is an argument that encouraging police officers to work in the country to raise standards is perfectly acceptable.  If by a combination of training and encouragement they are able over time to reduce the incidence of poor treatment, people denied lawyers and all the other things the Bahrain government is accused of, so much the better.  This is indeed the Foreign Office’s line.  However, there is much to improve – in the words of Human Rights Watch:

Bahrain’s human rights climate remains highly problematic. The country’s courts convict and imprison peaceful dissenters and have failed to hold officials accountable for torture and other serious rights violations. There is evidence that the security forces continue to use disproportionate force to quell unrest.  Human rights activists and members of the political opposition face arrest and prosecution and dozens have been stripped of their citizenship. Bahrain restricts freedom of speech, and has jailed and fined Bahraini photographers. Migrant workers in Bahrain endure serious abuses such as unpaid wages, passport confiscation, unsafe housing, excessive work hours, physical abuse and forced labor.

If on the other hand, the College is helping the security services in their various activities (with surveiilance and intercept techniques for example) then this is not an appropriate thing for them to do.  Their legitimacy has also been queried as they are set up as a company limited by guarantee.  DPG Law has queried whether the Home Office can outsource this kind of activity anyway.  Certainly, the trend recently by the UK government is to encourage business activities and to play down human rights concerns as it may offend countries which regularly violate them.  The absence of a human rights clause or statement in the contract is in line with this commercial approach.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy has today [15 August] written to Boris Johnson the Foreign Secretary:

NGO’s today sent an open letter to Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, raising urgent concerns over the poor human rights record of Bahrain’s ambassador to the UK, and asking him to raise their concerns.

[They point out that] The ambassador, Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammad Al Khalifa, is a member of the Bahraini royal family and formerly the president of the Information Affairs Authority (IAA), the state’s media regulator and home of state media channels and websites, including Bahrain TV and the Bahrain News Agency.

The full letter can be read here.

Al Khalifa, picture Wikipedia

This is a country where violence against peaceful protest, torture and other forms of mistreatment is the norm.  It appears a British agency is assisting the Bahrainis in their activities rather than seeking to help them reform since the human rights situation there is getting worse rather than better.  Even though the activity was commenced when our current Prime Minister Theresa May was the Home Secretary, let us hope that with the new broom in place, this dubious contract is ended.

Sources: Observer; Reuters


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No to the death penaltyWe attach the latest monthly death penalty report with thanks to group member Lesley for compiling it.  A fairly full report with a big section on Turkey which is contemplating reintroducing the death penalty following the recent failed coup.

August report (pdf)


 

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Minister’s close association with this dreadful state

Azerbaijan is ruled by a dictator Ilham Aliyev and is renowned for being a brutal state where torture is common and human rights flagrantly abused.  In the words of Human Rights Watch:

Azerbaijan’s government has escalated repression against its critics, marking a dramatic deterioration in an already poor rights record. In recent years , dozens of human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers have been arrested or imprisoned on politically motivated charges, prompting others to flee the country or go into hiding. Bank accounts of independent civic groups and their leaders have been frozen, impeding their work, or in some cases forcing them to shut down entirely. New legal regulations make it almost impossible for independent groups to get foreign funding. While criticizing the increasing crackdown, Azerbaijan’s international partners have failed to secure rights improvements.

The problem is that the country is rich in oil and so there is a rush by western and other governments to secure contracts.  Hundreds of millions of dollars of the country’s wealth sit in overseas bank accounts controlled by the Aliyev family and they like owning large amounts of real estate in London as well.  (Daily Mail 21 December 2012)

Where oil and money are concerned of course, it is too much for western countries including the UK, to concern themselves with human rights especially as we know that the emphasis now is on trade.  Prince Andrew is a regular visitor to the country and Tony Blair was paid £90, 000 for a twenty minute speech.  They have been using ‘sports wash’ to improve their image and hosted the recent Formula 1 race.

Image result for dr liam foxAnother visitor is the Secretary of State for International Trade, the disgraced MP, Dr Liam Fox pictured left (Bing images).  In the words of the New Statesman, ‘he is in the most literal sense, shameless and should never hold high office again.’ (23 December 2016)  He was sacked for breaking the ministerial code.

According to the Observer (7 August 2016) he has been paid £5,700 for the right to translate his book Rising Tides into Azerbaijani.  He was paid a further £3, 500 or so to fly out there to promote it. Few read the book in English and no other country has translated it.  One passage from the book, referring to Burma, is interesting:

[…] freedom from fear and freedom of expression, including a free press and broadcast media and the right to dissent within the law. It requires an inclusive political solution that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict and takes into account the legitimate grievances and aspirations of all the people of a land. Until the rights, identities and hopes of all …, whatever their ethnic origins or religion, are treated as equal, peace and reconciliation will not be achieved.”

The reviewer of the Conservative Home site remarks:

A clear thread throughout the entire book is Fox’s emphasis on the values of liberty, democracy and human rights, and he makes a compelling case. He is not blindly idealistic, or reliant solely on the moral virtues of the argument – rather, he makes the case in terms of self-interest

It seems extraordinary that with these sentiments Dr Fox should consort with, and take money from, such a vile regime, beyond the needs of diplomacy.  It fits with a government reluctant to tackle abuses in Saudi Arabia for example as we have commented frequently before.  Final word to the Observer:

Dr Fox is a man for our debased times because his record with Azerbaijan shows the international trade secretary would not want to raise [human rights concerns] even if he could.  Our future is not going to be proud and independent, but grubby and murky and filled with bad deals with worse governments; a future, in short, where the foxes rule the henhouse.

 

 

Harassment and trials of over 230 human rights lawyers and activists are underway in China.  This is part of a crackdown started by the Chinese government in July of 2015.  The trials are extremely dubious with suspects turning up and uttering robotic statements in court reminiscent of the Soviet trials decades ago.  People are arrested, denied access to lawyers and detained in unknown locations.  This by a country which is on the Security Council of the UN.

The charges include nebulous statements such as ‘harmed national security and social stability’.  The courts are sealed off and foreign journalists are not allowed entry being blocked by large numbers of police.

The US embassy in Beijing has said:

[the] US remains concerned by the Chinese governments continuing efforts to harass, intimidate and prosecute defense lawyers and human rights activists for their work.

The prevailing narrative concerning China is that of a country growing stronger.  True the relentless predictions of when it would overtake the USA have disappeared of late but nevertheless, stories about its military buildup and foreign investments still fill the pages.  But this activity of cracking down on dissenters, the strange abductions of Hong Kong booksellers, a strictly controlled press and the Chinese internet wall do not speak of strength but of a leadership which is fearful.  The one party system has delivered so far but with more and more Chinese travelling the world and finding ways to circumvent the internet wall, there must come a time when sufficient people realise the fictions told to them are just that.

Last year the Chinese premier was given a shameless welcome in the UK as part of the government’s policy of cosying up to China in the hope of receiving their investment.  It is interesting that Theresa May has paused the Hinkley Point power station investment – with substantial Chinese money – and one of the concerns is security.  With Stuxnet in mind (where software was introduced into Iranian centrifuges to get them to burn out) the worry must be that the Chinese government will introduce a deliberate flaw in the design to activate if need be.

The Chinese government has managed to achieve world wide condemnation for these trials and they are to be deplored.  Let us hope that a more robust attitude is adopted to the Chinese government in future and the craven approach by George Osborne and David Cameron is no more.

Sources: Amnesty UK; Los Angeles Times; Washington Post; The Guardian


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We attach an urgent action just issued by Amnesty concerning individuals in Kuwait.  If you can find time to write or get in touch that would be appreciated.

Kuwait – Urgent Action (pdf)

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There is something of an execution spree going on in Indonesia at present with a number of people already executed by firing squad and more likely to follow.  This is a message sent out by Amnesty UK: –

I’m getting in touch with sad news.  Last night, Indonesian authorities killed four prisoners by firing squad.  All four had been convicted of drugs crimes, their families only told yesterday morning that their loved one would be killed that night.

Indonesian Fredi Budiman, and Nigerian prisoners Humphrey ‘Jeff’ Jefferson Ejike, Michael Titus Igweh, and Seck Osmane had their right to life taken from them in the depth of night in the middle of a raging storm. They were shot dead by a firing squad on Indonesia’s infamous ‘execution island’.

But ten more prisoners received a last-minute stay of execution.

The lives of ten more people hang in the balance.  And we need to make sure the Indonesian authorities do not go ahead with these executions.

Thanks to [Amnesty supporters] contacting the Indonesian authorities and sharing the story, the tragic execution of four people last night made headlines around the world.  All we can do now is keep calling for justice and for an end to the executions – with the hope that pressure from around the world will save the ten lives at stake.

Do please share our action to stop the remaining executions.  Go to the Amnesty UK site for more details on how to take action.

action@amnesty.co.uk

War in Yemen

For most of this year we have been commenting on the war in Yemen and the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.  We wrote to the Salisbury MP John Glen, who replied enclosing a bland statement from the Foreign Office Minister, Tobias Ellwood.  We have noted the government’s activities in getting the Saudi’s onto the UN’s Human Rights Council and the continued supply of arms to the Saudis despite their use in Yemen on civilian targets, schools and medical facilities.  We have also noted the steady softening of policies to make it easier – it is believed – for arms companies to ply their trade.  The Telegraph reported in an article in February, the difference between Syria and Yemen.  In the former country, bombing of a MSF hospital led to outrage by press and politicians in the UK:  by contrast, bombing of MSF hospitals in Yemen is greeted by a deafening silence :

Alas, this is not merely about Western indifference but about complicity and collusion. Last October, Britain and the US successfully blocked plans for a UN independent investigation into potential war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. This was a unique opportunity to hold all sides of the conflict accountable for their actions. Instead, Saudi Arabia has been allowed to investigate itself through its own internal commission.  (24 Feb 2016)

Then, on Thursday 21st July when parliament rose, there was a curious statement issued by the FCO.  It has been forced to retract numerous written and oral statements to parliament which said ministers had assessed that Saudi Arabia was not in breach of international humanitarian law in Yemen.

The admission led to calls by the Liberal Democrats for an investigation into Saudi behaviour in Yemen and a suspension of UK arms sales.  The Liberal Democrats have repeatedly claimed that the Saudi military campaign has targeted civilians.  We also drew attention in a previous blog to the presence of British service personnel in Saudi control rooms.  The Foreign Office said the incorrect statements – made by three different ministers, some as far back as six months ago – were errors and did not represent an attempt to mislead MPs over its assessment of the Saudi campaign.

It stressed that other written answers had made clear that the UK government had made no assessment of whether the Saudis were in breach of humanitarian law.

The last day of parliament is a favourite time to slip out inconvenient statements since there is no time for questions or debate to take place.  The FCO simply said it had been reviewing the correspondence.

The government is facing a court case arguing that it should ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia.  The Guardian newspaper said:

In its written answer published on Thursday, the Foreign Office said written answers in February 2016 had stated: “We have assessed that there has not been a breach of IHL (international humanitarian law) by the coalition.” The correction said these should have stated: “We have not assessed that there has been a breach of IHL by the coalition.”

The Foreign Office also corrected a written answer by the then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, who stated on 4 January 2016: “I regularly review the situation with my own advisers and have discussed it on numerous occasions with my Saudi counterpart. Our judgment is that there is no evidence that IHL has been breached, but we shall continue to review the situation regularly.”

This is something of a volt face and to issue such a statement on the last day of parliament is shameful.  It achieved its object however with next to no media coverage.  Why does it matter?  We are currently suffering a severe threat from ISIS with a recent outrage in Nice said to be inspired by the group.  Saudi Arabia’s activities in Yemen, supported by US and UK weapons, personnel and political cover, provide an ideal recruiting ground for this terrorist group.  At present all eyes are on Syria but how long will it be before our activities in Yemen come under the spotlight?


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A senior judge at the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has concluded that powers letting police and public bodies grant themselves access to people’s communications data with no external oversight or suspicion of serious criminality breach human rights law.

It is difficult to generate much interest among the public to the proposals by the government – drafted by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary – to introduce the Investigatory Powers Bill.  A few weeks ago, the country voted against staying in Europe which was interpreted by many as a protest against government and the governing class who were seen as out of touch and indifferent to their plight.  There were other matters such as immigration and the EU itself, but it was a cry by the ‘left behinds’ who are finding life, jobs and housing an increasing trial.

Yet they seem relaxed at giving the government yet more powers to pry into their lives.  Of course it is presented as a fight against terrorism and that these powers are needed to fight this ever present menace.  But, in addition to the police and security services, local councils and various government agencies such as the Food Standard Agency will also enjoy these rights.  It is hard to see how the FSA can be dealing with serious crime.  And are there half a million serious crimes a year?  That is the number of requests.

The previous act Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act [DRIPA] was introduced in a desperate hurry by Theresa May because of a previous ruling by the European Court.  This meant that there was an urgent need to introduce legislation to legitimise the high level of interception that was taking place without proper oversight.  Hardly any time was allowed for parliamentary debate.

The new law will go further and the CJEU has fired a warning shot concerning the breach of liberties.  Ah you might say, ‘aren’t we about to leave the EU so we can give two fingers to them.’  The problem is that the EU will want to ensure that we are protecting fundamental rights when the come to negotiate with us as an external partner.

The new PM is not known as a libertarian and this promises to be an interesting struggle.  We do not yet know whether the new Home Secretary will simply trot along behind what the PM left her.  So far the public has remained relaxed having bought the line that this all part of the battle against terrorism.  One day however, one or other of the tabloids might wake up and have a go in which case the mood will change quickly.

 

Souces; Guardian; Privacy International; Liberty; Open Rights Group

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