Is the situation with human rights around the world in terminal decline?

The title of this piece ‘What’s it got to do with us?’ was said at a signing in Salisbury by someone invited to sign a card for a prisoner of conscience.  She did not sign.  Of course, anyone involved in any kind of street signing will have come across this kind of response from people who are not persuaded there is any point in sending such cards and who do not think someone in prison in a foreign country has anything to do with us anyway.

This year sees the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This was done following the second world war and with the formation of the United Nations itself was part of a belief that there had to be a better way for countries to organise their affairs.  Although there was a desire for such a better way, it would be a mistake to overlook the difficulties in negotiations to get UNDHR agreed.  The colonial powers – principally UK and France – had worries about what was happening in their colonies.  They were reluctant to see rights being applied there especially in view of the brutal suppression of freedom movements.  Nevertheless, it was signed and it did usher in a new world order.

Looking at the world today however, does not lead us to believe that we are on an improving trend.  It is hard to select from a series of terrible events to illustrate the point.  The suppression of free speech and the arrest of thousands of journalists and academics in Turkey is one example of many elements of the declaration being ignored.  Syria, which has seen thousands die from bombing and the use of gas, is another example, this time by a member of the UN Security Council itself, namely Russia.  In China, vast internment camps established in Xinjiang to detain hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, and the arrest of human rights lawyers has been detailed in a UN report.  As Human Rights Watch expresses it:

The broad and sustained offensive on human rights that started after President Xi Jinping took power five years ago showed no sign of abating in 2017.  The death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in a hospital under heavy guard in July highlighted the Chinese government’s deepening contempt for rights.  The near future for human rights appears grim, especially as Xi is expected to remain in power at least until 2022.  Foreign governments did little in 2017 to push back against China’s worsening rights record at home and abroad.  World Report, 2018 [accessed 18 November 2018]

In Yemen, which this site has featured in a number of blogs, has seen a country taken to edge of viable existence by a campaign of bombing by Saudi Arabia and atrocities by the Houthis.  The Saudis have been supported by arms from the UK, France and the USA.  British RAF personnel are supposedly advising the Saudis.  The point here is not just the misery inflicted on the country but that schools, hospitals, weddings and other community events have been targeted in the bombing campaign.

Seventy years after the signing of the Declaration, we should be celebrating steady improvements across the world.  Rights and freedoms are routinely violated in many countries around the world.  Torture is still widely practised by the majority of countries: countries that have signed up not to use it.   Even countries like the UK have been found shamefully outsourcing its use of this abhorrent practice to Libya.

We could go on listing wars, the displacing of millions including the Rohingya from Burma, the continuing scourge of slavery which is probably at a higher level today than during the triangular trade, and the murder of journalists in countries like Russia.

Here in Salisbury we have seen the brazen Novichok attack on the Skripals by what seems, beyond doubt, to have been Russian GRU agents.  In Turkey there has been the murder and probable dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi.  None of this kind of activity is new – the CIA have been involved in murders and coups especially in South America – but that we have become inured to it.  To turn on the news is to witness war, misery, tides of refugees fleeing persecution or war, stricken cities and starving peoples.   There is a distinct feeling that the international rules based order ushered in after the second world war, now seems to be crumbling.  Famines in the ’80s and ’90s in Ethiopia and Somalia resulted in huge humanitarian efforts and the British public were moved by the scenes and reportage from the area.  Considerable sums were collected to help.  Today, we see the enormous damage and misery in Yemen but there is no sense of national outrage.

Causes 

John Bew, in a New Statesman¹ article, argues that the events of 2007 and 2008 were an important factor.  This is part of the theme of Adam Tooze’s recent book Crashed: how a decade of financial crises changed the world².  Up until the crash, there was a feeling of ever increasing prosperity (for some at least) and that free market ideology had won the day.  The crash destroyed that belief and importantly, ordinary people, not especially steeped in economic thought, began to realise that things were not right.  There was also a shift in power eastwards towards China and away from the west.  With it, the assumptions of democracy, free trade, and a rules based order had been weakened.  With the increasing interconnectedness of the world order and global trade, the ability of societies to deal with the ‘left behinds’ diminished.

With this decline, countries like the UK needed to work harder to sell goods to pay their way in the world.  That often meant looking the other way when we sold arms to unsavoury regimes.  ‘If we do not sell them, the Chinese will’ was a common belief.  Although the UK government often proclaims that we have a tough regime for arms control, the fact remains that brokers and dealers frequently and all too easily circumvent them.

The architects of the new world order after WW2 were the victorious powers: USA, China, Russia, UK and France.  These are the biggest seller of arms today joined perhaps by Israel and Germany.  The very countries wanting to achieve peace in the world are those busy selling the means to destroy it.

As the Amnesty annual report puts it:

In 2017, the world witnessed a rollback of human rights.  Signs of a regression were everywhere.  Across the world governments continued to clampdown on the rights to protest, and women’s rights took a nosedive in the USA, Russia and Poland.
From Venezuela to Tunisia, we witnessed the growth of a formidable social discontent, as people were denied access to their fundamental human rights to food, clean water, healthcare and shelter.
And from the US to the European Union and Australia, leaders of wealthy countries continued to approach the global refugee crisis with outright callousness, regarding refugees not as human beings with rights but as problems to be deflected.
In this climate, state-sponsored hate threatens to normalise discrimination against minority groups.  Xenophobic slogans at a nationalist march in Warsaw, Poland and sweeping crackdowns on LGBTI communities from Chechnya to Egypt showed how the open advocacy of intolerance is increasing.  Annual Report 2017/18 [extract]

Prospects

The prospects for human rights around the world look grim.  The idea of a steady improvement around the world does not look promising.  The belief in a new world order following the war also looks rather thin and forlorn.  With the major countries who should be setting an example, not doing so, the chance of improvement in the future does not look great.

In the UK, the are some in government who would like to remove the Human Rights Act from the statute book to be replaced by a weakened bill yet to be published. If that ever sees the light of day we shall be campaigning against it.

There is also the problem of compassion fatigue.  No sooner does one calamity – whether man made or natural – disappear from our screens, than another one appears.  There seems no time to recover between them.  It is perhaps not surprising that people feel a sense of hopelessness.  The scale of some events is so huge, the quarter of a million Rohingya forcibly displaced  for example, that any response seems puny by comparison.

But people who believe in human rights and their importance in the world continue the fight.  We continue to highlight as many examples of wrong doing as we can.  In the words of our founder ‘better to light a candle than curse the darkness’.

If you live in the Salisbury area we would welcoming you joining us.  Events are posted here and on our Facebook and Twitter pages – salisburyai


  1. Revenge of the Nation State, 9-15 November 2018
  2. Adam Tooze, published by Alan Lane 2018
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Group minutes

Posted: November 13, 2018 in Group news
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Minutes of the Salisbury group are now available thanks to group member Lesley for compiling them.  Active meeting.  We discussed the death penalty report, social media statistics, forthcoming events including the talk by Daniel Trilling on 10th, the Christmas tree exhibition at St Thomas’s church, a letter published by the Journal and carol singing.

November minutes (Word)


The New Forest Amnesty group is hosting a talk on 28 November and the details can be found below.  It is free.

New Forest Talk (pdf)


Here is the latest death penalty report compiled by group member Lesley – thanks for your efforts on this.  There is no data on China – believed to execute more of its citizens than the rest of the world together – as it is a state secret.

October/November report (Word)

Tree of Life. Pic: Salisbury Amnesty


Letter published in the Salisbury Journal

A letter in support of the Human Rights Act was published in the Salisbury Journal today – 8 November 2018.  We have often discussed the threat to the act in this blog as it remains Conservative policy to abolish it.  There is little chance of this happening in view of the enormous amount of time and energy being expended on Brexit negotiations, nevertheless, the intention is there.  We do not know what will happen after March 31st of course. 

We have a meeting tonight, 8 November at 7:30, Attwood Road.

Group meeting

Posted: November 6, 2018 in Group news
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The monthly group meeting is this Thursday 8th of November in Attwood Road, not Victoria Road.  All supporters and members are welcome.  Starts at 7:30


Salisbury group welcomes Daniel Trilling to Salisbury on 10 December

The author and journalist Daniel Trilling is speaking at the Methodist Church in St Edmund’s Street Salisbury on 10 December on the subject of refugees.   He has recently published a book Lights in the Distance which has had a number of favourable reviews (see below).  The talk begins at 7:30 pm and is FREE with a parting collection to help with our costs.  Copies of the book will be available for sale.

The refugee problem has caused immense problems particularly in Europe.  It has crucially affected elections in Hungary and Poland and some think that it was one of the driving issues in the Brexit referendum in the UK.  The American elections are currently taking place with president Trump making all kinds of claims about immigrants from Honduras now travelling across Mexico to the Texas border.

Lights in the Distance calmly portrays the reality of life for people trying to enter a Europe that largely doesn’t want them … If knowledge is the foundation of action, then [Trilling] has done us a great service by turning masses and numbers into people whom we like, who we can see are like us. (New Statesman)

Brilliantly researched and written Lights in the Distance is, above all, a book of witness … Trilling [brings] his reader as close as possible to the actual circumstances of those who have found their way to Calais, or to Catania in Sicily or to London or to Athens, only to find themselves condemned to occupy space, rather than live. (Observer)

A compelling account of the individual stories of refugees on the move … Its driving characters are nine migrants, and the book is almost entirely dedicated to their personal stories.  In a terse and powerful introduction and afterword, the author’s mastery of the details of his subject shines through. (Financial Times)

Subtle but effective … This is what makes Lights in the Distance such a powerful book. In the midst of an escalating crisis, Trilling manages to keep his lens focused tightly on the people who are most intimately affected by the geopolitical catastrophe taking place around them. (Irish Times)

Humane and illuminating, Lights in the Distance is a vital examination of what the new era of border control and deportations really means, what it costs, and who pays the price. (Olivia Laing)

Combining forensic enquiry with moral passion, Daniel Trilling has emerged as one of our most intrepid and resourceful reporters. In Lights in the Distance, he illuminates the vast human tragedy behind newspaper headlines about refugees, forcing us to confront Europe’s legacy of imperialism and nationalism. (Pankaj Mishra)

A deeply moving and much needed reminder of the human tales which are so often obscured by political rhetoric on migration. (Fatima Manji, Channel 4 News)

We hope this talk will shine some informed light on this vexed area.  There has been considerable interest in this subject recently especially in the light of Theresa May’s deliberately hostile immigration policy from when she was home secretary.  This was under the spotlight when numbers of the Windrush generation were caught up in after having lived here for several decades.


This would be an opportunity to meet members of the local group if you are interested in joining us

@wilts4refugees

 

 


List of forthcoming events being organised by the Salisbury Group

We have a fairly active programme of events and they are gathered here for convenience.  If you live in the Salisbury or even South Wilts area you would be welcome to come to any one of them.  If you are thinking of joining, then make yourself known to one of the group.  You would be very welcome.

Refugee Vigil – to be re-arranged.  We did have a date but unfortunately it clashed with the fair in the Market Square so it has been postponed

Citizenship Day – 26th October.  Where go into schools in the area and discuss human rights issues with pupils.  Despite several requests, the UTC has not responded

Christmas Tree Festival – 3rd – 10th December.  This is in St Thomas’s Church in the centre of Salisbury and we will be displaying a tree there.  It will focus on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Human Rights Day Speaker – 10th December.   We are delighted to welcome Daniel Trilling who is an author and journalist and who will be speaking at the Methodist Church at 7pm.  This is a FREE event but we ask for a parting collection to help cover our costs

Exhibition of Refugee Photographs – January 2019 – Some

I Welcome exhibition

details to be worked out but these are the photos we displayed in the Library (pictured) and we are pleased that the Methodist Church has agreed to host them during the month.

 

Arts Centre Film – 8th March 2019.  We host a film once and sometimes twice a year in the Arts Centre.  Details nearer the time.

Market Stall (pictured) – 8th June 2019.  Fund raising stall we hold in the Market Square once a year

 

 

 

Carol singing.  With the aid of the Farrant Singers, we travel around the Victoria Road, College Street areas singing carols.  This will be in December and details to be announced.

We are also on Twitter and Facebook, salisburyai

 

 


Recent events reveal western government’s attitudes to human rights

The events of the last few weeks in Istanbul, with the possible murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy, has put a spotlight on the western government’s attitude to human rights and the rule of law.

For several years now we have been happy to sell arms to Saudi and we have been largely quiescent during the bombing of Yemen.  Yemen has been in the news recently with filmed reports of the increasingly desperate state the country and its people are in.  Reports of bombing of civilian targets and medical facilities receive brief coverage but do not however, generate much outrage.

The scale of misery there is now huge and represents a major tragedy.  The Saudi forces, aided by UK arms and military personnel, have wreaked terrible harm on the country.  A whole list of non-military targets has been bombed including ports, food production facilities and refugee camps.  As many as 13 million people are now suffering there.  Yet our politicians are largely silent and the ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, is feted here by the Royal family and others.

By contrast,  the possible killing of this journalist has plunged the Saudi kingdom into crisis and led to many politicians withdrawing from the forthcoming Davos in the Desert.  

Much of our media seemed happy to accept the idea that MbS, as he is known, was a moderniser and were excited when he allowed women to drive for the first time.  They overlooked the locking up of journalists, lawyers and human rights workers and did not notice that the woman who campaigned for the right for women to drive was in prison.  It was as though a hint of reform was enough to switch off any critical assessment of his actual performance as a despot.  Executions continue at an alarming rate and Human Rights Watch noted a spate of 48 in a four month period earlier in the year, mostly for non-violent offences.  Torture is still routine.

All this shows that the real concern is the sale of weapons and the supply of oil.  It is fair to argue that MbS knew our politicians were more concerned about trade than they were about human rights or international justice.  This is likely to have led him to believe he could remove the irritant of someone like Khashoggi and after a brief fuss, life would carry on.  He may well be right.

At present, we cannot know how this crisis will pan out for the Saudi government.  Western governments are going through contortions trying to balance the need to keep in with the regime to protect commercial interests, with some kind of need to show a moral standing in the face of credible reports that Khashoggi may have been murdered and dismembered in the embassy.  Liam Fox waited two weeks until today (18 October) to cancel his visit to the Future Investment Initiative.  Amnesty is calling for an investigation.

Today’s Daily Mail newspaper revealed the large number of MPs and ministers – mostly Conservative with a few Labour – who have accepted hospitality and gifts from the regime not all of them declared.  They include the Chancellor who was given an expensive watch.  The total, the paper reveals, is more than £200,000 since 2015 and £106,000 this year.  Allan Hogarth of Amnesty International  said in the article:

Any MP tempted by a lavish trip to Saudi Arabia ought to bear in mind that jailed Saudi human rights defenders are currently languishing in jail, while the Saudi coalition’s lethal bombing of Yemen is making lives miserable for thousands of poor and malnourished Yemenis.
Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record is well-documented, and no parliamentarian should go to the country without being prepared to publicly raise human rights.

George Graham, of Save the Children, said:

For three years Saudi Arabia has been killing children in Yemen, quite possibly with British-made weapons. The fighting has driven millions of families to the brink of famine and created the worst cholera epidemic in living memory. Our leaders must do what’s right and stop fuelling this conflict with military and political support for one side in this brutal war.  Daily Mail online [accessed 19 October 2018]

The naiveté of the MPs is astonishing and some of their comments are quite disgraceful in view of the appalling human rights record of the country.  It is unlikely that they will be pushing the government to adopt a more vigorous line in future.

However, it has put our relationship with an unsavoury regime in the spotlight and with papers like the Mail giving space to the story, there are slender grounds for optimism.


In our next blog, we shall be listing forthcoming events.  If you live in the Salisbury, Amesbury or Downton area and are interested in joining, please have a look and come along and make yourself known.  It is free to join our group.


This is the latest monthly death penalty report compiled by group member Lesley

Report (Word)

Don’t forget the links at the bottom of this page to various sites relevant to the abolition of the death penalty.  We have just added the Death Penalty Project.