Archive for April, 2014


On Monday 21 April 2014, Easter Monday, there was a Service of Thanksgiving at Salisbury Cathedral for the life of Ursula Milner-White who died on 12 February.  Ursula was one of the longest serving members of the local group and became a member soon after the group was founded.  She rarely missed a meeting or a campaign action 3925 and she will be sadly missed.

It is always surprising that when someone dies, you often learn more about them than when they were alive.  We discovered that Ursula had lived in India and for a long period in New Zealand where she had helped bring up two girls after their mother died.  She was a war time evacuee and spent the war years in Canada where she stayed and got her degree from McGill University.  She had a deep interest in natural life and gardens and was a keen walker.  She loved opera and music and used to attend meetings of the Recorded Music Society in Salisbury.  She was a member of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.

She was a committed Christian and her faith led her to long time involvement in Amnesty and prisoners of conscience.

One of our longest serving members, Michael Stokely, has written:

The monthly meeting of the local group — held on the second Thursday of the month — will no longer be quite the same without Ursula Milner-White.  Whatever the weather, and if she wasn’t on her travels, she would be present.  Bending forward, hand raised, ‘Mr Chairman …’ and some sharp, pertinent point would be made.  We shall miss her enormously.

Ursula wrote a short piece for the October newsletter last year on why she joined Amnesty and this is included here:

“I had been rather vaguely interested [in Amnesty] and then heard the story of a particular man Raoul Wallenberg.  He was a Swedish diplomat who was sent to the Nazi run government of Hungary during the war with the brief to do what he could to help the Jews there.  He did so with vigour and considerable success, so that he was thought to have saved twenty thousand lives.  Then the Russians captured Budapest and sent for him.  He went off cheerfully, saying that he wasn’t sure whether the Russians were inviting him as a guest or a prisoner, but he was never seen in freedom again.

Some people who were later released from Russian prisons witnessed seeing him there and after two years the Russians reported he had died of a heart attack which of course may or may not have been true.

His family in Sweden thought he’d been taken for his possible exchange value and were bitter about the Swedish government which apparently released Russian prisoners in Sweden without making sure that Wallenberg would be freed.  Perhaps they believed that he was already dead?

I was greatly distressed and impressed by this story.  I thought that if people had – disastrously – not protested soon enough, or hard enough, about Wallenberg, the least I could do was to try and help other people unjustly imprisoned.

So I joined Amnesty.

It is open to others to make a contribution to this page.

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North Korea event

Posted: April 16, 2014 in Group news, North Korea
Tags: , ,

Amnesty logo

Amnesty logo

The group ran a short event in the Library passage on Tuesday 15 April 2014 to ‘celebrate’ the birthday of Kim Jong-un of North Korea.  Not really a celebration of course but to highlight the terrible situation in the camps in that country.  People are sent to them for the slightest reason and sometimes they might not know the reason.  If a member of their family is arrested, then other family members can be arrested without knowing why.

The worst of the camps are in effect a death sentence.  Some do escape but the usual route is via China who often sends them back as they do not wish to upset the status quo.

The Salisbury group wanted to highlight the situation in the camps and asked people to sign a petition which achieved 128 signatures.  There is a brief item and a photo in the Salisbury Journal – see the link below.  Thanks to Karen for leading on this. We were joined by two members of the Ringwood group and we are grateful for their help and support.

North Korea pops up in the news occasionally and a few weeks ago there was some shelling of an island in the south.  There was a story that all men in the north must have the same haircut as Kim Jong-un the current leader.  This is probably a rumour although it does appear all male students have to have one.  In any event, a hairdresser in London put up a poster with a photo of Kim Jong-un as part of a promotion campaign only to receive a visit from two sinister men from the North Korean Embassy asking them to take the picture down.  This made it onto the BBC’s Radio 4 PM programme with a rather bemused proprietor of the salon being interviewed about the visit.

Of course this is to our eyes ludicrous but it does reveal the intense paranoia and sensitivity of the country and its leader to criticism.   Many people when asked to sign a petition say it probably isn’t worth it as nothing would ever make a difference.  This suggests it might not be a total waste of time.

The Guardian newspaper is commendably taking a wider interest in the affairs of North Korea and has supplied some useful links to sites providing further information about this secretive country.

North Korea News

Peterson Institute

Choson Exchange

 

Group members at the North Korean signing

Group members at the North Korean signing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salisbury Journal

Stall in the market

Posted: April 14, 2014 in Group news, meetings
Tags: ,

The #stall is to take place in the market square, Salisbury on 21 June starting early!  We need helpers and stuff to sell so if you can do either or both it would be a great help. We need clothes and small items like china and glass and pictures.  Plants are popular (labelled if possible) and cakes, pickles and jams also go well.  CDs and DVDs go well. We do not need books thanks certainly in any quantity unless they are in good condition. You can take stuff to Tony’s house in Victoria Road a week before if you cannot make the stall itself. Please price stuff if you can and go up rather than down in your estimate — we can always reduce prices at the end of the day.

Amnesty logo

Amnesty logo

Texas

Posted: April 13, 2014 in Death penalty, USA
Tags: , , , ,

It is sad to record that a Mexican, Ramiro Hernandes Llanas  has been executed in #Texas.  This is despite many misgivings about the mental capacity of Ramiro.  It is Governor Rick Perry’s 275th execution in the state which must be some kind of a record.

Most cities, towns and states promote their location as an ideal place to live.  They say how attractive it is, how well connected it is to the highway or rail network, they talk about the culture and leisure activities on offer and so on.  The governor of Texas by contrast promotes the use of the death penalty.  In an article in the New Yorker in February, following a decision by the governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, to suspend the death penalty there, Rick Perry was quoted as saying ‘vote with your feet and move to Texas, where the death penalty is thriving.’   Thriving?  In what was described as an emotional speech, he added ‘Come to Texas, the death penalty is alive and well here.’  ‘We believe in the sanctity of death.’  It is truly extraordinary to be promoting this barbaric penalty as an encouragement to move to your state.

There appear to be several reasons to explain why Texas executes more than any other state in the Union.  One is that judges are elected and accordingly have to respond to the wishes of those who elected them.  Presumably, there are many who see a benefit to executions and hence elect those who campaign for it to be used.  It is suggested that the quality of judges appointed by this method is lower than in other states as evidenced by the failure by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to publish most of its death penalty decisions.

A frequent problem in the cases we have asked you to write about, is the poor quality of the lawyers representing the accused many of whom do not have any relevant experience of murder trials.

Although Texas does not sentence more people to death than other states, it does execute more because it has speeded up the process from conviction to execution.

But where does this desire to use the penalty come from?  In his book The American Future, a History (Bodley Head), Simon Schama describes the violent history and founding of the state.  It essentially involved the removal of the indigent Mexican population and the introduction of slaves.  Following the near liquidation of the native Indians, then the expulsion of the Mexicans and the introduction of slavery, it is a state where there is a ‘cultural tradition of dehumanising certain groups of people’ (Ned Walpin, Frontline, Online).  This applies to all the states of the former Confederacy and accounts for the fact that 90% of all executions are carried out within them (ibid).  It is further argued that there is a link between executions and lynching, both of which go to show ‘who’s boss’ and as a means to exclude certain groups from society.  It is no coincidence that this latest appeal is for Ramiro a Mexican.  Gradually, executions replaced the illegal lynchings but served the same purpose of satisfying the predominantly white population’s desire to exclude black and Mexican people from society.

There is a lot of debate in America surrounding Rick Perry’s faith which is said to be strong and genuine.  He started life as a Methodist but has recently become an Evangelical and moved away from GW Bush’s church in Austin to support a mega church at Lake Hill.  He is in favour of teaching creationism and intelligent design and regards evolution as ‘just a theory’.

All this matters because he wants to run for president of the USA and so his attitude to execution and what that says about his political and liberal beliefs could be important.

Amnesty is opposed to the death penalty in all cases and it is unsettling to see it being promoted, not as some kind of necessary evil, but as though it is a thriving industry to be encouraged and lauded.  Poor quality advocacy, packed juries and a dismissal of proper analysis by the appeals process results in many unnecessary deaths.

Sources:

Frontline, Online; http://www.pbs.org

The American Spectator

The New Yorker

Texas April 14


This is the April summary for the group on the #deathpenalty and its use around the world prepared by Lesley (Word).

Death penalty summary April 14

 


Minutes of the March meeting below, thanks to Karen.  They will all be found on the meetings tab above.

March meeting


We had our monthly meeting on 10 April and these are some quick notes ahead of the minutes which will appear in the ‘about us’

Amnesty logo

Amnesty logo

tab above.

  • UPDATE [May 2015]: We must record that this money was never received by the group.  The £800 received from Bishop Wordsworth school was gratefully received and there was a discussion on how it would be spent
  • Lesley gave the update on the death penalty and there will be a separate post on that soon.  The press release on Sakineh in Iran was published in the Journal today but the fact she was due to be stoned to death was edited out
  • the North Korea campaign action on 15 April was discussed and the string of NK flags was displayed
  • John Glen’s assistant has now replied and a meeting will be arranged on a Friday evening to fit around JG’s parliamentary activities.  Probably June
  • conference planning proceeds and there was a meeting of the group yesterday.  We will be in ‘competition’ with the Cathedral who have half a million of Lottery money plus sponsorship.  No reply yet from Robert Key who is chair of their event.  However our conference will focus on the actual substance of the Magna Carta and its relevance today ie the human rights angle.  The proposed bid to the City Council was discussed and Peter will submit that by Monday
  • AI’s strategic plan was discussed.  The key point here was whether AI was offering support to groups with these campaigns?  Recent history is not encouraging.  Andrew to circulate for comments
  • film at the Arts Centre was discussed
  • the new regional rep. Caroline Butler, is to be invited to the meeting
  • there is to be a stall on 21 June
  • 10 October is the World Day Against the Death Penalty and the group will be planning an event for that
  • need to give some thought to the Cathedral Service

It may seem odd, not to say a little reckless, to be defending an act so widely criticized by large parts of the British media and so many politicians, particularly those in the Conservative party. Indeed, such is the level of criticism in the press that it would be a brave politician who puts his head above the parapet to attempt to say something positive about it, Kenneth Clark being one of the few.

There are many politicians who want to see it abolished including the Conservative member for Salisbury, John Glen. They would like to see a British bill of rights to replace the Human Rights Act (HRA) although quite what has happened to this is unclear but it has probably foundered because of Lib Dem opposition. Both Theresa May, the Home Secretary and Chris Grayling the Justice Secretary, are committed to repealing the act if re-elected in 2015.

The criticisms come in varying forms but they include statements that it is a ‘charter for criminals’, that we are subject to ‘European diktats’, that it makes it harder to ‘keep our country safe’ (David Cameron), and that we cannot deport foreign criminals and terrorists. There are also stories – many of them made up or are a wilful distortion of the truth, such as a mass murderer wanting pornography in his cell because it was his ‘human right’ (it isn’t and he didn’t) or a violent man demanding a burger before coming out of a house (likewise). In that case the police bought him a burger as part of the negotiating strategy and it was nothing to do with HRA.

In all this tirade of criticism the facts almost get lost. It is also hard to recall that it was a conservative politician, Sir Winston Churchill who, after the war was keen to see a convention established and that it was an Englishman Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, with a French colleague, who put together the original act which was completed in 1950 by the then newly formed Council of Europe, and came into force in 1953. It was their desire to see an end to the horrors seen in the war by establishing the rule of law in Europe. Key influences in drafting the convention were the Magna Carta (whose 800th anniversary we are to celebrate in 2015), the 1689 Bill of Rights and habeas corpus.

When reading the HRA, what surprises most readers is how benign and self-evidently beneficial it is. It says for example, that torture or other cruel and unusual punishments should not be used; that people should know of what they are charged; that people have the right to a lawyer; a right to a fair trial; that there should be no slavery or servitude, and there should be freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Indeed politicians are asked which of these they object to and in what way the proposed bill of rights would be different, they are strangely silent. This question was posed to Mr Glen in the Salisbury Journal and there was no answer from him.

The critics hold sway because no serious attempt has been made to explain it to the general public. There has been no attempt at all, by any political party, to set out the benefits of the act either in this country or in other countries in the EU. Instead, a general dislike of any and all things European sets the tone for the debate, if debate is in fact what we get. Because there is no positive argument, the nay sayers and critics are free to expound their beliefs largely unopposed. The recent head to head debates between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg revealed what a hard job the latter had in convincing his audience of the benefits of being in the European Union. The polls suggested he lost heavily. Although they weren’t discussing the HRA, it is bound up with all things Europe and hence a bad thing.

Advantages

So what are the advantages? The most important one of all is that the HRA protects everyone’s human rights whatever their age or whether they are rich or poor. A key feature of the act is this emphasis on individual rights against state power. There is very little in our laws or constitution which protects free speech, the right of protest, privacy or non-discrimination. In some countries these provisions are of considerable importance where the police or the state wield immense power against the individual and the court system is either corrupt or ineffective. These rights are enshrined in the HRA. Up until it became law in this country, individuals had to go the Strasbourg to get justice. Now that it is part of our law that is no longer necessary.

The European court has had most beneficial effect in Europe and in former Soviet republics. In Greece and Italy for example the court is trying to improve the enormous lengths of time the legal processes take there. In Russia there has been a sea change in the legal processes and references to the European court are testimony to improvements taking place.

It is Russia and currently the Ukraine which is particularly interesting. Both are in the news at present with the Crimea and, from time to time, the issue of human rights has been mentioned. In an earlier conflict in Chechnya, Russia was accused of using excessive force and there were accusations of disappearances, the use of torture and extrajudicial detention. Initially, Russia refused to accept any findings against them, but at the end of last year, there has been a slow change and it has accepted the European court’s ruling in some cases. The improvements are small but are beginning to happen and observers say that although more needs to be done, without the court it could be much, much worse.

In amongst the frequent criticism of the HRA and threats to abolish it by Teresa May, Chris Grayling and echoed by our own MP, it is odd to read a different interpretation by the Home Office and the Foreign Secretary, William Hague. This is a policy statement from the FCO:

The Human Rights and Democracy Programme (HRDP) is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s dedicated fund supporting human rights and democracy work overseas. The Programme aims to make a difference to people’s lives, helping to build the capacity of governments and civil society to promote and protect human rights. In 2012/13, we supported over 70 projects worldwide.

Human rights, democracy and the rule of law are at the heart of the Government’s foreign policy. The HRDP targets areas that are both important to us and where we consider we can make the greatest impact in delivering the FCO’s overarching purpose to “pursue an active and activist foreign policy, working with other countries and strengthening the rules-based international system in support of our values. FCO’s web site

The last sentence here is most relevant and it is hard to reconcile this policy statement with other ministers’ statements. We are not talking of differences within the coalition here as all the relevant individuals are conservative MPs. If we repeal the act it is hard to see how its principles can be used by the FCO in its foreign policy.

The FCO clearly sees that in an international context promoting the values enshrined in the European Convention are central to establishing a stable world order. The rights we take for granted are not always taken for granted in foreign or even some European countries.

Indeed, many of our partners are alarmed at both the political and media campaign against the act. The United Kingdom’s desire to pull out is particularly alarming since we are regarded as one of the ‘good guys’ as far as legal process is concerned and as the key architect of the act in the first place, it would send a truly negative message to the rest of world and Europe. The right of a suspect to have a lawyer present while being interviewed by the police, is well established here but is still a rarity in other countries.

Why the hostility?

The question has to be asked why is it that so many politicians and significant parts of the media are so opposed the HRA? It is not an easy question to answer. In part it is a fear and distaste for immigrants and immigration generally. When the restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians coming into the country were lifted at the end of last year, there was a concerted campaign in the tabloid press with scare stories of ‘floods’ of Romanians reportedly about to enter the country. They were allegedly coming here for the benefits or to get access to better health provision. Thousands if not tens of thousands were expected. The story rather fizzled out when journalists and some politicians turned up at Stansted airport to greet the expected multitude to find, well, just two. That’s 2 as in 1, 2, 3, not two thousand, two hundred thousand or 2 million.

Reliable studies have shown that immigrants have a net beneficial benefit to our society and economy. If a strike of immigrants were a possibility then large parts of our society and industry would quickly be in trouble. Hospitals would cease to function, care homes would shut, the food industry would struggle and food shelves in supermarkets would quickly empty. This is not an essay on immigration but the constant negative stereotyping of immigrants plays into the political and human rights story. They are here to work and being young they have little need of the health service. The beneficial effects seldom get a voice unfortunately.

The second argument is that of sovereignty. This is based on the idea that because the people elect a parliament via the ballot box then they are allegedly in control of our affairs. The ‘unelected bureaucrats in Brussels,’ (or Strasbourg) to quote a well-worn phrase, are interfering with our affairs and we want less of it and them. We need to get this power back so that ‘we’ the people of the United Kingdom are back in control.

The argument over sovereignty has some problems however. The first is that the people have very little actual say over how the country is run. Corporate interests – either directly or through a large army of lobbyists – have much greater influence. Plain packaging of tobacco products (now likely to happen) and excessive sugar in our diet are both recent examples where commercial lobbying might have been the deciding factor not the health of the nation or what ordinary people want. Media moguls – again either directly, or through their media interests – wield enormous power and influence. The idea that once we come out of Europe we the people will in sole charge of our affairs is on very thin ground.

It is also paradoxical that with all this concern for sovereignty, very little has been said by the same politicians about the penetration of our electronic mail and mobile phone messages by GCHQ and NSA in America. The HRA gives us a right to privacy and this is, and has been, comprehensively breached by electronic surveillance. Initially it was claimed that there was adequate oversight. This argument quickly melted away. The ‘you have nothing to fear if you have done nothing wrong’ argument was also trotted out. Sir Malcolm Rifkind quickly looked silly claiming that his committee was fully in charge of the situation when so clearly they had been sidelined. But whereas politicians speak readily about any Brussels inspired infringement of liberty they are deafeningly silent about the comprehensive intrusion into all our electronic communications by the security services.

It is politics where the real answer may lie. And a key factor here was the election in Eastleigh where the Conservatives came third to Ukip. This shook the party and the rhetoric against the act – and against the EU generally – gained traction. The debates between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg are further evidence that the anti–EU message is simple and strong and goes down well with large sections of the electorate. The failure of politicians from all parts of the spectrum to address this is coming home to roost.

Perhaps another reason lies behind this and concerns the fundamental nature of the HRA which is about giving power to the individual. For the first time, individuals have the power to hold the state in its various forms to account and this is arguably why it is so disliked by some politicians. It is this shift in power to enable an ordinary citizen to take on a corporation or the state and to use fundamental rights to do so, shakes the status quo.

The HRA has been a force for good in this country despite its imperfections and it should be defended.

 

Sources:

Why is the European court of human rights so hated by the UK right? John Henley Guardian 22 December 2013

Big changes to Human Rights or not? HRLA.co.uk April 2012

Human Rights Act myths Liberty, [accessed 17/01/2014]

Right to a fair trial (removal to Jordan) – Othman (aka Abu Qatada) Hansard HC Deb 17 April 2012 c173)

Six questions for Chris Grayling on human rights New Statesman 1 October 2013 [accessed 21 January 2014]

Judges would regret Human Rights Act repeal Joshua Rozenberg Guardian 14 March 2013

Human rights are good for Britons – and the Tories know that Natalie Samarasinghe Guardian 10 March 2013

Counter-Interpretation, Constitutional Design, and the Right to Family Life: How the Conservatives Learned to Stop worrying and Love the HRA (Briefly) Joshua Braver UK Constitutional Law Association 6 January 2014

Theresa May’s assault on the right to family life ignores a complex reality Julian Norman Guardian 30 September 2013

Also Amnesty UK.