Carol singing

Last night the Salisbury group went carol singing around several streets in the city.  The singing was done by members of the

Farrant Singers in Park Street
Farrant Singers in Park Street

Farrant Singers which meant residents were treated to high quality singing from one of the finest choirs in Salisbury.  To fortify us, we started the evening with a glass of vin chaud kindly provided by Michael and Chantal and afterwards, we all repaired to their house for home made soup, cheese and mince pies.  A most successful evening and thanks to Michael and Chantal for their hospitality, Jonathan and Thomas for leafleting the houses the evening before and to the Farrant Singers themselves.  Also to other group members who played a supporting role.

A happy Christmas to all our readers and followers around the world.

CIA torture #stoptorture

The world was shocked – briefly – last week with the publication of Dianna Feinstein’s report into the use of torture by the CIA around the world in its ‘war against terror.’  The report examines in great detail the methods and effectiveness of those methods and also the effects it will have on the United States’ reputation around the world.  In her words:

‘[It has done] immeasurable damage to the United States’ public standing, as well as the United States’ longstanding global leadership on human rights in general and the prevention of torture in particular.’  (p16)

When we have campaigned in the street against the use of torture most people hurry on by, after all we don’t use torture in the UK do we?  Some find the subject distasteful and even those who stop to sign a card will often decline to take a fact sheet with the details of what is happening to someone described on it.  The fact remains that it is still widely used around the world despite the great majority of countries having signed UN pledges otherwise.

It has to be said in the United States’ defence that they are one of the few countries which could enable an investigation take place and then publish the results, despite redactions, for all to see.  The United Kingdom who, along with other countries around the world, aided and abetted the CIA in its activities has gone to great lengths to frustrate, delay and otherwise prevent details of its involvement becoming known.  It is to be hoped that over the coming months and years details will emerge to show our complicity in this sordid activity.

The report goes into great detail of the use and effectiveness of the methods used.  The world was especially shocked to learn of ‘rectal feeding’.  Precious little evidence is provided of any effectiveness.  It notes that a lot of useful information was provided before suspects were then tortured and that many of the claims about counter-terrorism successes were ‘wrong on fundamental aspects’ (p2).

So how has this come about?  Torture is of course as old as the hills.  But there are several aspects which keep it alive in the modern state.  Firstly a belief in its effectiveness despite evidence to the contrary.  Part of the blame is a kind of Hollywood view of terrorism.  The report quotes the TV series ’24’ the first of which showed a man being fearsomely tortured to reveal the vital secret which our hero then spends the next 24 hours dashing about trying to frustrate.  Buried within this is the assumption that an individual has a key piece of information and once sufficient pain has been inflicted, he (or she) gives it up.  But how does anyone know?  The problem being that people will say anything to get it to stop so just because a piece of information is finally revealed, how does anyone know how accurate it is?  This kind of thinking is demonstrated in the familiar question ‘if you knew someone had a key piece of information which could save hundreds of lives but he won’t tell you, wouldn’t you torture him to get hold of it?’  But how do you know it is key?  The report notes that seven of the 39 detainees they looked at produced no information at all despite relentless beatings, waterboarding, starvation and sleep deprivation.

Another familiar Hollywood feature of crime series like CSI and NCIS for example, is the copious amounts of information that the officers seem to have at the press of a button.  A screen suddenly appears on a wall with flashing dots to show where the culprit is and they all dash off to apprehend him.  It is part of the technological view of crime detection.  This engenders a belief that simply getting the information will enable the law enforcement agencies to close in on a terrorist cell.  The problem was that the record keeping by the CIA was so poor combined with their lack of cooperation with other agencies such as the FBI, meant that little of value was derived from the activity.  (p13)  The reality of what actually happens on the ground is miles away from the fantasy world of TV series.

This Hollywood inspired view of the world goes someway to explain the public’s attitude to the revelations.  It is seen as a regrettable necessity when a war is being fought against a terrorist enemy.  If it keeps us safe, then what does it matter if someone is deprived of sleep for a few days to get them to talk?  The end of saving hundreds of lives justifies the means of bad treatment of a handful of detainees.  We cannot afford to be too squeamish when dealing with fanatics after all.

But the activity has corrupted the governing process.  It was ineffective so lies were told about valuable information being gained when next to none was.  People like Secretary of State Colin Powell were kept out of the loop.  The media was deceived into believing that terrorism plots were being interdicted when in reality few if any were.  The White House was lied to and up and down the CIA deception was practised.  When some detainees died as a result of their torture no one was brought to account.  Foreign governments were dragged into the process to provide locations known as ‘black sites’ where individuals were taken to be tortured.  Foreign governments such as the UK government lied about ‘rendition’ flights through the UK, in particular Prestwick.  The use of Diego Garcia which the USA leases from the UK, is a story which may slowly unravel over time.

Torture is widely practised around the world.  It is routinely used to coerce people and to inhibit  opposition parties.  If the world’s leading nation – the United States – does it then the moral force they might apply to the nations who routinely use it is dissipated.  Let us hope the Feinstein Report results in an end to the practice in the States.

Death penalty report: December

DEATH PENALTY SUMMARYNo to the death penalty


This is the summary for the group’s December meeting pulling together various news items about the use of the death penalty around the world.  We would like to draw your attention to a web site Penal Reform International, with useful information on the death penalty.  It is now in the list of links at the bottom of this site.


  • Ethiopia – Andrew Tsage, a political refugee in the UK since 1979, has been placed in solitary confinement and is under threat of execution.  He had been arrested at an Airport in Yemen, and sent on to Ethiopia.  International concern has been expressed at the deterioration of human rights and freedom of expression in Ethiopia.  David Cameron has written personally to the Ethiopian Prime Minister, but the Foreign Office say Tsage is not being held illegally.
  • USA –
  • Missouri – 19.11.14.  Leon Taylor was executed, despite disagreement over the type of sentence which should have been imposed.  This was the ninth execution in Missouri this year.
  • Texas – 4.12.14 – a US Federal Court issued a stay of execution hours before Scott Panetti was due to die, following representations from his lawyers regarding his mental health.
  • Saudi Arabia – 20.11.14 – the family of Simon Cumbera, an Irish national murdered while filming a news item, have expressed regret at the death sentence passed on Adil Sa’ad Al-Dubayti Al Mutayri.
  • Pakistan
  • Mohammad Asghar – David Cameron has commented in Parliament on the ‘appalling treatment’ received in prison by this Scottish man accused of blasphemy and shot while in prison.  Reprieve is trying to prevent his return from hospital to prison
  • 25.11.14 – Asia Bibi, the Christian woman sentenced to death following a conviction of ‘insulting the Prophet Muhammad, has filed her final appeal against execution
  • China – 25.11.14 – According to his lawyer, Nian Bin, a former death row prisoner acquitted of the charge of poisoning two children, is now being investigated again by the police.  They have refused to accept the Court’s decision and are restricting his movements.  Acquittals are rare in China, but this one prompted renewed calls for the abolition of the death penalty.
  • Thailand – 26.11.14 – Death sentences were passed by Pattani Provincial Court on five suspected militants convicted of killing four soldiers.  Human Rights Watch have accused Thailand of double standards, saying the Army was also responsible for rights violations.
  • Egypt – 2.12.14 following the dropping of murder charges against ex-President Hosni Mubarak, a Court sentenced 188 of his supporters to death in connection with the killing of 13 policemen in August 2013.
  • Cameroon – 3.12.14 – it was reported that Lawmakers are to vote on whether to implement the death penalty for people convicted of acts of terrorism.  This is in response to the activities of the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, on its border.
  • Indonesia – AI have called on the Indonesian Government to halt its plans to execute 5 people by the end of the year.

Urgent Actions

  • Bangladesh – UA283/14 – Mohammad Kamaruzzaman, a leading member of an opposition party, is at imminent risk of execution before being able to lodge an appeal.  Circulated to DPLWG 17.11.14
  • Iraq – UA300/14 – Ahmed Al-Alwani, a former member of Iraq’s Parliament, has been sentenced to death for killing two soldiers, following a trial marred with irregularities.  He has only a month to appeal.  Circulated to DPLWG 28.11.14. (This month’s Group DP Urgent Action)
  • Saudi Arabia – UA 309/09 – Ali Agirdas, convicted of drug trafficking after an unfair trial, was executed on 20th November.  His family learned of this through the media, and the authorities are refusing to release his body to them.  Circulated to DPLWG 28.11.14.
  • USA – Florida – UA 162/14 – the execution of Shane Kormondy has been scheduled for 15th January.  Kormondy was found guilty of the murder of Gary McAdams in 1993.  This would be the 21st execution under the governorship of Rick Scott.


  • Reggie Clemons – there has been no further news.  The Justice for Reggie website has not been updated since August.
Moses Akatugba
Moses Akatugba
  • Moses Akatugba – further cards were signed for Moses at the Amnesty Film Night at the Arts Centre

Urgent action – #Florida

It may be the sunshine state but it is also a bloodthirsty one.  This will be the 21st execution under the Governorship of Rick No to the death penaltyScott.  In 2012, a quarter of all executions in the USA were in Florida.  This year, there have been 33 executions, 8 of which have been in Florida.  The USA is the only country in the Americas still to use the death penalty.

Urgent action: Florida USA

If you are able to write, that would be appreciated.

The case against human rights

December 2014

This was the title of a piece in the Journal section of the Guardian newspaper on 4 December by Eric Posner who is a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.  This is a thoughtful piece, not written by some demagogue, but by someone with a background in the subject and who has made significant contributions to the debate on the issue of human rights.  The points he makes are cogent and need addressing seriously.  The arguments he puts forward seem to come from his book The Twilight of International Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2014).

His article starts with a review of the history of the subject, especially since 1948, with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN which he correctly points out is not a treaty in the usual sense.  He might have added the European Convention of Human Rights came into being at about the same time and for broadly the same reasons.

The essential problem from the beginning he says was the different outlook by the key players when writing the UNDHR.  America had in mind their constitution which was largely based on ‘political’ rights which have developed under their constitution.  Even so, they did not want racial equality to be included: the effects we see today with the recent shooting in the USA of two black people by police and the lack of a legal follow through.  The then Soviet Union wanted more social rights and the need to provide jobs – hence a right to work.  The colonial powers – chiefly Britain and France – did not want the emancipation of their colonies to be included within it.  Hence the result was a partial framework not a coherent, legally binding treaty.

His argument is based on the following main points:

  • Human rights campaigning has failed to achieve its fundamental objectives.  Despite countries signing up to various agreements, torture is still widely practised, almost routinely, around the world; women’s rights are widely neglected especially in the middle east, and children are still working in mines and sweatshops
  • The notion of human rights is hopelessly ambiguous with over 400 listed, which can provide no guidance to governments on how to incorporate them.  For example, eliminating torture would require major changes to the police forces and reform of corrupt judiciaries.  It is still practised he argues, because the police have no other way in the light of crime and corrupt courts.  Governments would prefer to build schools and hospitals rather than spend on the police and reforming the court system
  • Things like free speech have little practical value where religious issues prevail.  Many western countries limit it, for example for defamation or obscenity
  • But his main argument centres around the ‘top down’ nature of human rights.  It is reminiscent of old colonial ways where primitive cultures had reforms foisted upon them by white occupiers who thought themselves superior.
  • Another factor is the post 9/11 use of torture by the United States.  This seriously undermined their moral standing and since they were the country most active in pursuing human rights, this was a serious blow to the cause.

This is only a flavour of his arguments but the essential point remains that six human rights treaties have been signed by over 150 countries around the world yet torture is still widespread, free speech is absent from many parts of the world (for example Russia where many journalists have been murdered), and democracy is a tenuous concept in countries like China – witness the recent events in Hong Kong where the communists only want their people to be on the ballot list.  Western countries are guilty of hubris and ‘forcing other countries to adopt western institutions, modes of governance, dispute resolutions systems and rights.’

It is indeed a gloomy picture.  His proposal is for human rights practitioners to follow the example of development economists who he says are changing from their top-down, coercive approaches and adopting more pragmatic ones better aligned to the countries own ways of doing things.  These arguments appear weak however since the west still imposes western style conditions on its funding and support for developing countries.  They are required to open up their markets and to privatise their industries, usually to their financial detriment.  Elsewhere from the Guardian article he has argued for open borders as far as migration is concerned – not something likely to make him popular for a European audience or even some US states.

So we must look at the failings he spells out and examine how true they are.

Firstly, the ambiguity he speaks of seems a weak reason why some rights are so cavalierly ignored.  One is tempted to ask ‘what is there not to understand?’ about such issues as torture or lack of due legal process.  These are not sophisticated or complex issues that countries are wrestling with.  Inflicting violence on individuals, in all its various forms, is abhorrent and since nearly all the countries of the world have signed up not to use it, it is odd to argue that there is some conceptual blockage to its continued use.

On the subject of torture, the suggestion that it is used by police forces because they are frustrated by the judicial process is also shaky.  Torture is never effective since people say anything to get it to stop.  It brutalises both the torturer and the tortured.  People are unlikely to wish to engage with police forces if they fear what might happen to them.

The ‘top down’ argument and that western governments seek to impose their morals on the west has merit.  On the other hand, this thinking has evolved from over a thousand years of strife, wars, revolutions and upheaval and, however imperfectly, has resulted in prosperity for these countries.  As a way of doing things they seem worth sharing with less well developed countries.  Doing it sensitively is of course desirable.

He discusses how China is admired today and the fact that they have opted for economic development in return for a lack of political freedom.  There is a kind of Faustian pact: we will provide the shopping malls if you allow us to carry on as a one-party state.  But for how long will this last?  Events in Hong Kong seem to demonstrate that for some Chinese, the ‘human right’ of being able to chose one’s leaders is quite strong.  It is that which worries the leaders in Beijing.  It is not that there is a lack of understanding of the human rights issues involved, it is a straightforward desire to hold on to power.  It is not a struggle to understand the concepts or the treaties.

Finally, professor Posner seems to overlook the influence of social media and travel.  Individuals are now able to exchange information in all sorts of forms at the press of a button.  Even in China, which works hard to shut out the web, information gets through and of course millions of Chinese travel the world.  So the diffusion of these ideas and aspirations are not just through treaties and international agreements.  There is pressure from the ground up for better standards.  People are aware of poor treatment and corruption and recognise it to be wrong, not necessarily because of a clause in a UN treaty but because they know it to be so.  This ‘bottom-up’ pressure is a significant force and the article does not give it sufficient credence.

On the one hand it is possible to be pessimistic about the lack of progress over the last six or seven decades, but there have been improvements.  Imperfect though it has proved to be, the Arab Spring for example, sent a shockwave through a range of undemocratic nations in north Africa and a key issue was human rights.  At base it is an issue about power and who has it.  However imperfectly, human rights express that power and give more of it to ordinary people.  It is that aspect which those who hold power do not like, not some puzzlement over the precise meaning of the UN Declaration or European Convention of Human Rights.

Film, Omar

Last night the Salisbury Arts centre hosted the film #Omar in the fourth of our collaborations with the Centre.  The film is a gripping story of love and betrayal in the occupied territories of Palestine and shows the grim realities of life for Palestinians living there.  Many people signed our cards at the end of the showing which concerned five individuals at risk of, or who have been, tortured (but not in Palestine).  A total of 103 were signed.

Several people expressed interest in the group and may come here to find out about us.  Details are to be found in the ‘About Us’ tab and we look forward to seeing you again.  ‘Every little helps’ is true and if you are able to help now and again at our events that is always appreciated.  From time to time we post urgent actions and if you can find time to write that is also a help.

We are possibly entering a difficult time as far as human rights are concerned with a concerted attack on the Human Rights Act by sections of the media.  It is fuelled often by misreporting of cases and the almost complete absence of reporting of the benefits the act has brought for ordinary people.  Hence the myth has become established that it helps terrorists, mass murderers and the like and it is all to do with the European Union imposing their beliefs on us.  The Conservative government have said they would like to abolish the act and replace it with a new version.

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