Drone attacks to be scrutinised

It is reported today that the government’s use of drones to kill people overseas is to be reviewed by the Human Rights Committee.  This is welcome news.  Clearly, ISIS is an unpleasant organisation and is acting in a brutal and uncivilised way.

When it was revealed that a drone was used to kill two people in Raqqa in August, David Cameron said it was done as an act of ‘self defence’.  Quite how someone in Syria was a threat to the UK was not explained and seemed very unlikely.

Earlier this week is was reported that the government was removing adherence to international treaties from the ministerial code.  It is these treaties which prevent use of force without UN sanction or because there is a genuine need for purposes of self defence.

The Raqqa attack was the first case in the modern era that such an attack took place in a country with whom we were not at war.  Caroline Lucas – the Green party MP – was reported as saying the use of a drone in this case was done ‘with a complete absence of parliamentary scrutiny or approval.’

We look forward to some serious questions being asked of ministers.

Government plans to modify the Ministerial Code

Government plans ‘seriously concerning’

Plans by the Conservative Government to modify the Ministerial Code are ‘seriously concerning’ according to Rights Watch.

The ministerial code issued in 2010 says;

Overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life

The plan is to omit from the new code including international law and treaty obligations.  Phillippe Sands QC, a professor of law at University College London described the changes as ‘shocking’.  The government claim that this is merely a matter of simplification.

Why it matters

It matters because of the promise by the Conservatives in their text blockmanifesto to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with the British Bill of Rights a draft of which has yet to see the light of day.  Removing the international law will reduce the respect for judgements by international courts such as the European Court in Strasbourg.

Another aspect is that going to war and the use of things like drones are covered by international treaty and the UN Charter and not by UK laws.  Removing the international element therefore leaves ministers free to use this kind of weaponry unfettered.

In 2014, the government – then in coalition – wanted to remove what was termed an ‘ambiguity’ in the rules.  This has now been changed to simplification.

An observer of these events was Paul Jenkins who was a Treasury solicitor and he witnessed the intense irritation felt by the Prime Minister over our need to comply with foreign legal obligations.  This was largely in connection with the arguments over prisoner voting but the prolonged tussle over Abu Qatada was also likely to have been an irritant as well.

In a letter to the Guardian, the former legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Frank Berman QC said ‘it was impossible not to feel a sense of disbelief at what must have been the deliberate suppression of the reference to international law.’

What is troubling about these changes is that they have to be seen in context.  We have restrictions on Freedom of Information; reductions in the ability of people to receive legal aid; court charges; and the threat to the Human Rights Act.  We will soon have the ‘snooper’s charter’ which will enable the security services to eavesdrop communications however they wish.

All these changes add up to an assault on the ability of individuals to hold the executive to account.  Ministers were quick to celebrate the anniversary of Magna Carta when it suited them but now seem keen to reduce freedoms wherever they can.

Sources: The Guardian; Rights Watch; the BBC; Financial Times; Daily Mail


Further responses and condemnation of this change in the code

British Institute of Human Rights warning

Citizenship day

Last week, three members of the Salisbury group visited South Wilts Grammar School for their day long Citizenship Conference held every year jointly with Bishop Wordsworth’s School.

We had the opportunity to present Amnesty to three groups of students, amounting to about 50 in all, who had chosen to hear from us, along with a number of other organisations from political parties to charities.

The impression we received was of a lot of interest in our work, and we emphasised the importance of the concept of human rights, and asked the students to think about how these might impinge on their own lives as well as on the prisoners whose causes we espouse.

The Power of the Signature

The short AI film ‘The Power of a Signature’ as always received a positive reaction as did the invitation to sign the Stop Torture petition cards.  We hope the students enjoyed the occasion as much as we did.

We will be taking the show on to St Mary’s School, Shaftesbury next month

The Chinese President’s visit

President’s visit prompts human rights concerns

This week saw the visit to this country of President Xi Jinping with a president ji xinpinghuge amount of ceremony and including a meeting with the Queen.  His visit was surrounded with considerable controversy concerning the human rights record in China.

Our government stood accused of suppressing concerns about human rights because they want us to do more business with China and because the Chinese do not like questions being asked about their activities.  They view this as interfering with the internal affairs of their country.

Human rights in China are truly dire and may even have got worse since President Xi came to power.  The essential deal in China is that the communists stay in power and in return, they deliver growth and prosperity to their people who have little say over how the country is run.  To maintain this system, there is little in the way of free speech, the internet is closely controlled, minorities – including religious minorities – are hounded and arrested, torture is common and more Chinese are executed than the rest of the world put together.

Chen Guangcheng – who was a prisoner of conscience with Amnesty and on whose behalf, the local group campaigned – fled China following his house arrest and now lives in America.  He is personally well acquainted with the human rights situation in that country.  In an article in the Independent he says:

There is no doubt human rights have worsened in his home country in the decade since President Hu Jintao’s state visit and believes that the UK must publicly criticise the regime if it wants to improve human rights in China.

I don’t think all this trade and business should be carried out as the UK sacrifices human rights in exchange for these deals.

Amnesty has noted that during a nationwide crackdown, 248 lawyers and activists were detained in the summer of whom 29 are still in custody.  Then there is the continuing story of Tibet where freedom for Tibetans is a long-lost dream.

Our media is constantly predicting the time when the Chinese economy will overtake the USA to become the largest in the world.  Projections are frequent but have recently taken a knock with the acute fall in the Chinese stock markets and devaluation of their currency.  But the essential question is: can the Chinese Communist Party’s trick of providing continuous growth whilst maintaining a monopoly on power be maintained for ever? This question is important because it points to the fact that the Chinese needs the West as much as we need them.  We provide them with a market for their goods.  They need our technologies and our expertise.  They will increasingly need our consumer goods.  They want to be able to trade the remnimbi in London.  They want greater access to the European market.

This is why the craven approach by our government to the Chinese is so misguided.  The Chinese Ambassador has claimed that mentioning human rights would be ‘offensive’ to China.  But all the people who suffer in China from house arrests; deprivation of liberties; forced sterilisations; executions of loved ones after brief trials; loss of religious freedom and no freedom to look at the internet, might also feel ‘offended’ that the man at the top of the country responsible for all this repression and cruelty, is being fawned over and given the red carpet treatment in London without any of our leaders uttering a word about these goings on.  The only thing that seems to matter is the business and investment.

It seems clear that the Chinese were seriously worried about the protests which might have marred his visit here.  A large and apparently orchestrated series of demonstrations organised by the embassy largely drowned out the few protests which manage to break through.

And what of our local MP Mr John Glen?  In the Salisbury Journal (October 22) we read:

[…] The UK takes its human rights obligations very seriously. I do not believe for one moment that having a mutually beneficial commercial relationship prevents us from speaking frankly about issues of concern.

In fact, close relationships around economic, political and security interests have a track record of enhancing our ability to positively influence governments helping to promote democratic reform and raise human rights standards

As we noted in an earlier blog in connection with Saudi Arabia, we have enjoyed ‘close relationships’ with them for some decades but there is no let up in the tidal wave of torture, beheadings, floggings and amputations being carried on there.  It is simply wishful thinking to claim close economic relationships enhances our ability to help promote democratic reform.

The whole point of the controversy around President’s Xi visit is that human rights concerns are not being mentioned.  To say also that commercial relationships should ‘not prevent us from speaking frankly about issues of concern’ – one can only reply quite so!  They fact that there was no frank speaking seems to have escaped Mr Glen’s notice.

And is Mr Glen suggesting that signing these various contracts will ‘promote democratic reform and raise human rights standards [in China]?’  In which case he must be almost the only person to believe this.  The communist party has no intention of relinquishing power and signing a few deals in London will not alter that fact one iota.  Indeed, looking at the The Global Times, the communist party newspaper in China, reveals no mention of human rights or freedoms in their report of President Xi’s visit.  Anyone who saw the BBC’s Panorama programme on 19 October would be left in no doubt that the prospects for freedom and democracy in China under this president are exceedingly remote.

Trade and investment are of course important but not at the expense of all else.  There is something unsettling about our willingness to grovel to the Chinese for the sake of money.  Perhaps at long last we are learning the true meaning of ‘to kowtow’.


The Independent; Salisbury Journal; The Global Times; The Guardian; Human Rights Watch

Vigil against the death penalty


On Saturday members of the Salisbury group held a one hour vigil in St Thomas’s church to highlight the use of the death penalty around the world.  The vigil was timely as the world’s leading executioner is China whose president is on a state visit to the UK now.  Second is Iran and then Saudi Arabia.

Numbers were very disappointing partly because we were unable to achieve any publicity.

Tapestry erected in Salisbury Playhouse

The tapestry – which has been put together by members of the southern region of Amnesty International – was erected today in the Playhouse.

Each panel illustrates one of the clauses of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.  It will be on display in the theatre for the next two weeks or so and while a series of plays are being performed on the subject of Magna Carta.

We hope to move it to the Cathedral, subject to their agreement, at the end of the theatre run.  The tapestry can be viewed on the first floor of the theatre.

Tapestry in the Playhouse
Tapestry in the Playhouse

Saudi arms sales and human rights

An about turn

Over the last three months we have been in correspondence with our local MP Mr John Glen over the issue of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.  This arose because the French President spoke out publicly against the increased use of the death penalty in Saudi and the barbaric way in which they are carried out.  We also expressed concerns about human rights generally, the use of torture and the dreadful treatment of women.

Mr Glen replied and arranged for a Foreign Office minister to reply as well.  The burden of their replies was that the government took the issue of human rights very seriously and raised the issue of human rights with the Saudis at every available opportunity.  It began to unwind because it was revealed that the Foreign Office had removed the abolition of the death penalty as one of its objectives.  This was only a matter of days following assurances to the contrary from one if its junior ministers in his letter to us.  Earlier this month Sir Simon McDonald, head of the FCO, told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that:

economic prosperity was further up his list of priorities than human rights.

Following the news that a Saudi had been elected to the UN’s human rights council – an astonishing fact in itself – it was discovered shortly afterwards that our own government had facilitated this.  The British government had used its influence to secure the position of someone, patently against human rights, onto the human rights council.  This was a quid pro quo arrangement apparently but since no one was objecting to our application, why it should be necessary was never explained.

We noted that George Osborne had pleased and apparently surprised his Chinese hosts by not mentioning human rights on his recent visit there.  China executes more than any other country in the world and has been arresting and detaining large numbers of people involved in human rights in a major crackdown.  We are shortly to play host to the President of China, Xi-Jinping, who has expressed a wish that human rights are not mentioned during his visit.  Despite their lamentable human rights record he will get the red carpet treatment nevertheless.

Then came the news that a Briton, Karl Andree, was to receive 360 lashes for alcohol offences for which he has already served a prison term.  It might be thought that the Saudi administration would be sensitive to how this might play in the UK.  With the UK government falling over themselves to sell them arms and the Kingdom in an increasingly rocky state financially because of low oil prices, to flog a British national in public is not exactly good PR.

The government responded by cancelling a £9.5m contract to train prison staff.  Again, one might ask what on earth are we doing helping a regime which tortures its prisoners more or less as a matter of routine.  And it has to be noted that this is not an arms contract so its effect is unlikely to be keenly felt.  So it seems that where a Briton is involved the government is willing to react reportedly after a huge ministerial row.  Otherwise, it is business as usual.

On the BBC’s Profile programme (18 October) it was concluded that the deal is that Saudi provides oil and security information in exchange for legitimacy and keeping quiet on human rights abuses.

The statement ‘the government will continue to work towards the complete abolition of the death penalty using all the tools at its disposal’ is unconvincing in the light of these actions.

October minutes

The minutes of the October meeting are now available.  The group discussed the forthcoming Vigil at St Thomas’s; the tapestry and where that could be displayed; social media statistics; the death penalty; the forthcoming film at the Arts Centre and a report on the correspondence with John Glen concerning the government’s changes to its human rights policies.

October minutes (pdf)

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: