Human Rights Act

Expect an announcement soon
Tapestry illustrating the UN Convention

Things have gone quiet with the plans to abolish the HRA and the promise of something before Christmas has not come to anything.  There is a glimmer of hope in that Michael Gove has taken over as Justice Secretary and seems willing to modify or drop completely some of the worst excesses of his predecessor.  However, the negotiations currently coming to some kind of conclusion concerning our role in Europe are likely to see a fresh assault on the act emerging soon.  The watch word is ‘sovereignty’.  Parliament wants to be sovereign and this is being presented as a good thing and it is implied we will be the better for it.  The right wing press will delight at this and there will be many articles about ‘bringing power back to Westminster’ with the implication that this will result in better laws for us all.  Salisbury MP John Glen is a keen advocate for abolition.

A parallel story over the past couple of weeks has been the tax situation of Google and other American behemoths who so manage their affairs that they pay little or only derisory levels of tax.  Here, our sovereign parliament (since Brussels has little to do with tax collection) has failed.  Indeed, successive chancellors have made numerous announcements about ‘cracking down’ but almost nothing seems to happen.  Hardly surprising since accountants from the big four firms are actually in the Treasury ‘advising’ the chancellor on tax policy.  So the idea that sovereignty is key and is some kind of magic bullet is clearly illusory and does not lead to better outcomes.

A useful guide explaining the HRA and what it does has just been published by the British Institute of Human Rights and is worth a look.  There is a short video as well.  No doubt we will be returning to this topic when the announcements are made.

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Sixteen years on death row in Japan


Making a Murderer and Matsumoto Kenji: The truth can be stranger than fiction
Matsumoto Kenji Matsumoto Kenji © Private
  • A man from a poor background, with an IQ below 70; a score so low that he has difficulty comprehending what is happening to him.
  • His implication in a serious crime, in which a dominant older relative was the prime suspect.
  • A confession extracted by police after hours of intense interrogation, a confession which was subsequently described as ‘coercive’ by the man’s lawyers.

Well, if you’ve been watching the Netflix documentary ‘Making a Murderer’ you may be thinking of the case of Brendan Dassey who, at the age of 16, confessed to assisting his uncle in a rape and murder after hours of intense police questioning.  No lawyer was present during the interrogation, nor was his mother, despite the fact that he was a minor.

Dassey later recanted his confession and one Wisconsin lawyer who assisted on the case on seeing the video of the ‘confession’, described “feeling physically sick as I watched it (sic), he just didn’t understand what was going on”.  No physical evidence linked him to the crime and jurors have stated that his conviction was heavily influenced by the confession.

Brendan Dassey is not the only young man spending a very long time in prison after being convicted of a crime following a confession extracted in contentious circumstances.

In 1993 Matsumoto Kenji – along with his older brother – was arrested and charged with a double murder in Japan. Kenji has an IQ of between 60 and 70, allegedly caused by Minamata disease (mercury poisoning) which was common in the prefecture in which he was born, around the time he was born. As a result of the condition Kenji suffered from seriously hampered cognitive function.

Amnesty has serious concerns about Kenji’s treatment at the hands of the police.  His interrogation has been described at coercive, as officers offered him food if he talked and told him to “be a man” during the interrogation.

Upon learning of a warrant being issued for his arrest, his brother killed himself and Kenji was left to face trial alone.  During his trial it was accepted by the court that he was totally dependent upon his brother and was unable to stand up to him.  Following his conviction he was sentenced to death, a sentence which has been repeatedly upheld in subsequent appeals.

In Japan, death row patients are held in solitary confinement and are not allowed to speak to other inmates, only receiving occasional visits from family or lawyers.  When they are in their cells they are forbidden from moving, being punished severely if they do.  They are also given no prior warning before they are executed, leaving death row patients suspended in an endless state of anxiety.

Unfortunately, Kenji’s mental health has deteriorated significantly on death row, to the point that he has developed a delusional disorder.  His lawyers have argued that he is currently unable to communicate or understand information pertinent to his case and they further believe that his isolation has contributed significantly to his deteriorating mental health condition.

No to the death penaltyThese two cases, so similar, illustrate the vulnerability of individuals with serious learning difficulties in the face of major criminal charges, and the difficulty they face in ensuring their right to fair treatment at the hands of authorities in the criminal justice system.

Under international laws around use of the death penalty, it is illegal to execute someone with serious mental or intellectual disabilities.  At Amnesty, we continue to oppose the death penalty in all instances and in all cases as it’s a violation of the right to life and to be free from torture.

Call for justice for Kenji on his birthday

Today is Kenji’s 65th birthday. It’s the 16th birthday he has spent on death row.Kenji’s case is currently under review for appeal and the Minister of Justice will be the key decision-maker. If you have a moment, please write to him and call for him not to execute Kenji.

What to say

Please write to Justice Minister Matsuhide Iawki, urging him:

  • Not to execute Matsumoto Kenji and to introduce a moratorium on executions in Japan;
  • To commute Matsumoto Kenji and all other prisoners’ death sentences;
  • To Improve the treatment of death row inmates, including an end to solitary confinement;
  • To promote debate on the abolition of the death penalty in Japan.

You can also write to Health Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki and ask him to:

  • Ensure that Matsumoto Kenji’s health is regularly assessed and he is provided with any necessary treatment.

Whom to contact

Minister of Justice, Matsuhide Iawki
Ministry of Justice
1-1-1 Kasumigaseki
Tokyo 100-8977

Twitter: @MOJ_HOUMU

Minister of Health, Yasuhisa Shiozaki
1-2-2 Kasumigaseki
Tokyo, 100-8916

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Britain’s role in the Yemen war

Britain’s involvement in Yemen war described in detail

February 2016

In this blog – our longest yet – we reproduce an article published in Dissident Voice which discussed in detail the role the British government is playing in supporting the Saudi government, by supplying arms and providing personnel, in its war in the Yemen.   Most of the material here will be familiar to readers but it is useful to have a separate voice.  Our local MP Mr John Glen has, so far, been silent on these matters. 

It is more than possible to speculate why Prime Minister David Cameron has declared it his mission to scrap the Human Rights Act – which is incorporated into the European Convention on Human Rights – it appears he simply does not believe in human rights.

For example, the fact that Saudi Arabia executed – including beheadings – forty seven people in one day last month, displaying their bodies from gibbets, failed to deter him from having British military experts to work with their Saudi counterparts, advising on which targets – and which people, it seems – to bomb in Yemen. Parliament has not been consulted, thus, without a chance to debate and vote, democracy too has been suspended.

The fact that in May 2013 Saudi also beheaded five Yemenis, then used cranes to display their headless bodies against the skyline (Al-Akhbar, May 21st, 2013) also did not trouble him.  Neither did that by November 10th, 2015, the year’s total executions had already reached one hundred and fifty one, the highest for twenty years, in what Amnesty International called “a bloody executions spree.”

But why care about human rights or outright savagery when there are arms to be sold?  As written previously, in one three month period last year UK arms sales to Saudi soared by 11,000%.  From a mere nine million pounds the preceding three months: “The exact figure for British arms export licences from July to September 2015 was £1,066,216,510 in so-called ‘ML4’ export licenses, which relate to bombs, missiles, rockets, and components of those items.”

Priority Countries

Cameron’s government treats such barbarism with astonishing sanguinity.  For instance, it has come to light that in 2011 the UK drew up a list of thirty: “‘priority countries’ where British diplomats would be ‘encouraged’ to ‘proactively drive forward’ and make progress towards abolishing the death penalty over five years.’ “

Saudi Arabia was not on the list, an omission which Amnesty International’s Head of Policy, Alan Hogarth called “astonishing.” (Independent, January 5th, 2016.)  However, a Foreign Office spokeswoman told the Independent that: “A full list of countries of concern was published in March 2015 in the (UK) Annual Human Rights Report and that includes Saudi Arabia and its use of the death penalty.”

Wrong.  In the Report under “Abolition of the Death Penalty”, there is much concentration on countries in the (UK) “Commonwealth Caribbean” and a casual, subservient nod at the US, but no mention of Saudi. Under “The Death Penalty”, Jordan and Pakistan, were mentioned, as was the “particular focus on two … regions, Asia and the Commonwealth Caribbean.”  Singapore, Malaysia, China and Taiwan, Japan (the latter, three executions in 2014) Suriname and Vietnam are cited. Saudi Arabia is nowhere to be found.

Under the heading Torture Prevention, there is a quote by David Cameron: “Torture is always wrong” (December 9th, 2014). Paragraph one includes: “The impact on victims, their families and their communities is devastating. It can never be justified in any circumstance.”  A number of countries are listed.  No prizes for guessing, in spite of medieval torture practices, which is not.

However, under “Criminal Justice and the Rule of Law” there is:

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued revised guidance on the human rights aspects of OSJA (Overseas Security and Justice Guidance) in February 2014.  The guidance ensures that officials do their utmost to identify risks of UK actions causing unintended human rights consequences.

What an irony as David Cameron is currently moving heaven and earth to halt legal action against British soldiers accused of acts of extreme human rights abuses in Iraq.  As Lesley Docksey has written:

The said ‘brave servicemen’ are in danger of being taken to Court over their abusive treatment, and in some cases murder, of Iraqi detainees during the invasion of Iraq.  Hundreds of complaints have been lodged with the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), which was investigating between 1,300 -1,500 cases.  Many are simple complaints of ill treatment during detention, but some are far more serious:

  • Death(s) while detained by the British Army
  • Deaths outside British Army base or after contact with British Army
  • Many deaths following ‘shooting incidents’.

Worse, the British government is considering taking action against one of the law firms dealing with some of the cases, Leigh Day, with another, Public Interest Lawyers, in their sights. When it comes to hypocrisy, David Cameron is hard to beat.

Arms sales

Worth noting is that in the UK government’s own list of “countries of humanitarian concern”, according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), the UK has sold weapons to twenty four out of twenty seven of them, with Saudi Arabia in a deal to purchase seventy two Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft in a deal worth an eventual £4.5 Billion.

Aside from the purchase of the Typhoon jets, major deals between Saudi Arabia and British companies include a £1.6bn agreement for Hawk fighter jets and bulk sales of machine guns, bombs and tear gas.  [We can add here that Salisbury firm Chemring’s accounts show a high level of sales to Saudi sufficient to be separately identified under company law]

In fact, Saudi Arabia have access to twice as many British-made warplanes as the RAF does, while bombs originally stockpiled by Britain’s Armed Forces are being sent to Saudi Arabia” – to currently decimate Yemen.

The overriding message is that human rights are playing second fiddle to company profits,

said CAAT spokesperson Andrew Smith, adding:

The Government and local authorities up and down the country are profiting directly from the bombing of Yemen. Challenging them to divest from Saudi Arabia … is something people can do directly.

In the light of a fifty one page UN Report on the bombing of Yemen obtained by various parties on January 27th, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn called for an immediate suspension of arms sales to Saudi, pending the outcome of an independent Inquiry.  David Cameron stated, farcically, that: “Britain had the strictest rules governing arms sales of almost any country, anywhere in the world.”

However, in one of the key findings, the UN Report says:

The panel documented that the coalition had conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law, including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana’a, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes.

It adds:

The panel documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations of international humanitarian law.  It also reported cases of civilians fleeing and being chased and shot at by helicopters.  Moreover it stated that the humanitarian crisis was compounded by the Saudi blockade of ships carrying fuel, food and other essentials that are trying to reach Yemen.

The panel said that: “civilians are disproportionately affected” and deplored tactics that: “constitute the prohibited use of starvation as a method of warfare.” (Emphasis added.)

David Mepham, UK Director of Human Rights Watch commented:

For almost a year, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has made the false and misleading claim that there is no evidence of laws of war violations by the UK’s Saudi ally and other members of the coalition.

The UK Ministry of Defence, declining to say how many UK military advisers were in Saudi Command and Control Centres, said that the UK was: “… offering Saudi Arabia advice and training on best practice targeting techniques to help ensure continued compliance with International Humanitarian Law.” (Guardian, January 27th, 2016.)  Yet another quote from the “You could not make this up” files.

It has to be wondered whether the Ministry’s “best practice targeting techniques” includes the near one hundred attacks on medical facilities between March and October 2015, a practice which compelled the International Committee of the Red Cross, in November, to declare the organization: “appalled by the continuing attacks on health care facilities in Yemen …”

They issued their statement after:

Al-Thawra hospital, one of the main health care facilities in Taiz which is providing treatment for about fifty injured people every day was reportedly shelled several times …)

It is not the first time health facilities have been attacked … Close to a hundred similar incidents have been reported since March 2015. (Emphases added.)

Deliberate attacks on health facilities represent a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law (IHL).”

An earlier attempt to have the UN Human rights Council establish an Inquiry failed due to objections from Saudi Arabia, who, with help from Britain, currently Chairs an influential panel on the same Human Rights Council.  Farce is alive and well in the corridors of the UN.

Attacks on medical facilities

The repeated attacks on a targeted medical facility and other IHL protected buildings and places of sanctuary is a testimony to the total disregard for International Humanitarian Law, by the British, US and their allies and those they “advise”, from the Balkans to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Yemen.

However, in spite of the horrors under which Yemenis are suffering and dying, and Saudi’s appalling Tobias Ellwwod MPhuman rights deficit, UK Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood, an American-born former soldier, in a visit to Saudi Arabia last month was quoted in the country’s Al Watan newspaper as revealing:

the ignorance of the British to the notable progress in Saudi Arabia in the field of human rights, confirming throughout the visit of a British FCO delegation… that he had expressed his opinion regarding the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia before the British Parliament, and that the notable progress in this area has been obscured.

The Foreign Office strongly denied that Ellwood had expressed such a view.

The Saudi led, British advised and US ”intelligence” provided coalition is reported to have formed “an independent team of experts” to assess “incidents” (which should be described as outrages and war crimes) in order to reach “conclusions, lessons learned …” etc. Thus, as ever, the arsonist is to investigate the cause of the fire.

Amnesty, Human rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières (who have had three medical facilities bombed) and The Campaign to Stop Bombing in Yemen have all called for an independent Inquiry with the power to hold those responsible for atrocities to account.  None of which, however, would bring back the dead, restore the disabled, disfigured, limbless, or beautiful, ruined, ancient Yemen – another historical Paradise lost.

Felicity Arbuthnot is a journalist with special knowledge of Iraq. Author, with Nikki van der Gaag, of Baghdad in the Great City series for World Almanac books, she has also been Senior Researcher for two Award winning documentaries on Iraq, John Pilger’s Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq and Denis Halliday Returns for RTE (Ireland.) Read other articles by Felicity.

This article was posted on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016 at 11:30am and is filed under Death Penalty, Human Rights, Militarism, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, United Nations, War Crimes, Weaponry, Yemen.

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