Archive for the ‘ECHR’ Category


Tapestry on display

The tapestry assembled by members of the South Region of Amnesty International, is now on display at the entrance to the Chapter House in Salisbury Cathedral.  Each panel represents one of the clauses of the UN Convention on human rights which led ultimately to the Human Rights Act in the UK.  It is this act that the current Conservative government wants to abolish.  The Chapter house is where one of the surviving copies of Magna Carta is displayed.  We are extremely grateful to the Cathedral Authorities for giving us this space to display the tapestry.  It will be on display for a few months and then will go on display elsewhere in the south region.

Tapestry


rightsinfo-logoRights Info has only been going four months but has already begun to establish itself in the human rights world.  It is dedicated to providing accurate information on the subject of human rights. This is extremely important now because the present government would like to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA) and replace it with their own Human Rights and Responsibilities act (or whatever it may be called).  This has been promised for several years and we await details in due course.

The government is egged on by a media which regularly produces inaccurate or exaggerated stories of the workings of the act, often tying it into the European Convention on Human Rights, presenting it as an unwarranted intrusion into our legal processes.  The fact that it was British and French lawyers who prepared the ECHR – at Churchill’s behest – based on basic principles of justice established over many years, seems to have been forgotten.  As we have noted before, the act is of great benefit to ordinary citizens in the UK who use it to secure justice from authorities.

Rights Info has been providing a source of information to counter the tide of misinformation from newspapers and some politicians. They have just launched a similar exercise to provide information about the European Court which also gets a bad press.  It is called The European Court of Human Rights Uncovered.  One of the examples it gives concerns the total number of applications and judgements.  There have been 22,781 applications against the UK.  Number of judgements is just 513 of which the court found at least one violation to be 301.  301 over 22,781 is 1.32%.  The Sun newspaper reports this as ‘UK loses 60% of cases’.

Terrorism cases get a lot of publicity with the impression given that they are winning cases all over the place.  In 40 years (1975 – 2015) out of 297 cases, just 14 were terrorists.  203 were ‘other people’ that is ordinary citizens in their fights against authorities of one kind or another.

Over the coming months we are likely to see an increase in bad news stories about the HRA and the European Court as the government seeks to soften up the public ahead of its plans to abolish it.  It is useful to know that there is a source of accurate information to go to.


UPDATE: 5 May  … still no sign of a draft of what the British Bill of Rights will contain.  People go to the polls in a couple of days time without knowing what is planned.  Since the election campaign has been based largely on the deficit and who is going to spend the most on the NHS, oh and being run by Scotland: what is, or is not, in the BBoR may seem trivial.  But it touches on all our rights and on our relationship with Europe so it is important. 

The #Conservative party #manifesto was published today 14 April and as promised, there is a plan to scrap the Human rights Act #HRA.  The manifesto says on p73:

We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights which will restore common sense to the application of human rights in the UK.  The Bill will remain faithful to the basic principles of human rights, which we signed up to in the original European Convention on Human Rights.  It will protect basic rights, like the right to a fair trial, and the right to life, which are an essential part of a modern democratic society.  But it will reverse the mission creep that has meant human rights law being used for more and more purposes, and often with little regard for the rights of a wider society.  Among other things the Bill will stop terrorists and other serious criminals who pose a threat to our society from using spurious human rights arguments to prevent deportation.

This will have profound implications in our relations with Europe and we still do not know what the new bill will look like even after many years of discussion about the abolition of the HRA.  Incidentally, although the Act was introduced under the Labour administration, it was voted for by many Conservatives as well.

A draft of the BBoR has been a long time a coming and the latest we heard was that it was to be published before Christmas.  One assumes a draft will now appear before polling so that voters can see in more detail how it differs from the existing HRA.

The Conservatives seem to have got themselves into something of a bind with this Act.  They were happy to go along with the anti-European sentiment expressed by most of our newspapers and were obviously spooked by the Ukip surge over the last few years.  There has been a torrent of misinformation and disinformation about the workings of the HRA which, apart from the honourable exception of Dominic Grieve MP, they have made little or no attempt to counter with facts.

What got them steamed up most of all – and got our tabloids into a fearsome lather – was the case of Abu Qatada or the ‘preacher of hate’ as he was called.  Many attempts were made to deport him but the problem was not just the HRA but the fact that he might be tortured when he was returned to Jordan, or the Jordanians would convict him using evidence obtained from torturing others.  Is this an example of ‘spurious human rights arguments’?  Since, quite apart from the ECHR, we are signatories to treaties banning the use of torture, there was a problem in getting him out of the country in any event.  We might note in passing that the Jordanians had to clean up their judicial act as part of the agreement to send him back.

A puzzle though is that the other area which gets politicians steamed up is the issue of a right to life yet this is quoted as being ‘an essential part of a modern democratic society.’  Something about a cat.

The fact remains that many ordinary people are beneficiaries of the Act.  Lawyers can use it in their day to day work with individuals and their dealings with authorities of one kind or another.  Little of this gets published in the media and most are unaware of it unless by chance they know of someone who has benefited.

As far as the Strasbourg court is concerned, the UK are the ‘good guys’ since we still have a largely uncorrupted police and judiciary and people can appeal decisions in cases of injustice.  Our police operate under PACE and suspects have a right to a lawyer.  Very few of the cases which go to Strasbourg get overturned – we believe there were only eight last year.

As one of the original countries, along with France, who prepared the ECHR after the war at the behest of Winston Churchill – a Conservative – if we leave the Convention it will have significant repercussions in places like Belarus, Turkey and Russia.  Belarus is the last country in Europe with the death penalty and human rights are largely ignored.

It will be interesting to see how our local Conservative candidate John Glen reacts to this.  When he came to see the local group to discuss this topic he did agree to be more balanced in his comments which we welcomed.  This followed an article in the Salisbury Journal saying he wanted it abolished.  But now it is part of the manifesto for his party we shall have to see…


A significant step forward was made today against the excessive and arguably illegal interception of messages by the secret services and in particular, GCHQ. The hoovering of email, Skype, Facebook and other electronic messaging services was indiscriminate and is likely to have been illegal. Assurances that this surveillance is tightly controlled have been shown to be untrue.

wire tap imageThe ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) – a secretive legal body responsible for monitoring the shadowy world of the UK secret services – said that GCHQ’s access to (and use of) private communications swept up in bulk by the National Security Agency (NSA) breached human rights laws. This is the first time in its 15-year history that the IPT has ruled against an intelligence agency. The landmark verdict proves that mass surveillance sharing on such an industrial scale was unlawful, and a violation of our rights to privacy and to free expression.

Liberty, Privacy International and Amnesty, brought the case against the agencies, following the disclosures about mass surveillance made by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013. Thanks to Snowden’s revelations, the world is now aware of the extraordinary scale on which US and UK security services intercept and store our digital communications, including emails, messages on social networks and internet histories.

That includes not just the UK getting hold of what the US has picked up in its ‘Upstream’ and ‘PRISM’ programmes (which can cover Google, Facebook and other US-based internet platforms), but the UK’s very own ‘full-take’ Tempora system, which scoops up every single communication that passes through the UK. It’s very possible that highly sensitive communications between activists around the world have been monitored as part of these programmes. It also seems that journalists have been monitored as well as lawyers’ communications with their clients.

The IPT’s ruling acknowledged that the sharing of these communications between the US and UK governments violated human rights law until the end of last year. But even now the UK government will not publicly accept that these mass surveillance programs even exist.

The government has been playing a cat and mouse game over surveillance – talking about ‘national security’ while trying to cover up unlawful behaviour in its use of private data.

Secret rules about secret practices

Before this case was brought, there was simply no public information whatsoever about how and when the UK thought it could handle the data which the US had obtained. We had to force them to disclose what turned out to be a puny two-paragraph public summary of those rules during the case.  Due to that disclosure, the IPT ruled in December that the sharing of surveillance date between the UK and US is now lawful because there is supposedly enough ‘signposting’ in public about what is going on ‘below the waterline’.

So, that means up until that disclosure, the spying programme broke the law – but because they revealed a few vague details of how they gather and store that information – it’s now legal for them to continue doing so.

 Amnesty International strongly disagree with this decision.

Those forced disclosures made by the government are insufficient and fall far short of making its activities lawful.  We won’t stop here – we are planning to challenge the earlier ruling at the European Court of Human Rights.  But until then, while we’re pleased to see it acknowledged the programme has been unlawful up until very recently, the ruling means that the two spy agencies will retain unrestricted access to global communications with minimal safeguards in place.

We have argued before on this site that we accept that intelligence agencies have to intercept messages in their fight against terrorists and others bent on doing us harm. This interception must be under political control and scrutiny and done on a needs must basis. We also expect the media to keep a close eye on the politicians not least because trust in them is so low.

But what seems to have happened is that scrutiny consists of chats between the Security Commission and the security agencies and that there is a failure by the parliamentary committee to ask searching questions. The press have been largely silent and ineffective. It is no surprise therefore that the general public remain unconcerned about the activities of the security services. ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ is a popular response. People seemed relaxed to see a reduction in their privacy to secure an imaginary increase in their security. Stories are frequently told of terrorist plots being uncovered by the use of such methods.

The bizarre thing is that if one asks the question of someone ‘do you trust politicians?’ you are likely to receive a ribald answer (or a black eye). Yet we seem to.


UPDATE:  Where to obtain tickets for 12 March now at the end of that item.

Our group is planning a number of events to mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta.  We have been working with the Cathedral in Salisbury which has one of the surviving copies of the document.  Our focus will be on its relevance to the present day and in particular, the Human Rights Act #HRA and its place in modern politics.

We have several projects planned and we will update these pages as time goes on.  But for the moment, this is a brief introduction to what we have planned:

  • A standing display in the cloisters of the Cathedral outside the Chapter House where the Magna Carta is kept.  This will
    Torture wheel

    Torture wheel

    feature images to illustrate the #StopTorture campaign and will have the torture wheel, based on the one used by the Philippine police.  In case you have not come across this, it is a wheel on which the various methods to torture their victims are displayed.  They then spin the wheel to decide on which one to use.  This display will be set up in March and will run for at least a month.  To read more about the torture wheel follow this link.

  • On 12th March at 7pm we will be delighted to welcome Dominic Grieve QC MP who will speak on the relevance of the Human Rights Act today.  In June 1999 he was appointed Conservative spokesman for Scotland and in September 2001 the Conservative spokesman for criminal justice and community cohesion as part of the Shadow Home Affairs team.  From 2003 to 2009 he was Shadow Attorney General.
    Dominic Grieve QC MP

    Dominic Grieve QC MP

    Under the coalition Government Dominic Grieve became a Privy Counsellor and appointed the Attorney General for England and Wales and the Advocate General for Northern Ireland and he held that post until July 2014.

    He has spoken often on human rights matters arguing that despite the Conservative leadership’s recent announcement of fundamental change to both the HRA and the national relationship with the ECHR, there is much that remains undebated and misunderstood about both. 

    He will try therefore tonight try to lay out reasons why – while not free of imperfections – the ECHR and its direct application in our law through the HRA is of enormous benefit to our country and our collective wellbeing.  He is determined that this argument can and must be made with some passion because he believes that it goes to the heart of our identity as a nation and of our national interest.

    It will be an interesting talk and will follow the annual Choral Evensong in aid of Amnesty in the Cathedral.  Tickets: apply to magnacartaevents@salcath.co.uk.


    In the summer on 15 June, we are planning, with the Playhouse, an event where an actor will read selected passages from the Charter and then a panel of guests to discuss their significance.  The guests are likely to be Kate Allen, the Director of Amnesty UK, Prof Guy Standing author of The Precariat and writer and researcher, Ben Rawlence.  This will be in the afternoon so it’s a date for the diary at present.  Details will be both here and at http://www.salisburyplayhouse.com.

    On the morning of the 15th, there will be a 6th form conference involving local schools and Kate Allen has been invited to that.


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.

Human Rights Act

Posted: October 3, 2014 in ECHR, Human Rights Act
Tags: ,

There will be much more on the plan by the Conservatives to abolish the #HRA if they get re-elected.  But for now, just a single thought.  The whole exercise is predicated on sovereignty.  Allegedly, Strasbourg is preventing our parliament and its MPs from doing what they are elected to do, thus denying it sovereignty.  But the proposal is to abolish the act.  So they can either abolish the act, that is they have sovereignty, or they cannot because the don’t.  It seems they are going to abolish it so they do.  So why do they need to abolish it?  Answers on a postcard please.


In his speech to the Tory party conference today, the prime minister David Cameron pledged to get rid of the Human Rights Act #HRA and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.  Problem?  Where is it?  A bit like Lewis Carroll’s snark, it is often spoken of but never actually seen.  It has been talked about off and on for around 7 years now but it still hasn’t seen the light of day.

David Cameron Photo, BBC

David Cameron
Photo, BBC

Second problem: how will it be any different to the HRA it will replace?  It will presumably contain many of the clauses about fair trials, no torture, knowing what one is accused of, no slavery, arbitrary arrest etc. etc. that are contained in the HRA.

It is likely that the ire is directed at some individual cases which get the tabloid press in a stew such as Abu Qatada.  The issue here of course was that he could not be deported because it was likely that either, he would be tortured or, evidence gained by torture would be used against him.

The problem is the same as it always has been with the act.  It is European and in the fevered atmosphere of anti-Europeanism stoked up by Ukip, anything from Europe is a bad thing.  The second problem is the media – or sections of it – who dislike the act and print all manner of misinformation and disinformation about its rulings.  They don’t like it because the question of privacy has a higher standing under the act than they would like.  As we have seen with News International – and are beginning to see with the Mirror Group newspapers – newspapers are sold by penetrating the private lives of the famous by a variety of dubious and illegal means.

The benefits of the act, such as that reported today of people in Essex who were able to use it to take action against the police, are seldom reported.

Unless we pull out of the Council of Europe, we will still be subject to the rulings of the European Court.  It is strange to report that with all the venom and anger directed against Strasbourg nearly 99% of cases applications against the UK are struck out.  That is because we have good legal systems here.  The HRA was brought in to stop the trail of people having to go to Europe to get justice.


Dominic Grieve was sacked by David Cameron in the last reshuffle and it was widely interpreted as a clearing of the decks by the prime minister of supporters of the Human Rights Act #HRA.  Grieve has now spoken on the issue and below is a link to the interview in the Guardian newspaper.

In an earlier piece, Dominic Grieve expressed his dismay that David Cameron had narrowed the range of views held by his senior team. The attorney general sacked by David Cameron over his dogged support for the European convention on human rights (#ECHR) says he fears the prime minister will use this week’s party conference to dilute the UK’s commitment to the international treaty.

The Conservatives have misgivings about the act partly because of their distaste for things European.  There has been a concerted tabloid campaign against the act and the ECHR because allegedly it gives rights to criminals and terrorists.  The benefits of the act to ordinary people is rarely given a mention however. They also publish a great deal of misinformation which is seldom corrected.

Readers may like to look at an earlier post following a meeting the group had with the Salisbury MP, John Glen.  He has said he wants to see the HRA abolished but after some of the benefits of the act for ordinary people – including some of his constituents – were explained, he did agree to be more balanced in future.

Guardian article

 

Prisoner voting

Posted: August 12, 2014 in ECHR, Human Rights Act
Tags: , , , ,

After a decade of argument, the European court of human rights #ECHR has decided that the 10 prisoners denied the vote should not be paid compensation for the infringement of their article 3 rights to vote.  It did decide that the government is in breach of the convention.

This is a debate which has generated a lot of heat and a great deal of passion.  The prime minister David Cameron said that prisoners ‘damn well shouldn’t [get the vote]’ and previously was quoted as saying the idea made him feel ‘physically sick.’  It was a topic which came up with the local group’s meeting with John Glen the MP for Salisbury.

It seems that politicians have difficulty in understanding what prison is for.  Someone commits a crime and the court decides that a custodial sentence is appropriate.  There are two purposes to this: to deprive the person of their liberty as a mark of disapproval by society for the crime they have committed.  Then we want to rehabilitate them into society.  Unless we want everyone to go to prison for ever, then with a very few exceptions, they will be back into society.

It therefore makes sense as part of this second purpose that prisoners be allowed the vote.  In a small way it would help facilitate their entry into society.

See the South Region site of Amnesty International