Archive for the ‘HRA’ Category


Is the situation with human rights around the world in terminal decline?

The title of this piece ‘What’s it got to do with us?’ was said at a signing in Salisbury by someone invited to sign a card for a prisoner of conscience.  She did not sign.  Of course, anyone involved in any kind of street signing will have come across this kind of response from people who are not persuaded there is any point in sending such cards and who do not think someone in prison in a foreign country has anything to do with us anyway.

This year sees the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This was done following the second world war and with the formation of the United Nations itself was part of a belief that there had to be a better way for countries to organise their affairs.  Although there was a desire for such a better way, it would be a mistake to overlook the difficulties in negotiations to get UNDHR agreed.  The colonial powers – principally UK and France – had worries about what was happening in their colonies.  They were reluctant to see rights being applied there especially in view of the brutal suppression of freedom movements.  Nevertheless, it was signed and it did usher in a new world order.

Looking at the world today however, does not lead us to believe that we are on an improving trend.  It is hard to select from a series of terrible events to illustrate the point.  The suppression of free speech and the arrest of thousands of journalists and academics in Turkey is one example of many elements of the declaration being ignored.  Syria, which has seen thousands die from bombing and the use of gas, is another example, this time by a member of the UN Security Council itself, namely Russia.  In China, vast internment camps established in Xinjiang to detain hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, and the arrest of human rights lawyers has been detailed in a UN report.  As Human Rights Watch expresses it:

The broad and sustained offensive on human rights that started after President Xi Jinping took power five years ago showed no sign of abating in 2017.  The death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in a hospital under heavy guard in July highlighted the Chinese government’s deepening contempt for rights.  The near future for human rights appears grim, especially as Xi is expected to remain in power at least until 2022.  Foreign governments did little in 2017 to push back against China’s worsening rights record at home and abroad.  World Report, 2018 [accessed 18 November 2018]

In Yemen, which this site has featured in a number of blogs, has seen a country taken to edge of viable existence by a campaign of bombing by Saudi Arabia and atrocities by the Houthis.  The Saudis have been supported by arms from the UK, France and the USA.  British RAF personnel are supposedly advising the Saudis.  The point here is not just the misery inflicted on the country but that schools, hospitals, weddings and other community events have been targeted in the bombing campaign.

Seventy years after the signing of the Declaration, we should be celebrating steady improvements across the world.  We are not.  Rights and freedoms are routinely violated in many countries around the world.  Torture is still widely practised by the majority of countries: countries that have signed up not to use it.   Even countries like the UK have been found shamefully outsourcing its use of this abhorrent practice to Libya.

We could go on listing wars, the displacing of millions including the Rohingya from Burma, the continuing scourge of slavery which is probably at a higher level today than during the triangular trade, and the murder of journalists in countries like Russia.

Here in Salisbury we have seen the brazen Novichok attack on the Skripals by what seems, beyond doubt, to have been Russian GRU agents.  In Turkey there has been the murder and probable dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi.  None of this kind of activity is new – the CIA have been involved in murders and coups especially in South America – but that we have become inured to it.  To turn on the news is to witness war, misery, tides of refugees fleeing persecution or war, stricken cities and starving peoples.   There is a distinct feeling that the international rules based order ushered in after the second world war, now seems to be crumbling.  Famines in the ’80s and ’90s in Ethiopia and Somalia resulted in huge humanitarian efforts and the British public were moved by the scenes and reportage from the area.  Considerable sums were collected to help.  Today, we see the enormous damage and misery in Yemen but there is no sense of national outrage.

Causes 

John Bew, in a New Statesman¹ article, argues that the events of 2007 and 2008 were an important factor.  This is part of the theme of Adam Tooze’s recent book Crashed: how a decade of financial crises changed the world².  Up until the crash, there was a feeling of ever increasing prosperity (for some at least) and that free market ideology had won the day.  The crash destroyed that belief and importantly, ordinary people, not especially steeped in economic thought, began to realise that things were not right.  There was also a shift in power eastwards towards China and away from the west.  With it, the assumptions of democracy, free trade, and a rules based order had been weakened.  With the increasing interconnectedness of the world order and global trade, the ability of societies to deal with the ‘left behinds’ diminished.

With this decline, countries like the UK needed to work harder to sell goods to pay their way in the world.  That often meant looking the other way when we sold arms to unsavoury regimes.  ‘If we do not sell them, the Chinese will’ was a common belief.  Although the UK government often proclaims that we have a tough regime for arms control, the fact remains that brokers and dealers frequently and all too easily circumvent them.

The architects of the new world order after WW2 were the victorious powers: USA, China, Russia, UK and France.  These are the biggest seller of arms today joined perhaps by Israel and Germany.  The very countries wanting to achieve peace in the world are those busy selling the means to destroy it.

As the Amnesty annual report puts it:

In 2017, the world witnessed a rollback of human rights.  Signs of a regression were everywhere.  Across the world governments continued to clampdown on the rights to protest, and women’s rights took a nosedive in the USA, Russia and Poland.
From Venezuela to Tunisia, we witnessed the growth of a formidable social discontent, as people were denied access to their fundamental human rights to food, clean water, healthcare and shelter.
And from the US to the European Union and Australia, leaders of wealthy countries continued to approach the global refugee crisis with outright callousness, regarding refugees not as human beings with rights but as problems to be deflected.
In this climate, state-sponsored hate threatens to normalise discrimination against minority groups.  Xenophobic slogans at a nationalist march in Warsaw, Poland and sweeping crackdowns on LGBTI communities from Chechnya to Egypt showed how the open advocacy of intolerance is increasing.  Annual Report 2017/18 [extract]

Prospects

The prospects for human rights around the world look grim.  The idea of a steady improvement around the world does not look promising.  The belief in a new world order following the war also looks rather thin and forlorn.  With the major countries, who should be setting an example but are not doing so, the chance of improvement in the future does not look great.

In the UK, the are some in government who would like to remove the Human Rights Act from the statute book to be replaced by a weakened bill yet to be published.  If that ever sees the light of day we shall be campaigning against it.

There is also the problem of compassion fatigue.  No sooner does one calamity – whether man made or natural – disappear from our screens, than another one appears.  There seems no time to recover between them.  It is perhaps not surprising that people feel a sense of hopelessness.  The scale of some events is so huge, the quarter of a million Rohingya forcibly displaced  for example, that any response seems puny by comparison.

But people who believe in human rights and their importance in the world continue the fight.  We continue to highlight as many examples of wrong doing as we can.  In the words of our founder ‘better to light a candle than curse the darkness’.

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  1. Revenge of the Nation State, 9-15 November 2018
  2. Adam Tooze, published by Alan Lane 2018
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Talk organised by the Romsey group

Dr Claire Lugarre. Picture, Salisbury Amnesty

On Monday March 19 the Romsey group of Amnesty hosted a most interesting talk by Dr Claire Lugarre who is a lecturer in Human Rights Law at the Southampton Law School, part of Southampton University.

An element of the desire of those who wish for the UK to come out of Europe is a wish to regain our (i.e. the UK’s) sovereignty.  There is also a desire, expressed most strongly by some members of the Conservative Party, to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.  This has been promised in the party’s manifestos and has been talked about for about a decade but details of what the BBoR will look like and how it will differ from the existing HRA is still largely opaque.  It seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

The Conservatives are not alone in wanting us to come out of the European Convention along with Brexit: most of the media have kept up a barrage of criticism and denigration of the Court and all its doings.  As the example on the right of the Daily Mail shows, there is talk of a ‘triumphant week for British values,’ the ‘crazy decision’ making by European Court judges – usually referred as ‘unelected’ judges and the ‘human rights farce’.

The talk

Claire Lugarre explained some of the background issues surrounding the issue of the European Court and what it might mean for the country if we left.

Her first point is that the notion of human rights is not just a western construct and similar ideas are seen throughout history even if they were actually called that at the time.  She also emphasised that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) had a utilitarian purpose not just a moral one.  There was an urgent desire after the carnage of WWII to construct a legal basis of good behaviour between states.

States have to comply with European Court judgements.  The Human Rights Act – often referred to by critics as ‘Labour’s’ Human Rights Act which it isn’t as it received all party support – incorporates the ECHR into British law thus removing the need for litigants to go to Strasbourg to get justice.

One matter is the vexed question of prisoner voting she said.  The European Court rejected the Government’s case which banned all prisoner voting and said that to ‘prescribe general, indefinite and automatic deprivation of a right to vote’ infringed a prisoner’s article 3 rights.  Thus far the government has ignored the ruling.  The issue was one of proportionality.

She spent some time on the often confusing difference between the Council of Europe and the European Union the latter being what we wish to leave (it was announced yesterday that the Article 50 notice to depart will be served on 29th of this month).  The Council of Europe consists of 47 states and within which the European Court sits.  This deals with human rights issues.  The European Union consists – at present – of 28 states and is a political and economic union.  There seem to be many who think that Article 50 means we will no longer be subject to ‘crazy decisions’ of the European Court.  To do that we have to leave the European ConventionThere have been reports that the prime minister Theresa May wishes to do that as well.

All legislation and legal judgements have to be in accordance with the HRA she said.  Indeed, the number of judgements already made by the courts represent a considerable body of precedent based on the HRA and the European Court.  Even if we come out of the European Convention the effects will be present for a considerable period.  It is also forgotten that the European Court is not the only thing which binds us, we are also signatories to a host of other treaties which will still be in existence.

BBoR

One of the arguments frequently heard is that it is not just about rights but also about responsibilities.  It was this principle which led to the desire to have a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.  This is a difficult argument to fathom.  Sometimes, people talk about responsibilities in terms of the government’s responsibilities to its citizens to uphold the Act.  Others argue that the citizen has responsibilities not just rights.  There are other arguments about the need to fight terrorism because the act has undermined this ability, it is claimed, and this requires responsibilities in some ill-defined way.   Claire was unclear what the BBoR would contain.

The relationship between rights and responsibilities needs to be understood.  Most rights are qualified in any event and, in practical terms, depend on the responsibility of everyone in society to respect one another’s freedoms (so that one party’s right to free expression, for example, does not impinge too far on another’s right to a private and family life).  These rights cannot be subjected to any all-encompassing limitation, such as that they are legally contingent on performance of set of duties and responsibilities. Their application regardless of such considerations is precisely the point of their existence.

It is often claimed by critics that the European Court was ‘imposed’ on the UK.  It wasn’t and the UK was a key participant in its formation after the war with many British lawyers involved.  It is also argued that the HRA should only be used for the most serious of cases but what this would mean in practice is not clear.  Who would decide on seriousness?

If, as is threatened, we do come out of the European Convention the effects could be traumatic.  At present countries like Russia and Turkey are part of it.  Russia’s human rights record is already poor and Turkey has arrested tens of thousands of judges, lawyers, academics and police.  If the UK pulls out of the Convention, of which it was a founder member, the effects could be even more serious in those countries.

The HRA has had a steady and beneficial effect on many people’s lives in this country.  In countless day to day decisions by authorities of various kinds, its provisions have to be adhered to and lawyers regularly use it to defend their client’s interests.  Perhaps its chief problem is that it shifts some power down to the individual, a fact which those who were in control find uncomfortable.

This was a most interesting evening about a subject which is bound to be in the news for some time to come.


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Liz Truss announces that the British Bill of Rights is back on the agenda

The new Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, said in an interview that the abolition of the Human rights Act and its replacement with the British Bill of Rights is back on the agenda.  On the 10 August, The Times had suggested that it was not going forward.  As we speculated on this blog a while ago, the sheer amount of work needed to negotiate new trade agreements with the world and our exit from the EU, is going to consume parliamentary effort and ministerial time on an enormous scale.  Will they have time and energy to spend time haggling with the Lords over a new bill with all the rest that is going on?  Then there are the complex relations with Scotland and Northern Ireland to consider.  This pledge has been around for 10 years now yet Liz Truss gives no timetable.

We are committed to [abolishing the Human Rights Act]. It is a manifesto pledge. We are looking very closely at the details but we have a manifesto pledge to deliver that   Liz Truss

Liz Truss – picture gov.uk

The result will at best be a modest change in the law unless we are going to withdraw from the European Court itself.  This will have widespread effects especially in eastern Europe where the Court’s activities has had a positive effect on human rights.

The shame of it is that the public anger about the ‘terrorist’s charter’ and other nonsenses are fostered by the media and few of our MPs and Ministers seem to have the courage to stand up to them.  The Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express are often loud in their criticisms but connection to actual facts is often weak.  But even periodicals like the Spectator – a venerable political weekly – is not above publishing tendentious material.  The hostility to the act is in part we argue, due to the privacy clauses which give some protection to those who have suffered press intrusion for no good reason other than boosting newspaper sales.

Abu Qatada is frequently produced as evidence that the act doesn’t work and meant, allegedly, that we were not able to deport him.  Firstly, if he was such a terrible man, why was he not arrested and prosecuted here?  Secondly, the failure of the Home Office and the then Home Secretary Theresa May to deport him was not the HRA but treaties we have which prevent us returning people to countries where torture is routine (as well as the HRA).  Qatada would not have had a fair trial in Jordan because, at the time torture, was common there.

We often read that duties and responsibilities are to be added as there are many – not just on the Conservative back benches – who are unhappy with ‘rights’ and feel that such rights should only be available to those who act responsibility.  How this would work is not explained.  Who’s to judge what ‘responsible’ means?  A police officer at the time of arrest feels that the person behaved irresponsibly and therefore decides not to allow the person access to a lawyer – a provision in the HRA?  Some rights are absolute and do not depend on good behaviour.  Other rights are qualified anyway.

It is hard not to see a parallel with the Brexit debate.  Years were spend denigrating the EU and then when it mattered, those like the previous prime minister, David Cameron, wanted to persuade country to Remain, he lacked conviction.  He was hoist by his own petard, or more colloquially, ‘stuffed’.

A concerted campaign has been waged by the media against the act and stories produced which only occasionally have any relation to the truth.  We have suggested before to refer to Rights Info to get the background and a sober assessment of some of the fictions.

Whether the BBoR ever sees the light of day remains to be seen.  It is likely that this is a rash statement by the new Lord Chancellor which may quietly drift into the background when the difficulties and disadvantages are explained.  But it will continue to lurk until a sufficient number of MPs – like those in the Runnymede group – stand up and speak positively about the act and the benefits it has brought to thousands of ordinary citizens who have used it to secure basic rights, stories that rarely find their way into print.

Salisbury MP, John Glen is among those who have publicly called for the act to be abolished.


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Sources: The National; The Times; http://www.parliament.co.uk; Spectator; Daily Express


Act is likely to be doomed whoever is Prime Minister

Both the leading contenders to become the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson [UPDATE: 30/06 Johnson rules himself out.  Michael Gove is standing]  and Theresa May, are committed to getting rid of the Human Rights Act [HRA] and want to introduce a British Bill of Rights [BBoR].  It is also true of Salisbury’s MP, John Glen who has written to that effect in the Salisbury Journal.  The commitment was in the Conservative party’s manifesto in last years general election.  This is yet to see the light of day and how it will differ from the existing act has still to be made clear.  We have suggested that the only thing which may stop this happening is that considerable time will now be needed to negotiate our exit from the EU; negotiate new trading arrangements with the EU and the rest of the world, together with a mass of budgetary issues once we no longer are in receipt of EU regional, sectoral and other funds.  Whether there will be time for a long battle with the Lords over the HRA is in doubt.

Perhaps now is timely to ask why is it that the HRA has become almost a dirty word and why the media in particular has waged a relentless campaign against the act and against the EU itself, culminating in the Brexit vote last week.  Part of the answer is in that last sentence: the HRA is the embodiment in British law of the European Convention on Human Rights and as such is tainted by its association with Europe generally.  But that is not the whole answer because it would be possible to be against the EU for economic reasons – slow growth, high unemployment and low investment for example – but still be in favour of the act.

RightsInfo in a recent post has argued that we need to learn 5 lessons from all this and argues for a changed approach to countering the inbuilt media bias against the EU project and the ECHR.  While this is true it is nevertheless important to understand where this bias comes from.  Why is a large section of the media (roughly 70%) so viscerally against the act and dedicated to writing misleading or plain wrong stories about Brussels and Strasbourg?  Unless we can gain an understanding of this then efforts to counter it and change minds are probably doomed.

Loss of Britishness

The first reason may be the sense that we have lost a sense of Britishness acquired over the last eight hundred years, especially as far as the law is concerned.  This was very evident during the Magna Carta celebrations last year.  There was this sense of 800 years of seamless progress culminating in the corpus of law we now have.  Then along came Europe and imposed a new law upon us which had wide ranging implications for all our law in the UK.  It said that human rights had to be respected and for some this came hard.  Despite the fact it was Churchill who pushed for the European Convention and our support for the UN Declaration of Human Rights in which we played – at times reluctant – part, the ECHR was seen as an intrusion into our affairs.  We simply did not need it and there was resistance to its application in the UK.

Magna Carta was about the release of power by the king to his barons.  Much of subsequent legal history has been about the steady release of power by those elites who hold it to the ordinary people.  As industrialisation gradually took hold in the nineteenth century for example, there were prolonged battles to obstruct and delay public health reforms; improved safety in factories; better housing, and for ordinary people to be educated.  The HRA turns this approach on its head and says that there are basic rights that everyone should have.  It also gives people the chance to challenge, using the legal process, those in power.  It comes as no surprise therefore that those who have the power are miffed at its loss or at least diminution.

One can also detect a kind of arrogance.  We won the war and helped put in place a set of rules for them (the Europeans) to live by.  We didn’t need them because we have this ancient and trusted system.  When we started allowing appeals to Strasbourg it came as something of a shock when rulings started to go against us.  Suddenly, this superb system didn’t seem so wonderful after all.  Ordinary people spoke and something of a shiver went through the political elite.

Gift to the world

Linked to this is that the British system is now used around the world principally by countries that used to be colonies.  From the USA to New Zealand,  much of Africa and the subcontinent, the system of justice is based on what was developed here.  Europe on the other hand has a different legal system and does not (with a few exceptions) have a corpus of common law.  It is difficult in these circumstances for some people not to feel that Europe is a ‘Johnny come lately’ to the legal scene so why should they tell us what to do?  After all, fascism was rife in Europe so who are they to lecture us on human rights?

The media and neo-liberalism

One of the strangest paradoxes of the EU debate and the passions the referendum unleashed is that our close links to the USA are almost never mentioned.  Yet the effect of the USA and its major corporations have arguably as equal an effect on life in the UK as do the machinations of Brussels.  We have witnessed major tax dodging by US corporations such as Google, Amazon, Starbucks et al amounting almost to plunder.  Starbucks graciously agreed to pay a voluntary amount and Google a trifling sum.  Europe has shown itself to be keener and tougher in its approach to taxing these behemoths.

Throughout the whole debate following the Snowden revelations, it was the linkage between the American spy agency NSA and GCHQ which was a significant fact.  NSA used GCHQ to hoover up information on US citizens which, under their Constitution, they were not allowed to do.  Both were engaged in mass surveillance largely uncontrolled by our politicians who were – on this side of the pond at least – asleep at the wheel.

A large chunk of our media is owned by Americans, most particularly the Murdoch family.  This was allowed to happen to help Mrs Thatcher gain power.  The important point however is that these proprietors are keen believers in the Neocon agenda.  For them good government is small government.  They still believe in the merits of unfettered free markets.  The emphasis on the social chapter in Europe is not something they are at all keen on.  Power is also important and as we saw during the Leveson hearings, they were used to slipping in and out of the back door of Downing Street for surreptitious and unminuted meetings with the Prime Minister of the day.  Europe makes all this harder.  Instead of a ‘quiet word’ with the PM, there are 27 other countries to deal with.

American power is therefore widely felt and in many areas has greater influence than anything coming out of Brussels.  Yet it is Europe and Europe alone which fills the media and the airwaves.  There is thus an inbuilt bias in the reporting of Europe and American power almost never gets a mention.  It wasn’t Europe which took us into the Iraq or Afghan wars.

Media and privacy

Still on the media but taking in the tabloids in particular, is the issue of privacy.  The phone hacking story revealed many parts of the British media to be acting outside the law.  People’s phones and emails were hacked, bank accounts blagged and for some celebrities and politicians, they were almost unable to communicate with anyone without the risk of their message being intercepted.  The full story can be read in Nick Davies’s book Hack Attack [1].  Aspects of this was illegal but recourse to the police was largely a waste of time since the police themselves were selling information to the tabloids or were afraid to tackle the media with whom they had an unsavoury relationship.  It has been argued that the phone hacking scandal only saw the light of day because of the HRA [2].  Regulation into interception was introduced because the UK fell foul of the ECHR.

The print media were feeling the pinch however with falling advertising revenues, fewer people buying newspapers, preferring the internet to gain access to stories, and increasing costs.  Much easier therefore to hack into celebrities’ phones to get a juicy front page.  They were free to do this because there was no law of privacy.  The HRA does provide some privacy protection and this poses a threat to their business models.  So parts of the media have a problem, both ideologically with its adherence to free market ideas and, its business model based on intrusion.  Europe is a threat to both these aspects, especially the latter from the HRA.

Thirdly is the concept of freedom and responsibility.  To be able to reach millions of people either in print or online is a huge responsibility, a responsibility to give as balanced a view as possible to impart the key facts.  Freedom of speech is a precious thing but it does also come with some responsibilities.

To end this section it would be unfair to blame all the media’s woes on the media themselves.  They are there to sell papers and, as with all forms of marketing, it is based on the principal of giving people what they want.  Clearly, they have picked up a mood or anti-Europeanism and they have provided the stories to match.  One can argue that they have failed to provide a balanced view.  They, however, might argue that the Independent newspaper was balanced, but is now only available on-line and the only other paper trying to give an even handed view is the Guardian which sells only a derisory number of copies.  If the public were interested in balance and wanted to read the benefits of EU membership they can do so.  They don’t.  The tabloids can fairly argue that they reflect the public’s view.  People buy their papers by the million, not the ones with balanced views. The Daily Mail has the world’s biggest on-line readership.

Politicians

Which brings us to the final point.  Against the tide of misinformation and negative stories about the HRA and Europe generally most of our politicians have either joined in or remained silent.  A few Lib Dems were proponents but they were reduced to a rump at the last election and are now scarcely a political force.  Whereas Ukip and Nigel Farage are rarely out of the news, the Lib Dems have all but disappeared off it.  Saying positive things about Europe to try and keep Britain within the EU came late to many of our politicians during the Referendum campaign and resulted in them not being believed anyway.  Anthony Lester refers to the ‘love-hate relationship’ between politicians and journalists in his book Five Ideas to Fight For  [3].

They are mutually dependent and yet proclaim their independence, each side claiming to represent the public interest better than the other.  (p159)

The media and politicians are both part of what has been termed the ‘Establishment’.  In his book The Establishment and how they get away with it [4] Owen Jones attempts a definition:

Today’s Establishment is made up – as it always has been – of powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy in which almost the entire adult population has the right to vote.  The Establishment represents an attempt on behalf of these groups to ‘manage’ democracy, to make sure it does not threaten their own interests.  (p4)

In a chapter entitled ‘Mediaocracy’ he describes how the media plays a role within this Establishment by focusing people’s ire on those at the bottom of society.  The success (if success be the right word) of this blame game could be seen in spades with the Brexit campaign and its focus on immigrants and Europe as the cause of many of our woes.  That immigrants contribute at least £2bn to the UK’s economy and are a mainstay of hospitals, the food industry, transport and much else is something you would not be aware of from much of the media.

It can be seen that the dislike of the HRA is the result of several forces.  The shift in power away from the elites and the provision ordinary people with rights is resented especially by those who have sense of being born to rule.  A right to privacy threatens those parts of the media whose business model depends on the wholesale intrusion into the lives of celebrities, sportsmen and women, and politicians (but never you notice other media folk).  An arrogance concerning the age of our legal system and its alleged superiority to the continental one makes us reluctant to accept correction or a different perspective from across the channel.  A loss of power and influence by media proprietors of the political establishment is also a factor where Europe more generally is concerned.  All these forces come together to result in an assault on the act.   Very little good is allowed to be said of it but plenty which is bad – whether true or not – can.  The HRA enabled a light to be shone into the Establishment and what was revealed was murky.  Is it any wonder they are so keen to see it gone?

This is the backdrop to the likely demise of the HRA.  And it seems little can be done to halt the process.  Good news stories rarely get into the media and are unlikely to be believed anyway.

Sources:

[1] Hack Attack, How the Truth Caught up with Rupert Murdoch, 2014, Nick Davies, Chatto & Windus

[2] A Magna Carta for all Humanity, 2015, Frances Klug, Routledge

[3] Five Ideas to Fight For, 2016, Anthony Lester, Oneworld

[4] The Establishment, and how the get away with it, 2014, Owen Jones, Allen Lane

On Liberty, 2015, Shami Chakrabarti, Penguin


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The country (UK) has decided to leave the EU: so what next?

In the early hours of yesterday morning, the referendum was concluded and the country decided to leave the EU on a high turnout.  The Prime Minister is to resign and there may be an election by Christmas.

One of the key issues that decided the referendum was the question of immigration and the other was sovereignty.  While those politicians who were in favour of remaining in the EU, went on about the economy, security, jobs and so forth, it was obvious from interviews in the street (vox pops) that very many people were concerned about more basic matters.  As far as many of them were concerned, they were suffering from the effects of austerity and the people who were making matters worse were the immigrants.  They were ‘flooding’ into the country and were putting a strain on public services and bidding down wages (it was claimed) thus making their own lives a misery.  Membership of the EU made matters worse as we were unable to stem the tide because of their rules.  Coming out was clearly a solution to their woes.

Sovereignty also reared its head from time to time and a familiar line was taking back our sovereignty so that we can make our own laws and run our own affairs, free from interference by Brussels bureaucrats and unelected judges in Strasbourg.  The election of our own judges is something that must have passed us all by.

So what of the Human Rights Act?  The Conservative’s manifesto made clear their desire to scrap it and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.  Months have gone by since the election and no sign has been seen of this document.

But if anything is clear from yesterday’s events, it is that hatred of the EU and its alleged interference in our affairs – including our legal affairs – is very strong and was one of the deciding factors which enabled the Brexiters to win the referendum.  This has been whipped up by a right-wing press and not a little xenophobia.

The problem now for the new government – expected at the time of writing to be formed by Boris Johnson – is that they just cannot leave the BBoR to one side in view of the fervour generated and promises they have made to the electorate.  But, the EU will be wanting a speedy departure by the UK from the EU, and not on painless terms either, to prevent contagion spreading to other disaffected countries.  So considerable time will need to be spent by thousands of civil servants negotiating new terms, agreements and treaties to enable our new relationship with the EU to continue.  Enormous parliamentary time will be needed as well.  The question is therefore – will there be the time or energy for this battle?  Getting a diminished set of rules through the Lords will not be easy.

It is a great pity that so many politicians have allowed the untruths and exaggerations by the right-wing media to gain such traction and to go unanswered.  Many believe that all red tape and rulings from Brussels are automatically bad news and diminish our lives.  We would be so much better off without them they say.  The word ‘free’ is used a lot: free of such rules, free to trade where we will, free to rule our lives and free of encumbrances generally.   The HRA has been a lifeline for many, many people in the UK.  They have used it to secure redress against arbitrary decisions which affect their lives.  Public authorities have to be cognisant of the act in their policy making.  Is all this to go?

We may ask the question ‘free for whom?’  Axing the HRA will not provide ordinary people with more freedom, but less.

So whether we will see the end of the HRA remains to be seen.

 


Text of letter sent to Salisbury Journal

The following letter was sent to the Journal in Salisbury but regrettably for space or other reasons it was not published (14th April).  We do not know at present what the current situation is with the promised bill to abolish the Human rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights (or whatever it is to be called).  It is a manifesto promise and a draft was to be published in the Autumn but has not yet appeared.  It is possible that the arrival of Michael Gove into the Justice Dept. had something to do with it.

Now that we are in full swing with the debate about leaving the European Union, it is possible that this has been shelved for the moment.  Mr Gove is a leading proponent for the Brexit camp who – if current polls are to be believed – are doing well at the moment.  The calculation may therefore be that if they win then the scene is set to dump the HRA as well.

On the other hand, there will be a heavy workload in managing our exit and carrying out the negotiations to secure access to the European market once we leave, so there will be limited civil service and parliamentary time to spend on a new Bill of Rights.

But back to the letter and our local MP John Glen is keen to abolish the HRA and it would be a pity if he is given space in the Journal again to put forward his views and the opportunity is not given to those who disagree with him.  The unpublished letter:

Britain has had a proud history of leading the charge on human rights progress from the aftermath of the Second World War when we were key drafters of the European Convention of Human Rights, to the suffragette movement, to gay rights and other equality legislation. We have often been champions of progress.
What a shame, then, that this year the UK was singled out for criticism in Amnesty International’s annual report on the state of the world’s human rights.  Amnesty is warning that the government’s plan to tear up the Human Rights Act is a gift to dictators all over the world.  Russia recently drafted legislation which allows it to ignore human rights rulings it doesn’t agree with. Far from being able to condemn that action and call on Putin to uphold basic human rights, the UK is actually talking about following suit.  Music to the Kremlin’s ears, no doubt.
Here in Salisbury, the local Amnesty group is campaigning to save the Human Rights Act.  Britain should be a world leader on human rights.  The Human Rights Act protects ordinary people – from the elderly to hospital patients, to domestic violence victims – and we want to see those protections spoken about with pride by our politicians.  We should be redoubling our commitment to enduring human rights principles in these troubling times, not undermining them.
Let’s hope next year’s annual report on the UK reads: “much improved”.

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A debate on the Human Rights Act was held in Southampton

UPDATE: 12 March

A fuller version of the talk is now to hand and can be accessed here:

soton talk (pdf)

On Friday 19 February, the Southampton and Romsey groups of Amnesty hosted a debate on the HRA.  The speakers were Dr Clare Lougarre of Southampton University and Dr Alan Whitehead, the MP for Southampton Test.  A representative from the Conservatives was invited but did not take up the invitation.

Clare began by placing the HRA in its context as a natural consequence of the Euroean Convention on Human Rights [1950].  In the context of the debate on the current government’s manifesto commitment to annul the HRA, articles 2, 3 and 4 were significant.

  • art 2 says that court’s decisions must take into account the decisions, declarations or advisory opinion of the European Court
  • art 3 UK laws are compatible with the European Convention
  • art 4 says that if our laws are not in accordance with the convention they may issue a declaration of incompatibility.

She said there were two options for the government: they repealed the act but we stayed within the convention or, it withdraws its signature from the convention altogether.  In the first case, there would be little difference as we would ultimately be bound by the European Court.  In the second instance however there would be no recourse to the EC and the most likely affected by this are the vulnerable in society.

Dr Whitehead said he was puzzled by what the government wanted to do.  The animus against the HRA was based on myth, semi-truths and half truths he said.  One myth was that it was ‘Labour’s Human Rights Act.’  This was a frequent phrase used by conservative critics.   It simply wasn’t true he said, it was a cross party bill supported by many conservatives.  He was moved to ask ‘what part of the act don’t you like?’  He reminded the audience that it was a conservative – Winston Churchill – who was one of the prime movers in creating the ECHR in 1950.

One of the charges against it was that the court had ruled on areas which were never intended by the original convention, in other words there was ‘mission creep.’  This was inevitable since the articles were widely drawn and also, attitudes had changed over time with, for example, our approach to abortion.

The case that is frequently brought up is Abu Qatada.  This was presented as a failing of the HRA.  It was not.  The Home Office had made mistakes in its original paperwork and the reason he could not be sent back [to Jordan] was because either he, or the witnesses, would be subject to torture.  [He might have added that abolition of torture was subject to another treaty altogether.]

A further point made by Dr Whitehead was that it should not be for a single government to make law on something as important as this.  He did not think we would see anything before the end of the parliament and what would emerge would be a ‘mouse’ of a bill.

It was a lively and informed debate and all credit to the two Amnesty groups for organising it.  For further information on the HRA go to (among other sites) British Institute for Human Rights and Rights Info.  Now that the movement to come out of the EU is getting underway, the HRA will be a whipping boy for those that want us to leave the union.  Both these sites help counter the frequent flow of misinformation by some sections of the media and some politicians.


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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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Year of achievement

This has been a busy year for the group.  A prevailing theme has been the Magna Carta celebrations and weTapestry enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the Cathedral where one of the extant copies of the charter is displayed.  We organised a talk in the Cathedral by Dominic Grieve – the former Attorney General – and 160 attended to hear him speak in favour of the Human Rights Act.  Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty, spoke at the Sixth Form Conference also at the Cathedral.  We mounted a display in the cloisters and we ended the year by displaying the tapestry, assembled by members of Amnesty groups in the south region, with two contributions from refugee groups.  Another event was at the Playhouse where we hosted a discussion with Kate Allen; Prof Guy Standing and Ben Rawlence – a first for us.  The Playhouse agreed to display the tapestry ahead of it moving to the Cathedral.

Films

For several years we have held a film night at the Arts Centre and this year we managed two, the first being the documentary BastardsSet in Morocco, this moving film showed an illiterate woman’s struggles with her family and the justice system on behalf of her illegitimate son.  We were delighted to welcome the director of the film, Deborah Perkin, to introduce it.  After the showing, we asked people to sign cards for Ali Aarrass who was returned to Morocco from Spain, held incommunicado, denied access to a lawyer and tortured for 12 days.  An enquiry into his allegations was promised but has not happened.  He still seeks justice and has recently ended a prolonged hunger strike.  Campaigning for Prisoners of Conscience like Ali are a core aspect of Amnesty’s work.

The second film was Timbuktu which was timely in view of the problems with terrorism and Islamic extremism.  We are grateful for the continuing support of the Salisbury Arts Centre in this enterprise and to the many people stopped after the showings to sign cards.

Saudi Arabia and arms sales
Paveway missile sold to the Saudis

Paveway missile sold to the Saudis

Saudi Arabia formed a backdrop during the year with their continuing and increasing use of the death penalty and a host of human rights violations.  In July, we wrote to our local MP, Mr John Glen, to urge his government to take a more robust line with the Saudis.  We received a reply from him and a minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office assuring us that diplomacy was proceeding behind the scenes.  We had not long received the letter when it was revealed that the FCO had just removed references to the abolition of the death penalty from its policy.  It was also revealed that the requirement to adhere to international law and treaty obligations had been removed from the ministerial code.  We then discovered the astonishing news that the UK government had been active in securing a seat for a Saudi man on the UN’s Human Rights Council.  Together with the continuing support the government offers to sellers of arms to Saudi Arabia, this shows that claims to be interested in better human rights in countries like Saudi was a sham.  It was depressing to note the new college in Salisbury being supported by a range of arms companies.

Economic prosperity was further up my list of priorities than human rights

Sir Simon Mc Donald, head of the Foreign and Colonial Office in evidence to the Foreign Affairs sub-Committee

Our all too close relationship with the Saudi government was exposed at the end of the year when the Independent revealed details of the secret security pact signed between the two governments.  Human rights groups, the Independent reported, expressed alarm at the secretive nature of the deal with a regime which has been condemned for its human rights record.  Kate Allen, Amnesty’s Director, called it a ‘murky deal’.

Yemen

Later in the year there was a great deal of interest in Syria and the decision to bomb ISIS.  A major debateArms-Fair---share-assets-email-Sep-2015 was held in Parliament with impassioned speeches on both sides.  We noted that no such passion was evident in the case of Yemen where British arms supplied to Saudi are being used to bomb civilians and kill children.  The government remains to keen to sell arms to whoever seemingly unconcerned where they end up.  They support the annual arms fair in London and, no doubt mindful of previous revelations about the sale of torture equipment, banned a representative from Amnesty attending.

It is extraordinary that so much heat and righteous indignation is engendered by the barbaric activities carried out by ISIS, but beheadings, crucifixions, floggings and torture carried out on an increasing scale in Saudi Arabia result not in condemnation, but visits by ministers and by members of the royal family.

Good news
Moses Akatugba

Moses Akatugba

But is was not all bad news.  The Salisbury group, in common with others around the world, campaigned for the Nigerian man Moses Akatugba who was brutally tortured by the Nigerian police and forced to sign a confession to murder.  We are pleased to note that many Salisbury people signed our petitions and cards with the result (with world wide campaigning as well) that Moses was released after 10 years on death row.  This was a notable success.  Over 34,000 people around the world signed petitions.  Amnesty have received a letter of thanks from Moses describing his feelings on learning of his imminent release and describing Amnesty activists as his ‘heroes’.

Another success was the decision by the state authorities in Missouri to give Reggie Clemons a retrial.  After a long wait for a decision from the Court following the report of the Special Judge, Reggie’s conviction and sentence for first degree murder were ‘vacated’.  The Court had upheld his right to a fair trial which was all that he had sought from the beginning.  This is a campaign which the local group has been pursuing actively for many years and again we are pleased to record our thanks to many hundreds of Salisbury people who signed cards and petitions.

Locally, the group undertook two Citizenship talks, one at South Wilts and one at the Shaftesbury School.  These are popular with young people and well attended.

Death penalty

Campaigning against the Death Penalty has continued to be a major focus for the Salisbury Group.  Regrettably, there has been no national campaign coordinated by Amnesty International in London.  We hope this might change in 2016 as we have taken part in a Survey currently being carried out by HQ confirming that we would like this important aspect of Amnesty’s work to be taken up again – particularly in the light of the recent changes in the priorities of the Foreign and Colonial Office.

In the meantime, we have identified particular issues around the Death Penalty on which we have campaigned.  Throughout the year we have responded to all the Urgent Actions received in respect of individuals under threat of execution – 31 in total.  The majority of these have been for prisoners in Saudi Arabia, Iran and the USA.  We have worked on the cases of individuals sentenced to death within Amnesty’s Campaign against torture – most notably Moses Akatugba and Saman Naseem (see below), including them in letter writing, card signings and petitions, and have also continued to campaign on behalf of Reggie Clemons (see above).  In partnership with St Thomas’s Church, we held a Vigil as part of the World Day Against the Death Penalty.  This was our first such venture, and it has to be said that public support was disappointing, but the Group felt it had been very worthwhile.

One of our concerns are the numbers of being sentenced to death and executed for alleged crimes committed when children.  Countries with the worst records for this are Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.  This issue was taken up by the Salisbury group and it was the focus of the Vigil for this year’s World Day Against the Death Penalty.  We highlighted the case of Saman Naseem, a Kurd, arrested aged 17, tortured and sentenced to death for being a member of a banned organisation.

The group continues to publish a monthly death penalty report which collects information from around the world on the use of this barbaric and ineffective practice.  At the bottom of this blog you will find other sites which provide information.  While countries like the USA, Saudi and Iran feature frequentlyy in these reports, it has to be recognised that China executes more than the rest of the world put together but keeps the statistics a state secret.

A full report on the death penalty is on a later blog.

China

This year saw the state visit by the Chinese president to these shores.  There was considerable discussion about human rights in China – or the lack of them – including the denial of free speech, the use of torture, thousands executed after brief trials and continued suppression in Tibet.  It was revealed by the Chinese media that George Osborne – who is keen to replace David Cameron as Prime Minister – on his visit to China, failed to mention human rights at all to the surprise of his hosts.  What was said to the president on his visit here, if anything, is unknown.  Protestors in London were mysteriously kept well away by armies of Chinese.  This was a clear demonstration that the current government is almost exclusively concerned with economic matters and not about human rights.

North Korea
Group campaign event, Saturday 8 November

Group campaign event, Saturday 8 November

During the year we continued to highlight where we can, the continuing state of human rights abuses in North Korea.  The situation there remains dire and the role of the Chinese is crucial.  People fleeing the country are frequently handed back to face a terrible future in a forced labour camp the condition of which are unimaginable.  They also try and obstruct efforts by the UN.  Their fear is that instability in North Korea could be the trigger for unrest in China itself.  There is now greater awareness of what is going on the country and the story has moved away from border skirmishes to the appalling human rights situation: progress of sorts.  Clip from the video made in 2014 available on YouTube The message reads ‘Close the Camps’ 

Stop torture

We have campaigned throughout the year on behalf of individuals who have been subjected to torture.  This abhorrent practice is still very common around the world with an estimated 141 countries still practising it.  This is despite signing various UN protocols to the contrary.

Human Rights Act

We have reported on many occasions the desire by the government to do away with, scrap or abolish the HRA.  Our local MP, Mr John Glen is on record as wanting this.  Part of the reason – perhaps the major part – is the continuing dislike of things European.  ‘Brussels’ has become shorthand for anything bad and for interference in our affairs and the HRA is caught up in that.  It doesn’t help that the majority of newspapers publish seemingly endless stories of dubious decisions which are the result – it is claimed – of the workings the act.  Stories about benefits for ordinary people almost never make it onto a tabloid page.

A second reason (we have speculated) is that much press activity nowadays involves the intrusion into the private lives of celebrities and politicians using hacking, buying information from the Police and other sometimes illegal means.  Article 8 of the HRA includes a right to privacy which would seriously curtail this activity.  We are currently awaiting the review of the act (promised in the Autumn) and how the government proposes to change it.  Perhaps we can be encouraged by the appointment of Michael Gove MP as Justice Minister, who has shown himself willing to overturn some of the worst excesses of his predecessor such as iniquitous court fees and banning books from prisons.

During the year we were pleased to welcome the formation of Rights Info which was established to counter the misinformation regularly pumped out by our media.  It analyses the various cases and stories which make the news and presents the facts.

Snoopers’ charter

The investigatory powers bill is currently in the report stage.  It proposes giving increased powers to the security services to intercept private messages, phone calls, Skype, emails and social media.  People are rightly concerned and fearful of terrorist activity and mostly take the view that as I’ve got nothing to hide, losing a bit of liberty is a price I’m willing to pay for greater security.  There is a trade off here: we give up some liberty and the right to our privacy to enable the security services to invade emails and the like in their hunt for terrorists, drug smugglers and people traffickers.  But we expect our politicians to exert oversight and to ensure the security services are properly accountable.  The revelations by Edward Snowden exploded that and showed that the relevant parliamentary committee had little or no idea of what was happening.  We have also noted the strange dichotomy between the publics’ distrust of politicians on the one hand and trusting them when it comes to intruding into our private lives on the other.

Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher (Viking Penguin) first revealed the inside story of the MI5 which he alleged had burgled its way around London.  More recent books such as Seamus Milne’s The Enemy Within (Verso) revealed the underside of the security services and their (successful) attempts to undermine the miners’ strike and Nick Davies’s Hack Attack (Chatto and Windus) which told the story of the media’s involvement with politicians, senior Metropolitan Police officers and the security services.  All these books, and others, show the importance of strong independent control of what these services are up to.  Unfortunately, the unholy link between some newspaper groups, politicians and the police makes achieving this very difficult.

David Davis MP with Kate Allen, Salisbury CathedralSo although we do not mind the security services penetrating terrorist cells, we might mind them listening in to solicitors discussing their client’s cases,  journalists’ phone calls and bugging human rights groups, all things they have been shown to do.  Liberty is a precious thing and we need to be ever vigilant that their activities are closely monitored and are appropriate.  With the politicians we have today we cannot be sure of this.  One of the few exceptions is David Davis MP (seen here third from left at the Sixth Form Conference at the Cathedral, next to Kate Allen) who has regularly highlighted the dangers of this bill and of the creeping nature of intrusion being planned by the Home Office.

Conclusions

This has been a busy year for us with many achievements.  However, we look forward to next year with some forboding.  The desire to promote economic interests almost at any cost and the near abandonment of overseas human rights issues is a worry.  We want to go on selling arms to highly unstable regimes like the Saudis, seemingly with no concern with how or where they use them.  Claims of ‘quiet diplomacy’ are a sham when you are promoting one of their number onto the UN’s Human Rights Council.  At home, the combination of the ‘snoopers’ charter,’ a desire to end or abolish the Human Rights Act and to curtail the Freedom of Information Act are all steps in the wrong direction.

This has been an exceptionally busy year, as the report notes. We have succeeded in holding major headlining events, around the Magna Carta celebrations, while still carrying on our usual campaigning, and keeping awareness of Amnesty high in the city, all with a relatively small activist base. Our visits to schools have been valuable in this respect too, and thanks are due to all who have helped over the last year to keep us in the public eye and assisted in the success of the achievements noted here. I would conclude by wishing our readers an supporters a happy New Year, and hopes for freedom for those we are supporting.

Andrew Hemming, Chair of the Salisbury group

We continue to be heartened by the warm support we get at signings from people in the Salisbury area.  The support of the Cathedral in this Magna Carta anniversary year has also been particularly valued.

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peter curbishley


 

 

 

 

 

 


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

UPDATE

Further responses and condemnation of this change in the code

British Institute of Human Rights warning