Archive for the ‘“Human rights”’ Category


The Conservatives have had a long-standing dislike of the HRA and a review of it has appeared in its last two or three manifestos. It has not always been so and indeed it was Conservative politicians who were instrumental in setting up the European Convention which preceded the HRA.

The government is making various claims in a bid to justify its desire to amend the act and by inference, to weaken it. Recently we have had claims about alleged vexatious claims against British soldier’s mistreatment of prisoners in conflict areas such as Iraq. They have also, erroneously claimed that the act prevents them tracking potential terrorists.

The various reasons put forward by the government combined with a steady stream of stories in the right wing press suggest deeper reasons at play. The current home secretary, Priti Patel and Michael Gove MP have both been reported as being keen to reintroduce the death penalty although the home secretary has resiled from that claim. Her proposed draconian measures for handling asylum seekers and immigrants however, reveal an illiberal attitude of mind. We have reported on this site, the shameful views of the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, concerning torture about which practice she seemed quite ‘relaxed’.

The HRA has perhaps shaken the establishment more than has been realised. It has led to a shift in power and enabled ordinary people to pursue injustice through the courts. We have seen in the Covid-19 crisis a government which has been reluctant to involve local government, much preferring to award contracts – without tender – to private firms who have shown a dazzling array of ineptitude. It seems to indicate a firm desire to retain the levers of power in Whitehall.  Challenge by private citizens is not welcome. 

The attempt to prorogue parliament and the proposed Internal Market and the Overseas Operations bills all show a government willing to break international treaties if it deems it necessary. We should be extremely concerned if the act gets abolished or its protections seriously watered down.  

 


While the somewhat absurd leaks from the Home Office about wave machines in the Channel, using redundant ferries as holding centres, or sending refugees to Moldova, Morocco – or at enormous cost even to Ascension Island, 4000 miles away – may not be true, these stories do at least give an indication of the mindset of the authorities charged with dealing with a continuing flow of migrants across the Channel to this country.  It seems likely that these proposals were put out to cause alarm, so that when real ones come out, they will be regarded as relatively mild.

Use of the Navy has also been touted: Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme Director, said:

Deploying the Navy to prevent people exercising their right to seek asylum in the UK would be unlawful, reckless and dangerous.  It is wholly legitimate for people to seek asylum in this country – even though relatively few people do – and sadly, for some, these dangerous journeys are the only means available.

Meanwhile, the senior civil servant at the Home Office has stated that “all options are on the table.”  This suggests that either (a) they don’t have a clue what to do or (b) all options are equally valid, so they don’t care.  Ms Patel’s speech to the Conservative Party conference today [4 October 2020] will give a sense of her ideas, but she starts from the assumption that the system is “broken”; it may be that her proposals will take some time to emerge.

The government are believed to be keen to follow the methods employed by recent Australian governments in keeping prospective immigrants in offshore holding camps.  But, as Andonea Jon Dickson explains, “a main function of [the Australian] Operation Sovereign Borders is the interception of boats at sea and their forced return to offshore immigration or their origin.  This conflicts with the Refugee Convention (1951) and Protocol (1967) in a number of ways, not least by denying a right to asylum.

The UK has been removing asylum seekers to France this year as part of a European Union policy that allows one member state to return asylum seekers to another.  When the UK leaves the EU on December 31, however, this policy will no longer apply.  There is nothing yet to suggest France would be willing to continue to accept these asylum seekers.  Lawyers have also recently exposed how the UK has been removing asylum seekers to France illegally without providing an asylum procedure.”

While there are distinctions to be made between refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants (in terms of the threats they face at home), to the general public they will be seen as one group, dangerous or benign according to taste (and, according to a recent YouGov poll 49% of people here have admitted they have little or no sympathy for those crossing the Channel on dangerous boats).

Once again, an inconvenience has been turned into an existential threat.  In 2019, the average rate of asylum applications in the EU was 14 per 100,000 residents.  In the UK it was 5 per 100,000.  So, although, for example, the universality of the English language is a ‘pull factor’ for migrants, it isn’t that significant, and most migrants have a clear view of where it is best for them to aim for.

Dan O’Mahoney, the preposterously titled ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander’ – whose job is to work on “legislative, legal and operational barriers” to migrants – said Border Force is continuing to “crack down on the criminal gangs responsible”.  The total number of migrants crossing the Channel this year is around 7,000 so far (it is reckoned that 84,000 attempts to enter were made in 2015), so the crisis may not be quite as great as suggested.  In any case, putting the blame on the traffickers as procurers is pointless – they may be heartless, but they are not the cause.

Ms Patel may be playing to her gallery, or she may genuinely dislike enterprising Third World migrants, but inhumane policies cannot just be defended on political grounds, as they have a moral context.

Ian Dunt, of politics.co.uk makes the point: 

These proposals are unkind.  They are morally wrong, regardless of their efficacy or legality.  They lack compassion, a basic ethical temperament which it is not fashionable to talk about but forms a fundamental requirement of government decision-making.  2 October 2020

Amnesty International has been working for many years with other organisations, nationally and internationally, in the fields of refugees and asylum seekers.  We campaign for a world where human rights can be enjoyed by everyone, no matter what situation they are in. Amnesty has championed the human rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants for decades.  We campaign to make sure governments honour their shared responsibility to protect the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.  We condemn any policies and practices that undermine the rights of people on the move.


The Overseas Operations Bill risks Britain’s reputation

UPDATED: 29 September

THE OOP was introduced to parliament last week and the controversial element is the introduction of a time limit to prosecutions of British troops who commit crimes while on active service overseas.  A limit of 5 years will be introduced but also, and less reported, a six year limit on soldiers themselves being able to claim against the MoD for things like PTSD or hearing loss [Forces.net 22 September 2020].  The bill seeks to derogate the UK from the European Convention of Human Rights, see the bill itself (pdf).

It must be said straight away that the vast majority of service personnel behave honourably in the service of their country and literally risk their lives in so doing.  Some receive serious injuries from things like IEDs which can result in the loss of limbs or blindness.  The MoD has been culpable of sending troops into theatre with inadequate equipment which has resulted in needless additional injury.

The last few years have seen a series of allegations of ‘vexatious claims’ by legal firms allegedly putting together spurious or exaggerated ones.  One such firm was run by Phil Shiner who’s licence to practice was taken away by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal [Law Society Gazette, 2 February 2017].

Despite this, we should be concerned as a nation if our soldiers are involved in torture or mistreatment of prisoners.  These should always be investigated if only for the reason of why we go to war in the first place which is to promote our notions of justice, the rule of law and treating people decently regardless of race, religion or gender.  We can hardly complain about countries such as Egypt, Iran, most of the Gulf states and China who do practise torture more or less routinely, if we ourselves do not root out such practices ourselves.

An inconvenient fact not it seems noted in our media yet, is that the UK is a signatory of the UN Convention Against Torture which provides an obligation on the UK not to apply statutes of limitation to allegations of torture and has a continuing obligation to investigate them which cannot be time-limited [Redress 18 March 2020].  

THE British government has repeatedly stressed it does not engage in torture but was found to have allowed rendition flights to come through the UK.  Documents were also found after the collapse of Libya which showed the government’s complicity in this practice.  This has led to a case against the former Home Secretary Jack Straw.

Kate Allen has said in response to the bill:

What does it say about the UK’s armed forces to suggest that they need immunity from prosecution for acts of torture and other serious crimes? [Daily Mirror 22 September 2020]

That some – a minority – of our service people have behaved badly is not in dispute.  That some legal cases may have been vexatious is also probably true.  But the overriding considerations are the integrity of the nation and to be seen in the world as an exemplar of human rights and good behaviour.  Apologists say it will still be possible to bring such a case after the period of 5 years has elapsed.  Indeed, the wording of the bill does allow that.  One wonders why in that case is there a need for the bill?  To limit claims against the MoD has been described as ‘devastating’ by a partner in the law firm Hugh James [22 September 2020].  

In a previous post, we drew attention to the Attorney General Suella Braverman’s seemingly relaxed view of the use of torture, an astonishing attitude for the nation’s most senior law officer to have.  Our attitude to this abhorrent practice should be unequivocal.  We do not do it, we do not condone it and if any of our people engage in it, we will investigate and prosecute regardless if five or more years have gone by.

UPDATE: 29 September 2020.  In the above link to our post about the Attorney General, we took at face value the background claimed by Suella Braverman.  These claims have been investigated by the Observer journalist Nick Cohen who has cast doubt on many of them.  He and other journalists have tried to authenticate these various claims of relevant experience and have so far, been unable to do so.  

Just Mercy film

Posted: June 9, 2020 in "Human rights", Film
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We hope to show this film at the Arts Centre in November but it will depend of course on lockdown restrictions being lifted.  It has been discussed in a recent Independent article.   It is particularly apposite at the present time as it highlights the unequal status of black people in the US both with the police and the justice system as a whole.  It also relates to our last post concerning the release of Walter Ogrod after many years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

Good News!

Posted: May 12, 2020 in "Human rights", Iran
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Good news from Iran

In these times of gloom and lockdown, it is good to have some good news.  Many Amnesty people have written on behalf of Kama Foroughi and it is possible that anyone reading this in the Salisbury area has signed a petition for us.  We have just received this letter via Amnesty which we think is worth publishing on this site.

I am writing to say a big thank you.

You may have heard that my 80 year old Dad Kamal Foroughi returned to London in March to see us his family for the first time in nine years – if not I am delighted to bring you the great news. Dad had been released from Evin prison in 2018, and had waited since then to receive his renewed Iranian passport to be allowed legally to leave Iran. The passport arrived this February, at a time when flights were very busy due to coronavirus and Iranian New Year so it took a few more weeks to get Dad home.

Nine years is an extraordinary time to be kept away from family. Dad was taken to Evin prison in early May 2011 – days after the marriage between Prince William and Kate Middleton. Since then Dad has missed the growth of smartphones, the London 2012 Olympics, Andy Murray winning Wimbledon twice, Brexit, England winning the cricket and (more importantly for us) the primary school years of his two granddaughters – both of whom make our family so proud.

Your support gave us comfort and helped Dad return to London. Over 29,000 Amnesty Supporters, wrote Urgent Action letters, signed Amnesty petitions and wrote lovely birthday messages for Dad which were delivered to the Iranian embassy as part of peaceful protests. We are so grateful to you.

More generally, your public advocacy and standing up for human rights is so essential to bring an end to the plight of arbitrarily detained and powerless prisoners from all over the world. Maybe the coronavirus challenges will focus our leaders’ minds and encourage them to release more prisoners around the world to the love and care of their families, particularly where there are significant legal, medical and humanitarian concerns with their detention.

Thank you so much,
Kamran Foroughi

 


Appointment of Sir Keir Starmer is an encouraging development for human rights

In previous posts, we have noted the campaign by some members of the Conservative government and  some parts of the press, against the Human Rights Act and the desire to abolish it.  The election of Sir Keir Starmer as opposition leader is an encouraging development therefore.

Sir Keir Starmer, the new Leader of the Opposition is, famously, a barrister.  He was also, famously, the Director of Public Prosecutions, a man who decided what charges should be brought and against whom. So what should we expect from a party led by someone deeply involved in human rights questions at a time when rights are under enormous pressure, not just globally but also in this country?

Once the coronavirus episode is over and normal(ish) political business returns, one of the first matters to be considered will be the increased power the government has accrued during the emergency, and what to do about it in the future.  The Labour Party has supported the emergency powers for the next 6 months, but will clearly need to review this at an early opportunity. Starmer has not expressed a view as yet, but we know that much of his previous work has been in defence of persons threatened by an overweening state.

Starmer’s career was built on work in the human rights and civil liberties field, notably in cases like the McLibel affair (environmentalists sued by McDonald’s over claims made in a factsheet) and East African and Caribbean death penalty cases.  He was named as QC of the Year in the field of human rights and public law in 2007 by the Chambers & Partners directory and in 2005 he won the Bar Council’s Sydney Elland Goldsmith award for his outstanding contribution to pro bono work in challenging the death penalty throughout the Caribbean and also in Uganda, Kenya and Malawi.  From 2003 to 2008, Starmer was the human rights adviser to the Policing Board in Northern Ireland.

Now we have (more or less) left the EU, extremists within the government may well want to detach us from the European Convention on Human Rights (nothing to do with the EU, remember), as well as rescinding the Human Rights Act.  Starmer has publicly defended the ECHR in debate (see The Lawyer 15/9/15).  In his Blackstone Lecture of 2015, he refuted the arguments against the existing HRA in considerable detail.  He has also written text books on the HRA, so is fully versed in the minutiae.

Martin Kettle has noted the change in outlook on human rights within the legal profession following the Act (see Prospect Magazine Feb 2020), and Starmer’s position at the forefront of this change.  With a liberal judiciary under pressure at the moment, his support may be important in the coming period.  Starmer will face attacks from left and right, but will be used to that.

It is notable that the Daily Mail is already leading the charge against the new man, tarring Starmer as a defender of IRA bombers (but then the Mail’s grasp of what lawyers actually do has always been rather tenuous).  The tabloid press are, of course, hostile to Starmer anyway since his decision as DPP to prosecute them over phone-hacking.

From the left, he has been criticised for – during his time as DPP – not pursuing the prosecution of the police officers accused of killing Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson (although in the latter case, he changed his mind in 2011 when new evidence came to light).  Also, he announced that MI5 and MI6 agents would not face charges of torture and extraordinary rendition during the Iraq War, concluding that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, as James A Smith has pointed out in the Indy (9/1/20).

Sir Keir has given a clue as to his approach by appointing as his chief legal colleague on the front bench, David Lammy, while Lisa Nandy will be at foreign affairs, both of them with good records on human rights issues.  Lammy has been leading in parliament on the Windrush scandal, while Nandy has been strongly supportive of making businesses report on the human rights impacts of their operations.

 


The appointment of Suella Braverman as Attorney General raises further fears for our human rights

The Attorney General is an important legal post in the UK and is responsible for advising the Crown and the Government on legal aspects affecting their decisions.  They are not usually present in Cabinet meetings to preserve a degree of independence although the previous incumbent, Geoffrey Cox, did so because there were frequent matters to do with Brexit to discuss.  The appointment matters therefore and their views and opinions on issues such as human rights are important.

The new person in the role is Suella Braverman and she has strong legal credentials having been a barrister for seven years.  Her views on human rights are worrying however and are worth examinining.  In an article in the Daily Telegraph entitled: Britain is so obsessed with human rights it has forgotten about human duties (16 December, 2015) she sets out her thinking.

  • the mission (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) has failed.  She instances the lack of equality for women in the Islamic world, political authoritarians in Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela
  • the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay means the United States has lost credibility on civil liberties
  • the plight of millions of people belies the noble ambitions of the Universal Declaration.

She goes on to explain that the one reason for this is that Universal Declaration was never a treaty in the formal sense and never became international law.  Another reason is that the rights are ‘described in imprecise, aspirational terms which allow governments to interpret them in any way they see fit’.

And there are:

hundreds of international human rights – rights to work and education, to freedom of expression and religious worship, to non-discrimination, to privacy, to pretty much anything you might think important in a perfect world.  The sheer volume and array of rights imply an all-embracing protection.  This is impossible, because there will always be trade-offs in which some rights are sacrificed to uphold others.

She marries this with an approving comment about Prof. Eric Posner of Chicago who has written a book called Twilight of Human Rights in which he dismisses the value of these rights.  It is clear that Suella Braverman has taken his ideas on board since they crop up frequently in her writings and posts.  For example, the comment above about the sheer volume of rights is a Posner point as is the fact it was never a treaty.  But the significant and chilling example is the issue of torture.

Torture

Posner explains that a poor country has a choice or trade off.  So if the police are torturing its citizens to obtain confessions, then the state can decide to spend its entire budget in eliminating this practice by retraining and monitoring the police’s behaviour.  Then it would have insufficient funds to improve the medical care of its people.

Braverman puts it thus in an echo of Posner’s argument:

In Brazil, there have been several cases of the use of torture by the police in the name of crime prevention.  They justify this by putting a general right to live free from crime and intimidation above their rights and those who are tortured.  To wipe out torture, the government would need to create a robust, well-paid policing and judicial services to guarantee the same results.  The government might argue that this money is better spent on new schools and medical clinics, protecting wider rights to freedom of education and health.  These sorts of value judgements, inherent in the practical application of human rights (whether we agree with them or not), undermine their universality.

We should be horrified that someone who has been appointed to become our new Attorney General, one of the high legal offices of the land, promotes the view that there is some kind of trade-off as far as the use of torture is concerned.  She has clearly swallowed Prof Posner’s arguments without pausing for one moment to think of the moral issues or the fact that torture is neither efficient nor effective in getting to the truth.

The practice was abolished in Britain in the long parliament of 1640.  Yet here we have a barrister, a member of parliament and now a senior law officer, responsible for advising the government and cabinet, that, under some curious reasoning, it might be justifiable because the money might ‘better spent elsewhere’ rather than eliminating it.

Her other main complaint is about the judges.  She was a keen proponent of Brexit and in Conservative Home she says:

Restoring sovereignty to Parliament after Brexit is one of the greatest prizes that awaits us.  But not just from the EU.  As we start this new chapter of our democratic story, our Parliament must retrieve power ceded to another place – the courts.  For too long, the Diceyan notion of parliamentary supremacy has come under threat.  The political has been captured by the legal.  Decisions of an executive, legislative and democratic nature have been assumed by our courts.  Prorogation and the triggering of Article 50 were merely the latest examples of a chronic and steady encroachment by the judges.  Conservative Home 27 January 2020  [Dicey was a Whig jurist and wrote an important book on the British constitution]

Clearly, she and others in government are still smarting from the decision of the Supreme Court not to allow Boris Johnson to prorogue parliament.  In August, Prime Minister advised the Queen to prorogue Parliament from the end of 9 September until 14 October.  The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that this advice, (and the prorogation that followed), was unlawful and of no effect because it had the ‘effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the power of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions’.  Gina Miller has also left her mark.

A review of her comments and articles paints a worrying picture of someone who does not truly value human rights. They Work for You concludes that she consistently voted against laws to promote equality and human rights.  She voted against largely retaining the EU Charter on Fundamental Human Rights for example and for more restrictive regulation of Trade Union activity.

 

 

Cox to lead human rights review

Posted: February 13, 2020 in "Human rights"

Alarm at the news that Geoffrey Cox QC to lead the commission updating human rights law

Geoffrey Cox QC, until today the Attorney General when he was asked to resign by the prime minister, may lead the commission which will ‘update’ human rights laws and reforming the judiciary.  This will be done by the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission of which little is known at present.  A written answer on 7 January 2020 said:

As set out in the Queen’s Speech, the Commission will examine the broader aspects of the constitution in depth and develop proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates. We are carefully considering the composition and focus of the Commission.

I am unable to offer further detail at the moment, as the precise scope of the Commission’s remit and programme has not yet been decided. Further announcements will be made in due course and I would be happy to provide further information at that time.  Earl Howe, Cabinet Office, 7 January 2020

The Human Rights Act has been a target for abolition for quite some time although it did not appear in the last Conservative manifesto in 2019.  David Cameron, when prime minister, referred to the ‘complete mess’ of human rights legislation.  Part of the problem is a belief that British courts and the British system is in some way superior to the European Court and there is anger when rulings went against us.  This despite the many miscarriages of justice which have taken place here.  Indeed, and slightly ironically, the Police and Criminal Evidence act PACE was introduced to try and tackle the various problems that existed.  Interrogations that went on for hours, the absence of a lawyer to represent a suspect, and withholding evidence favourable to their case were typical of miscarriage of justice cases.  PACE altered that and as far as the European Court is concerned, the UK is now one of the ‘good guys’.

It has also been caught up in the general anti-Europe rhetoric which was part of the Brexit debate.

Mr Cox is not a reassuring appointment if it is confirmed.  He is keen for a panel of MPs and Lords interview Supreme Court judges before appointment.  This strikes at the heart of our system where politicians and the judiciary are separate.  One can only imagine the results of a group of politicians appointing or approving judges who are ‘one of us’ or who are described as ‘sound’.

Cox has generally voted against equality and human rights issues in parliament according to TheyWorkforYou Website.  He voted against largely retaining the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in 2018 and in favour of repealing the HRA in 2016.

We will have to wait to see who is to sit on this Commission, what its terms of reference are and who it invites to give evidence before we can come to a judgement on its likely effects.  But past history, statements by leading politicians, manifesto promises and a ceaseless tide of stories anti the act is likely to play out in some way and in all probability, lead to a lessening of rights.  If minor modifications were all that was needed, why set up a Commission?

The Salisbury group will – with others – be keeping an eye on these changes.

Our local MP, Mr John Glen is also recorded by TheyWorkforYou as having generally voted against laws to promote equality and human rights.


If you would like to join the local group you would be most welcome.  The best thing is to keep an eye on this site or Facebook or Twitter and come along to an event which we are running.


Conor Gearty discusses this question in the European Human Rights Law Review

Readers of this site will be familiar with Mr Gearty as we reviewed his book On Fantasy Island a few years ago.  In this article*, Mr Gearty discusses the current state of human rights.

Anyone looking at the current state may conclude that little has improved since the end of the war.  The atrocities committed during the war, most notably the holocaust, although millions also died in Soviet Russia during the Stalin era, led to the formation of the UN and ultimately the signing of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  There was a strong hope at the time of ‘never again’.

Currently, we have terrible events in Myanmar with the killing and driving out of Rohingyas.  Syria has seen massive destruction and civil war and the use of chemical weapons.  The Uighur people in China are being persecuted for their faith and about one million are being forcibly ‘re-educated’.  We have seen genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda.  The treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis is disgraceful.  All these and many more are carried on with little sign of realistic intervention by the UN.  It is as though the Declaration was never agreed all those years ago.

Reasons

Conor Gearty discusses some of the reasons for this decline in human rights around the world.  His first argument is that the responsibility was placed on governments.  It was no doubt assumed at the time that governments could be relied on to be the police so to speak.  Experience has shown that it is governments which are the problem and who are all too keen to deny the human rights of their citizens.  Several of the Gulf states are prime examples of denial of basic liberties and the rule of law.  Abuses and the use of torture are routine.

The problem with the reliance on states is the UN principle of non-interference in the affairs of states.  So acting through them, but being inhibited from interfering with them, means the UN is largely neutered when it wants to take action.  He also makes the point that non-state actors are not controlled by human rights considerations.  He instances the World Bank and IMF which both impose conditions on state’s finances which in turn can leave them to handle the human rights consequences.

We can add to this the rise in corporate power.  There are many corporate actors now which are bigger than many of the states they operate in.  The large resource companies and banks are able to act with impunity in many countries.  They can extract wealth corruptly with ease and deny the host country the proceeds.  The UK is a major centre for this corruption and Transparency International has published a number of reports giving the details.  Recently, there has been a series of revelations concerning Isabel dos Santos alleged looting of Angola.  She was helped in this activity – which involved complex entities and transactions in several countries – by one of the UK’s big four accountancy firms PwC.  It is difficult for countries stricken by this plunder of wealth to improve the well being and human rights of its citizens while vast sums are stolen from them.  But human rights only appear in the background and the corporate and City firms are not a direct part of the UN Declaration.

Austerity is something which has hit the poorest the hardest.  Gearty argues that this has led some to argue that human rights are no longer ‘fit for purpose’.  Many of these factors are economic in nature and seem outside the remit of human rights laws – at least directly.

9/11

Another factor which has acted against the interests of human rights he argues and left many organisations ‘stuck of the wrong’ side were the attacks on the Twin Towers and elsewhere in America by al Qaeda.  America launched its ‘war on terror’ and a whole series of human rights infringements followed.  The development of black sites and Guantanamo Bay enabled the US to hold large numbers of people incommunicado and without due process and to institute regimes of torture [warning: the pictures are distressing].  This left many human rights organisations seemingly defending the rights of terrorists.  Terrorism has never been defined he argues.  Guantanamo Bay is still a blight on the politics of the USA: out of the 780 held there and subjected to harsh treatment over several years, 731 were released without trial (source: Human Rights Watch).

Additionally, in the UK, we have seen a concerted press campaign to argue that human rights are being used to defend criminals, terrorists and ‘citizens of nowhere’ as he terms them.  They are not for ordinary people but for the ‘unworthy’ is the message increasingly portrayed.

This has enabled the current Conservative government to argue for the Human Rights Act to be abolished although a number of years have passed since David Cameron first promised to do so.  It has never been clear what it is that the Conservatives want repealed or removed from the HRA, a question we asked the Salisbury MP Mr John Glen but without a clear answer.  This year (2020) we may get to find out.

There is clear evidence that commercial and trading considerations outweigh human rights.  This is another example of states – who should be the guardians – are in fact cheerleaders for arms firms.  We have highlighted on this site the UK’s role in selling arms to the Saudi government to carry out its hideous destruction of Yemen.  The government also supports the annual DSEI arms fair and goes to great pains to exclude human rights representatives from attending.  There is little doubt that to ensure the success of post Brexit Britain, little regard will be given to human rights in the rush to secure trade agreements around the world.  In our last post, we highlighted a Salisbury firm which is alleged to sell spyware equipment to enable regimes with poor human rights records to penetrate the phones, emails and computers of those it does not like.

Conclusions

The basic issue is that with governments the custodian of human rights, the protection of basic rights would always be on shaky ground if governments are themselves not committed to upholding them.  Nowhere is this more relevant than with the plight of refugees: it being governments which place them in a perilous position in the first place and then other governments which close their borders and fail to help them.

Politicians are more concerned with securing and holding on to power that on maintaining the rights of its citizens.  The right wing press and some politicians have portrayed these rights as somehow the preserve of criminals, terrorists and the like who use them to escape justice.  So abolishing the act cannot come soon enough for them.

Another crucial factor is the increasing pressure of external factors which impinge on people’s rights.  These are the drivers and it is rights which suffer at the end.  Responses to these pressures have led several leaders to act in denial of human rights.

New threats, such as inequality, climate change, and the replacement of manual work by AI and machines, mean those who fear that the old social contract is no longer in their interests are making their voices heard.  They say, “these are our jobs”, “this is our land”, “our community has certain shared values”, and “people like us are the only real citizens”.  These sentiments, echoing around the presidency of Donald Trump or during Brexit, are in direct opposition to human rights.

States don’t much like rights – they’re an annoyance or an embarrassment.  The survival, and flourishing, of human rights requires people, the citizenry, the populace, to say that these rights are important and to demand that their governments observe them.  And by that same logic, the people can sink them, too. In the end it is us, we – however we define that problematic term – who will make the difference between the failure or success of human rights, whatever the external and internal threats we face.  The Conversation, October 23 2018

If we accept that a reliance on governments to be the custodian of our rights, then their future is unlikely to be positive.  As pressures build, whether from economic, climate or AI, then the rights of its citizens will be the first to go.  These arguments point to viewing human rights in a more nuanced way.  Rights are now influenced by a range of factors beyond straightforward considerations of what the state and judiciary do.  The City of London for example, plays a key role internationally in helping move vast quantities of wealth out of the reach of governments thus making improving the living standards of its citizens harder if not impossible for them to achieve.

The central problem seems that by placing the protection of human rights entirely in a legal setting, it risks becoming bound up in a too narrow frame of reference.  There needs to be a shift in thinking away from the state and the law and towards more ethical considerations.  We need to move towards a society structured around the well-being of individuals not one where people have to fit in with the demands of the state.  Since the state only has partial power in any particular country, citizens are at the mercy of non-state organisations, international companies, the climate, and ever changing technology.  Recent events in China, show that even with the enormous power of the communist party, it became the victim of a virus.  The sum of these forces frequently (nearly always in fact) act against the rights and well-being and rights of its citizens.

 

*Is the Human Rights Era Drawing to a Close?  European Human Rights Law Review, Issue 5, 2017

 

 

 

 


Firm based in Porton accused of selling spy equipment to harsh regimes

Considerable interest has been aroused in the last month or so concerning the use of Huawei technology to provide 5G connectivity in the UK.  Other countries in the ‘Five Eyes’ group – USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – will not use this equipment because of fears of intrusion by the Chinese state.  The worry is that the Chinese will gain a backdoor entry into our messages, emails and the like thus compromising our security.  For weeks, the issue has been discussed and could well have repercussions as far as our relationship with the Americans is concerned.

It was not that long ago that the UK and USA were revealed to be invading people’s messages on an industrial scale via the Prism and Tempora programmes.  21 petabytes of data are downloaded a day and there is huge process involved in sifting and selecting the messages which have been intercepted.  It therefore seems inconsistent to be worrying about Chinese intrusion when our own governments are heavily involved in doing the same thing.  The difference is one is our own people and the others are Chinese.  It is claimed that only metadata is collected by GCHQ.

The UK government sponsors an exhibition of security equipment at an event called Security and Policing held at Farnborough.  It is a similar exhibition to DSEI which takes place in London – also supported by the UK government – where arms firms exhibit their wares.  The guest list of both events reveal a range of authoritarian regimes as customers keen to get access to weapons and security equipment with which to maintain their hold on power.  Huawei has achieved considerable publicity for something they claim does not and will not happen while, by contrast, surveillance which is happening receives almost no coverage at all.

What do we mean by … ?

Of course, a lot depends on what we mean by ‘police’ and ‘security’.  Police forces around the world need equipment with which to tackle organised crime, drug smuggling, people trafficking and the like.  Countries might legitimately need equipment to intercept and interdict attempts to commit terrorist offences or attack their citizens.  The difference occurs when this equipment is used to silence critics of the regime, arrest and mistreat them or cause them to disappear.  If people who are peacefully protesting, seeking democracy, acting as human rights defenders or pursuing human rights, have their communications, emails and computers intercepted and compromised using UK manufactured kit then it can be argued this is wrong.  The government goes to great lengths to keep this activity confidential running the only closed event in the country, suggesting it knows that it is potentially damaging.  A member of the parliamentary Arms Export Committee, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, was barred from entering the 2019 exhibition which he said was deeply alarming.

Meanwhile, here in Salisbury …

In the village of Porton, just outside Salisbury – the same village as in Porton Down – is a firm, Gamma TSE which makes this equipment Finfisher and the aptly called Finspy.  What it does was hard to discover exactly but thanks to Wikileaks, details of its equipment are available for all to see.  A pdf which provides comprehensive details of the firm’s spying capabilities to covertly extract data from a computer system, bypass password protection and obtain information from a bank are all described in great detail.  Examples of its extensive interception capabilities are described in information sheets:

The FinIntrusion Kit was used to break the WPA encryption of a Target’s home Wireless network and then monitor his Webmail (Gmail, Yahoo, …) and Social Network (Facebook, MySpace, …) credentials, which enabled the investigators to remotely monitor these accounts from Headquarters without the need to be close to the Target.

Several customers used the FinIntrusion Kit to successfully compromise the security of networks and computer systems for offensive and defensive purposes using various Tools and Techniques.

The password ‘sniffer’ is described thus:

LAN/WLAN Active Password Sniffer
Captures even SSL-encrypted data like Webmail, Video Portals, Online-Banking and more.

It’s ability to gain access remotely:

Usage Example 1: Covert Operation
A source in an Organized Crime Group (OCG) was given a FinUSB Dongle that secretly extracted Account Credentials of Web and Email accounts and Microsoft Office documents from the Target Systems, while the OCG used the USB device to exchange regular files like Music, Video and Office Documents.

After returning the USB device to Headquarters the gathered data could be decrypted, analysed and used to constantly monitor the group remotely.

A worrying feature is the ability of Finspy to operate around the world:

FinSpy has been proven successful in operations around the world for many years, and valuable intelligence has been gathered about Target Individuals and Organizations.
When FinSpy is installed on a computer system it can be remotely controlled and accessed as soon as it is connected to the internet/network, no matter where in the world the Target System is based.  [our italics]

Since many dissidents or people in opposition to a particular regime have fled to Europe including the UK, it leaves open the question of whether this equipment is being used to monitor people now living in the UK.  This was a point made by Privacy International.

The firm also offers training and the list of courses tell their own chilling story:

Sample Course Subjects

· Profiling of Target Websites and Persons

· Tracing anonymous Emails

· Remote access to Webmail Accounts

· Security Assessment of Web-Servers & Web-Services

· Practical Software Exploitation

· Wireless IT Intrusion (WLAN/802.11 and Bluetooth)

· Attacks on critical Infrastructures

· Sniffing Data and User Credentials of Networks

· Monitoring Hot-Spots, Internet Cafés and Hotel Networks

· Intercepting and Recording Calls (VoIP and DECT)

· Cracking Password Hashes

The literature refers several times to ‘organised crime groups’ and this equipment is likely to be of value to police forces acting to stop such activity in their country.  The problem is that countries like Bahrain are likely to use these methods against democracy and human rights campaigners.

Implications

The law firm Leigh Day in London launched a claim in 2019 on behalf of four Bahraini nationals who had been targeted using information obtained using this technology.  Privacy International identified Gamma as having sold this technology to Bahrain:

In 2012, Citizen Lab, a think-tank operating out of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, came across evidence suggesting that Gamma International, a multinational technology corporation with offices across the world, sold a form of malware called FinFisher to Bahrain. Bahraini activists, amongst others, were seriously concerned: FinFisher gives its operator complete access to a target’s computer and mobile phone. That kind of technology in the hands of a state like Bahrain, with its record of human rights abuse, would put at risk a great many people’s lives.

Gamma emphatically denied selling this kit to Bahrain.  However, documents subsequently discovered provided evidence that they had already done so.   The cruel treatment of these elderly individuals is described in an Amnesty report and includes the denial of medical treatment and medication.  A solicitor acting for Gamma says there is no evidence of the firm being involved in human rights abuses and they will defend the claim being made against them.

Gamma are not the only firm selling this equipment.  The UK government has been, and is planning to again, to run the secretive exhibition keeping close control over who attends and keeping anyone away who might question its ethics.  The UK government has made no comment on the actions of the Bahraini authorities, or the allegations of Gamma’s alleged involvement.  If the surveillance by the Bahraini authorities is carried out on computers located within the UK, it is unlawful.

It appears to be a worrying sign of increasing indifference by the UK government of the effects on ordinary people living under oppressive regimes who suffer from the use of arms and surveillance equipment supplied by firms based here in the Britain.  It is inconceivable that GCHQ is unaware of what this firm is doing and its client list around the world which includes several of these regimes.  This indifference is damaging to our reputation and parliamentarians should be asking searching questions of the minister.  The British government has many relationships with the Bahraini royal family.  The Queen and other members of the royal household meet quite regularly.  Today, (10 February 2020) it was reported that Liam Fox met the Bahraini crown prince to lobby on behalf of Petrofac, the owner of which is a major Conservative party donor (£800,000).  It seems quite clear that trade considerations trump human rights issues in government thinking.

Sources:  Amnesty International; Campaign Against the Arms Trade; Citizen’s Lab (Canada); WikiLeaks; Gamma; VICE; the Guardian; Privacy International


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