Posts Tagged ‘Brexit’


Removal of the Charter of Fundamental rights delayed – for now

News this week that the government has delayed removing the European Charter of Fundamental Rights from the Brexit bill is to be welcomed.  Theresa May as Home Secretary and Chris Grayling when he was Justice Secretary both pledged to do this and a commitment has been a feature of the Conservative manifesto for some time.  There is a strong desire to curb the role of European law in this country and ‘bringing back our sovereignty’ was a familiar claim in the Referendum debate.

The Charter has played an important role in improving equality, privacy and children’s rights.  Opposition to it is based on an exaggerated view of the degree of interference by the European court into the law of this country when in fact it has been slight.

We have argued for some time now that the government is going to have its hands full dealing with Brexit and will not want to be involved in protracted commons time trying to wrestle through this aspect of the bill.  The Lords are likely to reject it anyway.

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The killing goes on

The news yesterday that the Metropolitan Police are looking into evidence of war crimes by the Saudis in the Yemen is encouraging.  It comes at a time when the prime minister, Theresa May is touring the middle East, including Saudi Arabia, in an effort to promote trade.  She is not alone as Liam Fox is in the Philippines with president Duterte and Mr Hammond is in India.   Mr Fox has received widespread condemnation having spoken of this country’s ‘shared values’ with a regime which has extra-judicially killed around 7,000 of its citizens as part of a war on drugs.

There has been a lot happening this week with the awful news of possible use of Sarin nerve agent in Syria allegedly by the Syrian government.

Starting with Yemen: the British government has authorised £3.2bn or arms sales to the Saudis a fair proportion of which have been used to bomb schools, hospitals and wedding ceremonies in Yemen.  The result has been a humanitarian disaster with nearly 10,000 killed and a million displaced.  RAF personnel are involved in the control room of the coalition although their direct involvement in the bombing is denied.  The Campaign Against the Arms Trade is currently pursuing a case against the government.

One would think that as we are selling arms to the Saudis to enable to continue the carnage in Yemen, that our politicians would be a circumspect in criticising others.  Yet both the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Theresa May were voluble in criticising Bashar Al-Assad for the terrible events in Syria seemingly oblivious to our own activities in Yemen.

Teresa May

The activities of the prime minister, the foreign secretary and the secretary for international trade have all been widely criticised by a wide range of commentators and organisations.  It is becoming increasingly clear that to promote the idea of a ‘Global Britain’ we are going to have to deal with a wide range of unsavoury regimes.  This means that any vestige of an ‘ethical foreign policy’ is long dead.  The emphasis is now on business with any country and few questions are asked about their human rights.

To take Saudi as an example.  In addition to its activities in Yemen, it is an autocratic regime, torture is routine, its treatment of minorities and women is deplorable and it executes people in public after highly dubious trials.  But to our government none of this matters and getting them to buy more arms and list their oil company, Aramco, on the London Stock Exchange are the real prizes.

These activities go to the heart of what we are as a nation.  The European Union, for all its faults and shortcomings, is a union of countries which believe in the rule of law, democracy and liberal values.  We want to leave this union and no sooner have we sent in the letter triggering our departure, than four of our senior politicians dash off to dubious regimes grubbing around for any deal they can get.  It is deeply shaming and added to which, they want to come out of the European Convention of Human Rights, the convention we were so instrumental in setting up.

It has quickly become clear that securing trade deals is now paramount, with no questions asked.  In defence of our turning a blind eye to the Saudi regime’s lack of human rights, the prime minister says the state is crucial in saving British lives by providing valuable intelligence information, an assertion impossible to prove and extremely convenient.  The abandonment of our British values is much lamented.  Paradoxically, one of the driving forces for leaving the EU was the desire to reassert British values.  The decision to leave seems to mean that we shall have to dump them quickly to enable us to trade with a range of disreputable regimes.

Economically it makes little sense as the amount of trade with these regimes is tiny in comparison to the EU.  From the moral point of view, it lowers our standing in the world and reduces our influence.  It sets a poor example to other countries wishing to promote their arms sales.


We would welcome anyone in the Salisbury area wishing to join us in our campaigns for better human rights.  The best thing is to come to one of our events and make yourself known.  Look on this site, on Twitter or Facebook for details of events.  We look forward to meeting you.


Government plans to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights

The Conservative government has long disliked the European Convention and is now proposing to put withdrawal in the next manifesto.  This will be a serious mistake and will affect the human rights of many individuals in the UK.  It will also send a message to many other countries around the world whose record on human rights leaves a lot to be desired.

Theresa May MP. Picture: ibtimes

One of the problems with discussing this issue is that it is clouded by a programme of disinformation by the tabloid press.  Being a European creation it is damned by association.  It is also, in their eyes, a serious threat because it gives people some rights concerning privacy.  Since large parts of the British press are concerned with the private lives of celebrities and profit from such stories (which to be fair have an avid readership), anything which inhibits their ability to publish such material is going to harm profits.  There has thus been a continuous series of stories which rubbish the Human Rights Act and the European Convention (ECHR).  Small wonder therefore that politicians follow this line and brave it is for those few who stand up for the Act.

Theresa May has a particular animus against it and is famous for her fatuous remark about someone not being deported because of a cat.  “I’m not making this up” she famously said: only she was.  The person involved was a Bolivian who wasn’t an illegal immigrant anyway but was a student who had overstayed his visa.  At the tribunal and later at appeal, part of the evidence for his right to stay, was his relationship with a British woman, various other domestic matters, and their ownership of a cat.

A more serious case which caused Mrs May angst whilst at the Home Office was the case of Abu Qatada.  The Home Office spent many years trying to deport him and the HRA was blamed by her and the right wing media for being unable to do so.  In simple terms, he could not be deported because either he – or the witnesses against him – would be tortured by the Jordanian authorities.  He was eventually deported following diplomatic negotiations which led to Jordan agreeing to renounce torture.  It was never really explained during all the months of dispute about the need to deport him, why he was never put on trial here.

In a speech in April last year Theresa May (then Home Secretary) set out her reasons for wishing to depart from the ECHR:

[…] The ECHR can bind the hands of Parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals – and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights. So regardless of the EU referendum, my view is this. If we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court. (26 April 2016)

Almost every part of this paragraph is nonsense but one element is ‘[it] does nothing to change the attitude of governments like Russia’s’.  We have just seen the brutal activities of Russian forces in action in Syria and prior to that, in Ukraine and Chechnya.  Human rights in Russia are at a low ebb and the murder of opposition leaders and journalists a fairly frequent occurrence.  But Russia has been subject to the ECtHR for some years and something like half their judgements are against Russia, Turkey, Romania and Ukraine.  It is, in a small way, a civilising influence.  It has had an effect on their activities.

On the other hand there has been a miniscule number of judgements against the UK – 10 in 2012 for example.  Indeed if one looks at the statistics, between 1959 and 2015 there have been 525 judgements concerning the UK of which 305 decided that there was at least one violation.  That is 305 over a period of 56 years.  From all the sturm and drang in the media you would imagine it was at least ten times greater.

The chief worry is that if we – one of the founders of the European Court – pull out it will give the Russians the perfect excuse to do so as well.  One of the lawyers acting for the survivors of the Beslan massacre in Russia said:

It would be and excuse for our government to say we don’t want it either.  Putin would point at the UK straight away.  It would be a catastrophe.  [the UK] has to understand; we all live in the same world and we all have impact on one another.  (quoted in A Magna Carta for all Humanity by Francesca Klug, Routledge, 2015, p193)

At the end of the extract from Theresa May’s speech she goes on to say ‘if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the  EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court.’   But what laws do we want to reform?  We still wait after more than five years for sight of the British Bill of Rights although it is still promised.

There are two aspects to the proposed withdrawal: internal and external.  Internally, it will reduce the rights of individuals in their claims against the state.  People like the Hillsborough survivors would never have succeeded in their quest for justice without article 2.  The parents of the Deepcut shooting would never have received justice without the ECHR.  On that subject, Theresa May also wants to remove the armed services from the act, a view echoed by the local MP for Devizes.

Behind all this anti-ECtHR rhetoric, are the assumptions that all EU rulings are wrong and that we have a superior and infallible legal system.  We do indeed enjoy a very good system – witness the low number of rulings against us by the European Court – but it is not perfect and judges have shown themselves to be too keen on supporting the establishment.  There is also the issue of sovereignty and a belief that it is only our parliament who should decide our laws.  The problem here is the weakness of parliament in challenging the executive.

Externally, it will send a harmful message to countries like Russia and Turkey where human rights are fragile.  It is astonishing to recall that it was a conservative, Sir Winston Churchill who was instrumental in forming the Convention.  Yet now it is the same conservatives who want to abolish it because, now and again, we fall foul of it and have to change our procedures or right a wrong.

Coming out of the European Convention would be a serious error and a backward step.  Our influence in the world would be diminished.  As a result of Brexit, we will be desperate to secure trade deals with whoever we can.  Such limited concerns as we do have for human rights will all but disappear in the rush to sign a deal.  Witness our activities in the Yemen where we are more concerned with selling £3bn of arms than we are with the results of the bombing.   In the UK, the ability of ordinary people to uphold their rights in every day situations will be diminished.


The local group hopes to campaign in favour of the Human Rights Act and related issues as when we get some details from government.  If you believe these matters are important, as we do, both for people’s rights in this country and our influence overseas, you would be welcome to join us.  Details will be here and on twitter and Facebook

 


Prime minister’s trip to Bahrain gives a hint to what will happen to human rights after Brexit

Picture: Express

The prime minister, Theresa May, is on an official to Bahrain amid controversy about the poor state of human rights in the kingdom.  It is really quite difficult to grasp quite what the Prime Minister means when she says the ‘UK must not turn our back on the human rights abuses of foreign countries’ as she prepares to sign various trade deals which does precisely that.  There is a growing hint of riddle like statements from her including the meaningless ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

There now seems to be a desperate urge to secure trade deals ahead of our departure from the EU and the Gulf states are fertile ground.  She is quoted in the Guardian (5 December 2016)

There will be some people in the UK who say we shouldn’t seek stronger trade and security ties with these countries because of their record on human rights.  But we don’t uphold our values and human rights by turning our back on this issue.  We achieve far more by stepping up, engaging with these countries and working with them.

So the argument is that Bahrain has a questionable human rights record and that by working with them, and doing business, we can exert some kind of influence to encourage them to stop torturing or otherwise mistreating their people.  Since we have been trading their for some time, we would expect that the country would be slowly improving as a result of our influence.  The problem is that it isn’t.  As Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have said:

Bahrain’s 2016 “reform” agenda has consisted of an assault on core elements of civil society and jailing or deporting government critics.  Last month, Amnesty International accused UK Ministers of acting like “overexcited cheerleaders for Bahrain’s woefully inadequate reforms.”

On December 4, Human Rights Watch and others wrote to Prime Minister May to complain about the British government’s ‘abject failure to exert any positive influence’ in Bahrain.  We didn’t call on the UK to end trade or security ties, but rather to use the UK’s influence to help put a stop to an orchestrated attack on rights that has badly undermined any prospect of the reform that the UK claims to support.

What exactly “working with” Bahrain to “encourage and support” reform amounts to, remains to be seen.  But one thing is clear – human rights will not be at the center of the UK’s relationship with Bahrain.

This is especially worrying in the context of the post Brexit world.  The UK will be in a tough position trying to develop trade outside the EU.  We will not be in a position to exert any kind of influence on countries like Bahrain if we want to continue to sell them weapons.  There will be lip service of course and meaningless phrases from the prime minister and other ministers to assure us that persuasion has been applied to improve human rights.  The reality is we will have to accept what’s on offer and be thankful for it.  In the context of the Gulf states for example, we export more to them than to China, a situation unlikely to change anytime soon.

Ministers cannot quite bring themselves to say that in reality, there is little they can do and often little they want to do.  We must remember also the ‘revolving door’ through which ministers, senior civil servants and top military brass, pass to secure lucrative directorships with the very companies doing the deals in countries like Bahrain.  There is little incentive to upset the apple cart.

See also College of Policing.


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A senior judge at the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has concluded that powers letting police and public bodies grant themselves access to people’s communications data with no external oversight or suspicion of serious criminality breach human rights law.

It is difficult to generate much interest among the public to the proposals by the government – drafted by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary – to introduce the Investigatory Powers Bill.  A few weeks ago, the country voted against staying in Europe which was interpreted by many as a protest against government and the governing class who were seen as out of touch and indifferent to their plight.  There were other matters such as immigration and the EU itself, but it was a cry by the ‘left behinds’ who are finding life, jobs and housing an increasing trial.

Yet they seem relaxed at giving the government yet more powers to pry into their lives.  Of course it is presented as a fight against terrorism and that these powers are needed to fight this ever present menace.  But, in addition to the police and security services, local councils and various government agencies such as the Food Standard Agency will also enjoy these rights.  It is hard to see how the FSA can be dealing with serious crime.  And are there half a million serious crimes a year?  That is the number of requests.

The previous act Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act [DRIPA] was introduced in a desperate hurry by Theresa May because of a previous ruling by the European Court.  This meant that there was an urgent need to introduce legislation to legitimise the high level of interception that was taking place without proper oversight.  Hardly any time was allowed for parliamentary debate.

The new law will go further and the CJEU has fired a warning shot concerning the breach of liberties.  Ah you might say, ‘aren’t we about to leave the EU so we can give two fingers to them.’  The problem is that the EU will want to ensure that we are protecting fundamental rights when the come to negotiate with us as an external partner.

The new PM is not known as a libertarian and this promises to be an interesting struggle.  We do not yet know whether the new Home Secretary will simply trot along behind what the PM left her.  So far the public has remained relaxed having bought the line that this all part of the battle against terrorism.  One day however, one or other of the tabloids might wake up and have a go in which case the mood will change quickly.

 

Souces; Guardian; Privacy International; Liberty; Open Rights Group

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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.

 


Human rights will be diminished if we leave Europe

Human rights have not directly figured much in the vexed debate about whether to remain or leave the European Union.  The arguments seem to have settled on immigration, which has become a toxic topic, with the Brexiters claiming that a leave vote will enable us to regain control of our borders.  The Conservative government has promised to repeal the Human Rights Act but progress has been slow so far.  Reporting on the many issues has been poor with the main focus on the scrapping between the Tory party factions rather than on a measured debate.

The crucial question on how our rights will be affected after a vote to leave – if that should happen on Friday – has received little coverage.  Partly this is because of the complexity of the subject and also detailed discussions of legal judgements does not make for racy copy.  As ever, Rights Info has done an excellent job of discussing the issues with a link through to the Independent newspaper (now only online) which has also done a detailed analysis.

Despite its faults, the European Convention, which in turn led to the Human Rights Act, has been of considerable benefit to ordinary people.  For many this will come as a surprise and for readers of the right wing press in the UK, a statement at variance to the facts as they know them.  And this has been a large part of the problem: a deliberate and sustained attack on the act which has included misreporting, non-reporting and the running of scare stories many of which have no foundation in fact.  For readers of the Daily Mail in particular but also the Sun, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express, they are treated to lurid stories of terrorists going free, criminals living the high-life in prison and murderers demanding pornography as their ‘human right’ (they didn’t).

Why the right wing media should be so hostile to the act (as opposed to airing proper criticism of it) is discussed by Francesca Klug in her book A Magna Carta for all Humanity (Routledge, 2015).

As the late, great former Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham put it: there is ‘inherent in the whole of the ECHR … a search for balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the wider society.’  For the press to mention this inherent approach would not only spoil a good story, it could draw attention to an inconvenient truth: that Article 10 ECHR, the right to free expression, explicitly states that free speech comes with ‘duties and responsibilities’.  This is not a very popular statement with many journalists.  But, I suppose – with notable exceptions – the press is hardly alone in thinking that responsibilities apply to everyone but themselves.  (p265)

She goes on to explain that there was little legal remedy against press intrusion before the act was passed.  Common law provided no real protection.  An example was Gordon Kaye, the star of the TV series Allo, Allo who was recovering in hospital after a car accident.  Two Sunday Sport journalists entered his hospital room and interviewed and photographed him.  In view of his medical state it is unlikely he knew what was happening.  Under existing English law he had no redress.

Brexiters like to portray English law as some kind of noble construct which has been diminished by Europe and that by leaving, we will be able to get rid of all this interference by ‘unelected European judges’ and get back to the way we were.  Europe is presented in purely negative terms and acting to diminish our rights.  British law is indeed a fine system in many respects, but without the HRA we would never have had the investigation into the activities of the press and phone hacking; no Leveson enquiry and the Murdochs (father and son) being asked to come before a select committee.

The benefits of the act to ordinary people in their struggles for justice against the police or public authorities are seldom mentioned.  The use by the media themselves to defend their sources or to prevent unjust interference by the police or security services is likewise rarely mentioned.  The rights ordinary people enjoy have almost in every case been achieved after a struggle and the current government is keen to erode these rights still further.  Access to the courts and the availability of legal aid has been seriously curtailed; further legislation to diminish the – already limited – rights of trades unions is planned, and the Snooper’s Charter is well on its way to becoming law.

The idea therefore that we will be better protected if we leave is not supported by the evidence.  If we leave Europe and the process begins to abolish the Human Rights Act (which our MP, Mr John Glen is keen to do) and other treaties, it will only result in diminished rights for the ordinary people of this country.


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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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