Posts Tagged ‘HRA’


Are human rights more under threat now than ever?

In this blog we look at the current state of human rights.  We discuss some of the grim examples around the world and the influence of the arms trade and the continuing strength of slavery.  We also look at climate change and how that is impacting on human rights together with new technologies and the activities of corporations.  


The future of human rights around the world looks increasingly bleak.  The gradual shift in power eastwards is just one of the slow drip of factors changing the landscape.  We have also seen the rise in nationalism and far right organisations in Europe with their anti-immigrant mindset.  There are a large and growing number of authoritarian governments including China, Turkey, Russia, Oman, Bahrain and many others.

In the Middle East, nation after nation is ignoring the rights of its citizens.  Executions after cursory trials, the use of torture, disappearances and the denial of free speech and freedom of the press are common throughout the area.  The promise of the Arab Spring has come to naught.  The monarchies and dictators quickly regained power largely because the grass roots uprisings could not organise or find a voice.  In Egypt for example, the protests were violently put down and all that has happened is one dictator has been replaced by another.

Major affronts to the cause of human rights have occurred in Burma with the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people.  This with a country led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and in whom so much hope was placed.  The hatred of Rohingya minority is so deep that it has led to these terrible events.  See also a talk on this subject given in Southampton.

China’s treatment of the Uighurs has also caused considerable alarm.  Around one million are detained in various camps for ‘re-education’.  This allegation came to light in 2018 and is denied by the Chinese authorities.  In August of that year, a UN committee heard that up to one million Uighur Muslims and other Muslim groups could be detained in the western Xinjiang region.  At the same time, there’s growing evidence of oppressive surveillance against people living in Xinjiang.

It seems a long time since the optimism of the UN Declaration of Human Rights agreed in 1948.  It was declared at the time as a ‘milestone document’ and in many respects it was.  It set down in 30 articles how human beings were to be treated.  The motivation was the horrific events of the second world war and in particular, the systematic murder of Jewish people in Europe.  There was a clear sense of never again should these things be allowed to happen.  Significantly, it was agreed by a wide range of countries and it led ultimately to the European Convention and the Human Rights Act in the UK.   The word ‘genocide’ was created at this time.

Human Rights tableau, France.  Photo: Salisbury Amnesty

Unfortunately, declarations and other fine words matter little if they are ignored in practice.  To take one article, article 5 on the prohibition of torture.  According to an Amnesty report in 2015, 122 countries in the world still use this practice, often routinely.

Another example is slavery, prohibited under article 4 of the UHDHR.  According to Antislavery the practice is live and well and takes many forms including selling women and girls into prostitution, forced marriage and bonded labour.  Many people in the UK believe that slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century with the banning of the triangular trade and do not realise that it is greater today than it was then.

So although the articles of the Declaration set out how states should behave and it is indeed true that many countries adhere to these principles, it is also true that a significant number of countries do not and it could argued that the situation is getting worse and not better.

It is also depressing to note that a number of UK MPs are lukewarm over the issue of human rights in this country.  The website They Work for You reveals that the new prime minister Boris Johnson, the new home secretary Priti Patel and our own MP John Glen are all listed as ‘generally voting against equality and human rights.’

Causes

One significant factor in the decline in human rights is the arms trade.  A key factor here is that the top sellers of arms to the world are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council namely, Russia, China, USA, France and the UK.  Two other prominent arms exporting countries are Israel and Germany.  One would expect that holding such an exalted position in the UN – as a result of being on the winning side of WW2 – would result in responsible behaviour and the setting of an example to the rest of the world.  The opposite is the case and as we look at conflicts and wars around the world, weapons made by or brokered by these nations are usually to be found.  In all the wars, it is ordinary people, women and children who suffer either from wounds, lost limbs or sight, lost education or displacement to join the 25.4 million or so who live in camps outside their own country (UNHCR figures).

Human rights possess inherent preventive power. The international human rights system was created in response to conflict to help prevent future conflict.  It has a special role in averting the escalation of violence.  Just as war, conflicts and insecurity increase the incidence of human rights violations, societies that respect human rights experience less violence and insecurity: they are more resilient, and they are more inclusive.  The Secretary-General has acknowledged this, identifying human rights as the “critical foundation for sustaining peace”

UN Annual Appeal 2019

A vivid current example is Yemen.  Not only do we supply weapons to the Saudis who use them to bomb a wide range of civilian targets, but we also supply RAF personnel to advise them.  This was a secret spilled by a Saudi prince at a London conference about 2 years ago much to the embarrassment of HMG.  What is astonishing is that the former Foreign Secretary travelled around the middle east seeking to promote peace.  Yemen is all but wrecked and our arms companies have played a significant part in the destruction.

The Court of Appeal has recently ruled against the government in the case of Yemen in a case brought by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.  The government is to appeal this judgement.  Recently, missile parts made in Brighton have been discovered in Yemen in contravention of international human rights law.

Climate and human rights

Increasingly, climate and the future of life on the planet is a concern.  As temperatures rise, it has an effect on hydrologic conditions, ecosystem functioning and agricultural productivity.  These effects are discussed in some detail in a United Nations report and in many other publications including the IPCC report.

A feature of these reports is the issue of human rights most particularly among those most affected by climate issues.  These are often women, children and indigenous populations who get in the way of forest clearances, dam projects or other major activities which threaten their environment and livelihoods.

A major fear – arguably a selfish one – concerning the effect of climate change is immigration.  The war in Syria and to a lesser extent conflicts in Mali and Somalia, resulted in huge movements of peoples, mostly into Europe, which gave us a taste of what major migrations of peoples will look like.  This had signifcant political implications in most EU countries, indeed the immigration issue was an influential feature of the Brexit debate in the UK.  It is curious to note in passing that worries about immigration at the political level do not seem to flow through into a desire to take resolute action on climate change which will be a key driver of people emigrating.  Climate will have a destabilising effect on many regimes as their agriculture is affected.  The previous prime minister Theresa May’s hostile immigration policy was (is?) almost ironic since the ‘hostility’ referred only to people.

Corporate changes

A significant difference since the war concerning human rights is corporate power and influence.  Although corporations have wielded great power in the past, controlling them was handled by states, for example anti-trust actions in the USA against the oil companies and other monopolies.  Modern internet companies pose an altogether different threat.  Firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter operate across the world and seem to answer to no one.  They extract enormous quantities of data about individuals and Facebook was alleged to be influential in elections.  The thrust of the UN Declaration was the individual and his or her relationship with the state.  Today, people are almost threatened as much by the activities of international corporations who are seemingly uncontrolled and uncontrollable.  They have also shown themselves all to ready to adjust their policies to suit despotic regimes such as China and seek to do business there.

Another looming technological threat is face recognition which is just beginning to become noticed as such in the UK.  Although it has benefits – finding missing persons or lost children, as well as an anti crime tool – it has enormous implications for civil liberties and individual rights.  The right to privacy will be substantially lost as the technology develops.  The influence of technology and the increasing influence of AI has been termed ‘digital feudalism.’  The crucial issue with these technological issues is control.  We have recently introduced GDPR legislation into the UK to protect citizens from unwarranted intrusion.  Yet the tech giants are outside this regime: it is not possible to find out from Facebook what information they have on you.

And we do not have to go far to see a more sinister aspect of the technology problem.  A firm based just outside Salisbury in the village of Porton, makes and supplies equipment which enables regimes to intercept and monitor phone calls and internet traffic.  They supply some well known countries with grim human rights records enabling them to find and arrest lawyers, opposition politicians and human rights activists.

Both these factors shows the individual to be threatened by corporate and state actors which both operate outside proper – or indeed any – democratic controls.  Mr Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, declined to attend the house of commons select committee on his company’s alleged role in the Referendum.

So the nature of human rights has changed since the post war days and the foundation of the current human rights climate.  The hope after the war that a new rules based international order with the UN as some kind of controlling force has all but ended.  Despots around the world are increasingly ignoring treaties and international obligations and acting with impunity.  The Palestinians live in an open prison in the Gaza strip while Israel relentlessly take more and more of their land ignoring numerous UN resolutions.  New threats have appeared with the giant internet companies and with climate change.

There are however, some major changes in the current concerns and the beliefs behind those who promoted a better world after the second world war. Gone is the sense of optimism and a desire that by acting together in a rules based world order, we could see a brighter future for ordinary people in the world. ‘Never again’ was the clear desire amongst many people who had experienced two terrible wars and the holocaust.

That optimism for the future has all but disappeared and we have become used to horrific events in places like Syria, Chechnya, Burma, Libya and many other places around the world. Yemen has already been mentioned but there are countless other wars around the world which only scarcely get a mention. Wikipedia provides a list and there are 4 current conflicts with a death toll of 10,000 or more and 6 where the death toll is between 1,000 to 10,000. There is a very long list of smaller conflicts. In all these, it is the vulnerable who suffer and the children who are either sucked into the conflict or whose education is halted.

The UK was one of the early signatories to the UN Declaration although it has to be admitted that, along with France, there were worries at the about our activities in the colonies.  We as a nation have been active in promoting human rights – we once had an ethical foreign policy – although less so in recent years.  Yet we are host to the City of London which is the worlds leading centre for money laundering and tax evasion.  It handles vast quantities of ‘dark money’ and some its banks have been fined billions of pounds for illicit money transfers on behalf of arms dealers, drug smugglers and other criminal elements.  This weakens our moral position, a fact which is not lost on some foreign autocrats.  It is difficult for us to adopt a high moral position when our financial institutions are helping Putin loot the Russian state, a fact revealed in the Panama papers.

Are there any positive signs?  There has been a significant rise in activity and interest in climate issues with the Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg.  However, this has not spilled over into concerns about human rights.  There has been a dramatic attitudinal shift concerning the internet companies which have gone from hero to zero in the matter of a few years.  More people are concerned about their activities for example with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.  Nevertheless, many people remain unconcerned about privacy or civil liberties issues.

Overall one must remain gloomy.  The spirit of optimism has gone and it is difficult to find any commentators expressing a positive view of the future.  Concerns about climate are essentially parochial and climate stress in other parts of the world achieve little more than passing interest.  Commercial interests remain entrenched and powerful and are still able to sow confusion and doubt about the real impact of climate change.  They are still able to claim that human actions are not necessarily to blame and that there has always been climate change.  Politicians show little urgency or real interest in these matters.  Revelation after revelation emerges about Yemen and the destruction there, partly supported by our arms sales, yet nothing changes.

The problem in the modern era is that human rights issues are more diffuse and threats come from several different directions.  After the war it seemed simple enough to set up a system to prevent a repeat of the horrors of the Second World War.  Now, it is authoritarian regimes, corporate power, the rise of AI and its effects, climate destabilisation, the arms trade and political indifference.  The media’s role is also a factor with some outlets either not covering some of these issues or diminishing their significance.  All play a part in threatening the wellbeing of millions of people.

There still remains a need for human rights organisations to promote the cause.  Perhaps one optimistic sign is the number of organisations engaged in this work some of which are listed at the bottom of our site.  There are many others.

 

 


Minutes of the February 2019 meeting are now available thanks to group member Lesley for preparing them.  It was a full meeting and we discussed a wide variety of topics including refugees, the death penalty, North Korea, the threat to human rights in the UK, and future events including a film.  At the end of the minutes is a list of forthcoming activities we are planning and if you live in the Salisbury, Amesbury, Downton or Wilton areas and are interested in getting involved, coming to one of these events and making yourself known is the best way to do that.

February minutes (Word)

 


The risk to human rights legislation and specifically the Human Rights Act seem to have risen in past week.  This concern has come about because of some equivocal statements by ministers in a recent House Of Commons debate.  Dislike of the HRA by some members of the government is well known and there have been plans to abolish it for some time.  They seem to have been kicked into the long grass because of the all consuming nature of the Brexit process and also because it has proved difficult to introduce a fresh piece of legislation – HRA2 we might say – that would get through parliament.

The recent row has emerged because a junior minister, Edward Agar, said the HRA ‘would be reviewed post Brexit’. SNP politician Tommy Sheppard was quoted as saying at the end of a 90 minute debate:

[he] felt he was “left without the unequivocal and categorical assurances I was seeking, in terms of the commitment to the existing Human Rights Act and the protection that it affords” Source; RightsInfo 13 February 2019

So it seems that once we leave, a review of the Act and its possible replacement is a possibility.  This story has a long genesis going back to when David Cameron was prime minister.  Theresa May was a keen abolitionist as home secretary.

The problem that some politicians have with it are several.  Firstly, a failure to appreciate the positive effects it has had on various issues large and small.  In countless cases, involving individuals and their dealings with government or local authorities, the act has been a key element in the defence of their rights.  Only rarely do these get reported and frequently, the role of the act in the proceedings is omitted.

Secondly, there is a belief that British rights are somehow superior to anything Europe could do and go all the way back to Magna Carta.  The imperfections of the British system are brushed aside.  Before the HRA was in place there was a steady procession of litigants going to Strasbourg to get justice denied them in the UK.  These judgements were often embarrassing to the British legal system.

Thirdly, the issue of human rights has got caught up in the Brexit debate and a belief among those wishing to leave that anything with a European tag to it is to avoided.  As Anthony Lester QC puts it:

Because the Human Rights Act use the [European] Convention rights as a substitute for homegrown constitutional rights, it arouses the hostility of euro sceptics, our system has come under increasing onslaught, not from activist judges but from political opportunists supported by right-wing newspapers that have made ‘human rights’ a dirty word.  Five Ideas to Fight For, One World, 2016 p39

Finally, and perhaps crucially, the HRA alters, in a quite fundamental way, the balance of power in our society.  For the first time in our history, the people have a set of rights.  Since we do not have a written constitution, this is a significant development.  It is perhaps not surprising that those – especially from the privileged classes – who enjoyed the power and influence it gave, feel a little resentful at its loss.

What happens after Brexit we will have to see.  Perhaps there are people who think coming out of Europe will mean coming out of the Convention.  They are in fact two different bodies and the Convention stems from the Council of Europe which we entered long before we entered the EEC.  It will still be in place.  It is possible that some will be disappointed to discover that we are still in the Council post March 29.

The local Amnesty group will, along with Amnesty International itself, be keeping an eye of events and will be campaigning if the plans to repeal the act become real.


Government minister gives equivocal answer

The threat by the current Conservative government to do away with the Human Rights Act (HRA) has lain dormant for some time due to the considerable time being devoted to the Brexit negotiations.  However, it reared its head again this week when a House of Lords EU Justice subcommittee asked a government minister for reassurance that it (the government) will not repeal or replace the act.

The Parliament Website has the following piece:

The House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee wrote to Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice David Gauke in December regarding the rights of citizens post-Brexit.  The Committee sought an explanation for the dilution of the Government’s commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Last week the Committee received a troubling response.  While again pledging an unchanging commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms, the letter from Edward Argar MP, Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, ended with reference to the Government’s intention to revisit the Human Rights Act once the process of leaving the EU is concluded18 January 2019 [accessed 22 January 2019 our italics]

This is very troubling.  The hostility of many ministers and politicians to the HRA is well known and echoes the frequent stories and campaigns in the tabloid press.  It is seen by some as a threat to our way or life and to giving terrorists and criminals a ‘get out of jail card’.

On the contrary, it is in our view, one of the most important pieces of legislation in the last 20 years.  It has shifted power away from the state and given ordinary people a means to challenge faulty decisions.  The Hillsborough enquiry is a recent example and would not have happened without it.  As an Amnesty spokesperson put it:

The Human Rights Act has been central to the vital pursuit of justice in this country for the last 20 years.  It is the unsung hero of UK life, holding powerful people and institutions to account when ordinary people are let down.  It is deeply concerning that the Government refuses to acknowledge that reality.

The Human Rights Act is a critical safety net for everyone in our society.  Any attempt to dilute or remove the essential protections the Human Rights Act provides should be categorically ruled out.

They are mounting a petition which you can take part in if you wish.

If the act is abolished, all that will happen is that we go back to the bad old days of people having to beat a path to Strasbourg to get justice.

Sources:  Amnesty, Rights Info, Parliament Website


If you live in the Salisbury or South Wilts area and would like to join us, you would be very welcome.  Keep and eye on this site or on Facebook @salisburyai for one of our events and come along and make yourself known.

 


Letter published in the Salisbury Journal

A letter in support of the Human Rights Act was published in the Salisbury Journal today – 8 November 2018.  We have often discussed the threat to the act in this blog as it remains Conservative policy to abolish it.  There is little chance of this happening in view of the enormous amount of time and energy being expended on Brexit negotiations, nevertheless, the intention is there.  We do not know what will happen after March 31st of course. 

We have a meeting tonight, 8 November at 7:30, Attwood Road.


Select committee issues two damning reports on UK’s role in torture

The Intelligence and Security Committee released its report in the UK’s role in torture on 28 June 2018 and this revealed the shocking extent of MI6’s involvement.  It is government policy, and the legal position, that the UK does not use torture nor does it outsource the practice to other agencies or governments.  It is counterproductive since under torture, victims are likely to say anything to get it to stop.  The evidence thus gleaned is of doubtful value as was dramatically shown in Iraq and our decision to invade.  It is also a key part of the Human Rights Act.  Article 3 protects you from:

– torture (mental or physical)
– inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and
– deportation or extradition (being sent to another country to face criminal charges) if there is a real risk you will face torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the country concerned.
As you would expect, public authorities must not inflict this sort of treatment on you. They must also protect you if someone else is treating you in this way. If they know this right is being breached, they must intervene to stop it. The state must also investigate credible allegations of such treatment.  Equality and Human Rights Commission

That we were involved in this activity has been known for some time although often the details were not available.  So were the denials and here is Jack Straw – the Home Secretary for much of the time when this was happening – claiming in an interview:

Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop.  Quoted by Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph, 11 April 2012 [accessed 3 July 2018]

Peter Oborne continued: After Mr Straw spoke out, further denials followed. Tony Blair insisted that Britain had never engaged in the practice.  Mr Straw’s successor, David Miliband, was equally adamant.  Sir John Scarlett, until recently head of the Secret Intelligence Service (and the official responsible for the notorious dossier of September 2002 which asserted that Saddam Hussein was capable of deploying weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes) was forthright. “Our officers are as committed to the values and the human rights values of liberal democracy as anybody else,” he said, adding that there was “no complicity in torture.  (ibid)

The scale of the activity revealed by this report was a surprise.  Up until the report was published it was known that the activity had taken place on a modest scale but the facts show otherwise:

• On 232 occasions UK intelligence officers were found to have continued supplying questions to foreign agencies between 2001 and 2010, despite knowing or suspecting a prisoner was being tortured or mistreated.
• There were 198 occasions when UK intelligence officers received information from a prisoner whom they knew was being mistreated.
• In a further 128 cases, foreign intelligence bodies told UK intelligence agencies prisoners were being mistreated.
• MI5 or MI6 offered to help fund at least three rendition operations.
• The agencies planned or agreed to a further 28 rendition operations.
• They provided intelligence to assist with a further 22 rendition operations.
• Two MI6 officers consented to mistreatment meted out by others.  Only one of these incidents has been investigated by police.
• In a further 13 cases, UK intelligence officers witnessed an individual being tortured or mistreated.
• MI5, MI6 and the military conducted up to 3,000 interviews of prisoners held at Guantanamo.
• No attempt is being made to find out whether guidelines introduced by the coalition government in 2010 are helping to prevent the UK’s intelligence agencies from continuing to be involved in human rights abuses.
• The UK breached its commitment to the international prohibition of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
• On at least two occasions ministers took “inappropriate” decisions.
• Jack Straw authorised payment of “a large share of the costs” of the rendition of two people in October 2004. The Guardian 2 July 2018

Not that this is the full story.  The government prevented individual officers from giving evidence so there may well be more to come out in future.  On this matter, Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty said:

It is obvious that the ISC was prevented by the Government from producing a thorough report about what really happened – it says so itself.  The ISC had no powers to summon witnesses or demand full evidence, and its findings were always subject to redaction and veto from the Prime Minister herself.  Instead of the independent, judge-led torture inquiry promised by David Cameron, we’ve had an under-powered, over-controlled review by a committee that was never empowered to get the job done.  While the Committee’s report represents a helpful step forwards, it is not the definitive account of what really happened. It was always the wrong tool for the job.
With the President of the United States personally praising waterboarding and the CIA led by someone closely linked to torture, now is not the time to brush this issue under the carpet. We need a full judge-led inquiry now.  Amnesty statement 

The Response

In the face of damning evidence and a considerable amount of research carried out by the committee over many years, one might have thought that a contrite response from the head of MI6 at the time, Sir Richard Dearlove, would be appropriate, if not a full apology.  Not a bit of it.  Here he is quoted in the Sun* newspaper:

As far as my former service is concerned, the mistreatment issue has been blown out of proportion by pressure from certain interest groups [one assumes Amnesty is among them].  There never was a systemic problem, and there are no skeletons in the cupboard from my time.  The staff served the nation magnificently and with due care for our respect for the law.  In extreme circumstances, there will always be incidents that one regrets.  But nothing illegal was perpetrated – which is as achievement given the extent of the provocation.  Warning of the chilling effect that the MPs’ withering criticism could have, the ex-spymaster added: It’s time to move on and not allow our willingness to take risks to be diminished.  The Sun 29 June 2018

No mea culpa there.  Quite what the ‘provocation’ is not explained.  Torture seems to be part of a need to ‘take risks’.  This quotation – if it is an accurate statement of his position – is disgraceful.  That the former head of the service brushes aside a comprehensive and detailed description of our – and his service’s role – in water boarding, stress positions and other forms of degrading treatment is utterly reprehensible.  His defence seems to rest on the fact that MI6 officers did not actually do the torturing themselves.

But he is not alone.  This is the Sun’s editorial position:

WHAT did we gain by MPs blowing five years probing what MI5 and MI6 knew of the US torture of terror suspects back in 2001?  Their report admits our spooks were directly involved only twice.  And if it extracted vital intelligence preventing further atrocities after 9/11, so what if we turned a blind eye?  Yes, torture is barbaric.  But the CIA firmly believes it saved lives.  Would those people wringing their hands over it prefer to have risked thousands more being massacred by al-Qaeda?

Still perpetuating the myth that torture is necessary and saves lives.

As a nation we pride ourselves on civilised behaviour.  We promote such behaviour around the world and in the UN.  We are signatories to key treaties and it is government policy that we do not torture people.  We have the Human Rights Act which prohibits it.  Government ministers constantly claim that such practices are alien to our culture and way of doing things.  We have a fundamental sense of decency it is claimed.  However, Peter Beaumont, a journalist with the Observer, says over the years he has ‘been lied to a lot’.

British intelligence officers, despite all the denials, were aware of the mistreatment, they benefited from it and even supplied their own questions for the victims of mistreatment despite knowing those being interrogated were being brutalized.  1 July 2018 

Even now, people like Sir Richard Dearlove are in denial.  The government has done all it can to frustrate the enquiry and to prevent it getting to the truth.  Jack Straw and others have many questions to answer.


Joint statement by human rights organisations

*a tabloid newspaper part of the Murdoch group in the UK.

 


How will our rights be affected post Brexit?*

UPDATE: 26 April

An article in the current edition of Prospect by Vernon Bogdanor entitled ‘Brexit will erase your rights’ (May 2018) discusses

in detail the effects of leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court, the avowed government policy.  One of the important effects is that the ability of judges to disallow legislation which conflicts with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights will no longer be possible.  Bogdanor makes the point that we shall be moving away from a codified and protected system to an unprotected one.  This is probably the first time this has happened.

For people keen on the sovereignty issue and see all things European to be harmful,  then this is what they seek.  For them the supremacy of parliament is a key principle.  But what has been happening over many decades – and preceding our entry into what was then called the Common Market – was that judges were becoming more willing to interfere in some aspects of legislation.  Because we have signed up to the European Charter, where our legislation conflicts with that, then judges are willing to rule against it.  The fundamental problem the UK has is a lack of a constitution.  The charter was a kind of stand-in constitution against which the legislative process could be tested.

The Human Rights changed that.   In regards to the HRA, Professor Gearty stated that:

In the breadth of its ambition and in the potential reach of its terms, British Law has never seen anything like this piece of legislation’.  The way in which the Human Rights Act 1998 changed the legal landscape was by inserting a new method of interpretation into British Law which required the courts to read and give effect to legislation in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights ‘so far as it is possible to do so’(s3); requiring that the courts take into account decisions of the Strasbourg Court when determining a question concerning a Convention right (s2); allowing the Court to make a declarations of incompatibility (s4); making it unlawful for public authorities to act incompatibly with the Convention (s6); and by creating a cause of action for breaches by a public authorities and providing for remedial damages for breaches. (s7 and s8).  (Church Court Chambers)

For critics of the involvement of the European Court, there is a kind of misty eyed reverence to the British system which does of course have many strengths and has evolved over many centuries.  This was particularly noticeable during the Magna Carta celebrations two years ago.  But historians will know that it has been a struggle for some simple rights and laws of benefit to ordinary people, to be enacted.  Legislation such as the factory acts and public health for example, took decades to enact against fierce resistance by vested interests in parliament.  Full enfranchisement itself did not happen until 90 years ago in 1928.

Recent events surrounding the Windrush scandal have shown a legislature and an executive all too willing to inflict misery on thousands of people.  The idea that parliament is there to protect the welfare of ordinary people such as those who came here in the ’50s, does not stand up to examination.  There is thus a real concern that once we exit the ECJ and the Withdrawal Bill becomes law then some of our rights will be taken away.    This will not happen straight off but over time using the infamous Henry VIII powers.  The role of the courts will be weakened.  The Charter of Fundamental Rights will no longer apply and we will be at the whim of parliament.  The key issue behind the scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation was that although there were two immigration acts, a lot of the day to day nastiness was done administravely.  So the idea that parliament is sovereign is flawed.

One of the curious anomalies of our political discourse is that people do not usually trust politicians.  If someone at a public meeting said ‘I think we should trust politicians’ it would likely engender laughter and ridicule.  But by removing our country from the aegis of the charter we will be giving power to politicians and the executive which amounts to trusting them with our rights.  Since parliament is rife with self-interest, secretive lobbying by special interest groups, the revolving door enabling ministers and others to take up lucrative positions with organisations which they were supposedly in control of, and behind closed door influence from powerful media barons: to expect it to take interest in the rights of ordinary individuals is a big ask.  There are honest politicians and many with consciences but they are few against the party machines.

Bognador ends his piece by saying that ‘the tide of history is towards greater protections, but the coming change threatens to make us more lawless.  And it may well be that a country, which wasn’t primed for this sort of change, will not be content with that.’

The arguments over the role of European law and the remit of the ECJ might seem esoteric, the sort of thing lawyers get enthused about and no one else is the least bit interested in.  But the effects of a loss of control over the executive and a dysfunctional parliament will eventually be experienced by all and there won’t be anyone to protect us.


Update: See the Amnesty blog post on the reaction of young people to the threat to human rights post Brexit.

*Amnesty has no position on whether to remain or leave the EU: this blog is just about human rights if we leave


Many human rights organisations worried by the Brexit* Bill’s threat to human rights

Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Liberty are among those who are expressing concerns that the EU (Withdrawal) bill will weaken our human rights protections because it seeks to remove the Charter of Fundamental Rights from our law.  The Charter is important because it protects fundamental issues important to us such as dignity, data, worker’s rights, children and more.  By excluding this, our rights will be weakened.  In their annual report, Human Rights Watch say:

More than six months after the government formally triggered the start of Brexit, significant concerns remained about the status of rights and protection for all UK residents derived from EU law after the UK leaves the EU. A draft law to move EU law into domestic law after Brexit raised serious concerns about granting broad powers to the executive to amend laws undermining rights without parliamentary scrutiny, and excluding rights currently protected under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (HRW, 2018)

Amnesty has raised similar concerns:

While the Bill claims to be copying and pasting EU derived law into domestic law, it leaves one, crucial element behind on the cutting room floor – the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.  The Charter plays an important role in our domestic rights protection architecture.  Unlike the European Convention on Human Rights (which has nothing to do with the EU), the Charter only applies when EU law is in issue – like questions about data retention, or pension rights – but it provides stronger protection than the ECHR in those areas (judges can use it to ‘strike down’ primary legislation, like they did when the Brexit Minister David Davis MP used it himself in a privacy case recently!) It is a clear statement of fundamental rights which we all enjoy.  If this is simply a cut and paste job as the government says, then why is the only thing they are leaving behind our rights protection?

The current government has had a long and at times tortuous relationship with human rights.  It is surprising to compare a Conservative government after the war, led by Winston Churchill, who was instrumental in pushing for improved rights and which led to the current architecture of law on the subject, with the current government who wants to abolish the Human Rights Act and remove the Charter as well.

The reasons are complex and sometimes hard to fathom.  It is connected in part with a dislike of all things European.  Europe is the cause of so many of our problems it is claimed and once Brexit is accomplished, we shall be free.  According to Mrs. May, it prevents us deporting dangerous criminals which it doesn’t.  We are unable to deport some people because of various treaties which prevent us sending people to a country where they are likely to be tortured.  It overrides parliament they claim and so we need to do this to regain our sovereignty.  It does not.  But the myths, endlessly repeated by politicians and some parts of the media are widely believed.

We should be extremely concerned.  The bill also contains what are known as ‘Henry VIII powers’ which enable ministers to by-pass parliament.  Without the Charter in place, which underpins human rights law, the government risks getting clogged up in a series of legal cases.  Fundamental protections can easily be removed almost on a whim.

* Amnesty has no position on Brexit itself


If you live in the Salisbury area and want to become involved in human rights activities, you would be most welcome.  Keep and eye on this site or on Facebook or Twitter – salisburyai – and come along to an event and make yourself known.  Or contact us via Facebook.  It is free to join the local group.


UN speech by the Commissioner for Human Rights well worth a read

It is perhaps a sign of the times that Theresa May, the UK prime minister, should find herself quoted in the opening paragraph of a speech by the UN Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.  Not in a flattering way but quoting her remarks that human rights should be overturned if the ‘got in the way’ of the fight against terrorism.  These remarks were made during the election campaign which did not go the way intended by Mrs May.  They followed a terrorist attack in London.

Whatever the background, Al Hussein thinks the remarks were ‘highly regrettable’ and are a gift to the many authoritarian

Al Hussein, UN. Pic: Times of Israel

governments around the world.  It seems that any idea that the UK is some kind of a beacon for civilised behaviour in an increasingly troubled world has all but gone.  The desire to promote arms now matters more than the victims of their use for example in Yemen.  Despite the appalling behaviour of the Chinese government, most recently with the death of Liu Xiaobo, our response is the minimum necessary: we are more interested in trade than decent behaviour.

It is disappointing to see the prime minister of the UK being mentioned in this way because whatever her faults, there is no comparison between the behaviour of her government and that say, of Russia, where journalists and opposition politicians are gunned down and which has been described as a mafia state.  The activities of governments in the Gulf also leave a great deal to be desired.  There are many other countries in the world where autocratic regimes mistreat their citizens, use torture routinely, violently put down peaceful protests and deny freedom of expression.

The remarks were perhaps made more in sorrow reflecting the fact that it was the UK government after the war which was one of those who were active in promoting the role of international law and human rights.  Today, Al Hussein notes in his speech, for some politicians see human rights as an ‘irritating check on expediency.’  Some are indifferent to the effects of austerity on their own citizens.

A question he asks are ‘what rights does the prime minister mean?’ a question we asked of our Salisbury MP Mr Glen.  It is seldom if ever clear what it is they want to see done away with.  This might arise because they are responding to tabloid media pressure which maintains an unceasing campaign against the European Court, the European Convention of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act.  A recent example is from the Daily Mail claiming that the Act does help terrorists.  Other newspapers run similar stories presenting a drip, drip of negative material against the act.  Throw in a hatred of anything European and it is small wonder politicians follow the line.  As Al Hussein expresses it:

So why did Prime Minister May said this?  At least part of the answer may lie in market conditions. Human Rights law has long been ridiculed by an influential tabloid press here in the UK, feeding with relish on what it paints as the absurd findings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This viewpoint has some resonance with a slice of the public unaware of the importance of international human rights law – often seen by far too many people as too removed from everyday life, very continental, too lawyerly, too activist, ultimately too weird. How can the Court consider prisoners’ voting rights, and other supposedly frivolous claims, when set against the suffering of victims? The bastards deserve punishment, full stop! This may be understandable, at some emotional level. However, one should also acknowledge that British ink, reflecting an enormously rich legal tradition, is found throughout the European Convention on Human Rights.

Although some members of the government seek to reduce the influence of human rights in our society, not all do and the organisation Bright Blue, which describes itself as an independent think tank and pressure group for liberal conservatism, has recently published a report arguing that the Conservatives should make Britain the ‘home of human rights.’  Clearly some fundamental attitudes will have to change if that ambition is to be realised.  This report is also well worth a read.

Unless countries like Britain and the USA are willing to provide moral leadership then a further deterioration in human rights around the world is to be expected.

 

 


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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If you would like to join the Salisbury group you would be very welcome.  We meet once a month for a planning meeting and perhaps the best thing is to come along to an event and make yourself known.