Posts Tagged ‘Human Rights Act’


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  In Egypt for example, the protests were violently put down and all that has happened is one dictator has been replaced by another.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.

 

 

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Minutes of the group meeting held on 11 April 2019 are attached thanks to group member Lesley for compiling them.  We discussed North Korea, the death penalty report, future events including a film night, a market stall and a talk by the author and journalist Paul Mason in June.  There are also some statistics of our social marketing showing quite a busy month.

If you are interested in joining the local group and live in the south Wiltshire area then coming along to one of our events is the best thing to do and you will find a list at the end of the minutes.

April minutes (Word)

 


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.

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Causes 

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

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

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

As the Amnesty annual report puts it:

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

Prospects

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

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

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

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

If you live in the Salisbury area we would welcoming you joining us.  Events are posted here and on our Facebook and Twitter pages – salisburyai


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

[if you have come to this page from a ticket site, details of the film can be found here]

Minutes of the June meeting are available thanks to group member Lesley for compiling them.

June minutes (Word)


House of Commons Committee taking evidence on human rights issues

A recent post by RightsInfo discussed the evidence given to the House of Common’s Joint Committee on human rights.  The committee’s investigation is to be welcomed.   It consists of 12 members drawn from both houses and its work includes scrutinising government bills for their compatibility with human rights legislation.  It is chaired by Ms Harriet Harman.

On 9 May it took evidence from three witnesses: Prof. David Mead from the school of law at UEA; Ms Martha Spurrier a director at Liberty; Dr Alice Donald a senior lecturer at Middlesex University and Adam Wagner of RightsInfo.  They were asked a range of questions on the issue of human rights, how they are perceived and how they work in the UK today.

Those of us who are concerned about human rights and campaign on the subject are often dispirited by the fairly constant stream of negative press coverage about human rights generally and the Human Rights Act itself.  The most vociferous critic and publisher of tendentious or misleading stories has been the Daily Mail under its editor Paul Dacre and the paper was frequently mentioned by witnesses during this session.  Coincidentally, this week it was announced the Dacre is to retire as editor of the Mail which is welcome news.  As the Guardian put it:

His sheer bully-power often frames the national debate by warping broadcasters’ news agendas, because they know the Mail makes politicians quake. Theresa May – his candidate – caves in to him every time, as paralysed on paying for social care as on Brexit.  Polly Toynbee 7 June 2018

Criticism of the act is of course acceptable, likewise pointing out flawed or questionable decisions.  We have a free press which is important.  But along with the Sun and the Express, the right wing media has carried on a campaign of ‘monstering’ human rights painting them as a threat to the safety and wellbeing of ordinary people.  Why this should be is difficult to understand.  Perhaps it is because the act shifts a degree of power to ordinary people and minorities in society – some of whom are unpopular – and this shift is in some ways distasteful to the elites (or the establishment as they used to be known).  Many readers of these papers will have benefited from the working of the act.  Indeed, Hampshire was mentioned where the authority has incorporated its principles into all its policies.

[Update, 11 June 18] For those interested in this subject, you may like to read an earlier post ‘Why do they hate the Human Rights Act?

The Committee

The committee discussion focused on several main themes:

  • the role of the press and in particular the right wing press
  • education both of the populace as a whole and in schools
  • the role of judges
  • legal aid and
  • politicians

The Press

Prof. David Mead said he had done research specifically on the Daily Mail because

it sticks out like a sore thumb in its reporting across a whole range of topics.  I have done research exclusively on that newspaper and on other across the board.  The findings I have reached are that it misportrays human rights law quite significantly.

He then went on to admit that he did not know of any causative effects of these stories on people’s attitudes to human rights.  As with Brexit, was it a case of the media picking up on reader’s misgivings and supplying the stories to suit or was it the media setting the tone and persuading people to their point of view?  Martha Spurrier said that sections of the press like the Daily Mail, ‘will fan the flames of attitudes and values which are pretty contrary to human rights project’.  She noted that the paper will cover stories about soldiers’ rights ‘sympathetically and accurately whereas with migrants there was a different approach’.  Part of the reason she thought was because these kinds of stories had traction not only in society but in ‘upper echelons of power.’

So if senior leaders are saying they want to create ‘a hostile environment for migrants’ is it any wonder that newspapers will then peddle stories about migrants being a pernicious group of people to sell those papers.  We cannot divorce rhetoric in one part of the system from rhetoric in another.  Martha Spurrier

This argument seems a little weak since there are newspapers and weeklies which do divorce the two.

Adam Wagner from Rights Info was a little more robust and said:

… however, I do think that certain right wing newspapers have ‘monstered’ human rights.  They have created a monster out of human rights in a deliberate and specific campaign.  […] when you talk to people, you find that they are generally influenced by the way that human rights are framed in the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express.  They talk about human rights being for other people not for us.  They refer to them fundamentally as being about stopping people being deported or crazy European Judges.

Education

There was discussion about the role of education – or rather the lack of it – in generating better understanding of human rights and their importance to us.  Wagner thought that human rights was removed by the Coalition government.  There was a lot of talk about the rule of law but he thought that they have been removed because they were seen as ‘a kind of leftie political thing.’

Going out to schools they thought was important which in fact is something the Salisbury Amnesty group does every year.

Significant budget cuts to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) made the issue of educating the public at large more difficult.  They now had around a quarter of the funds they had when they were formed.

Judges

The role of judges is important and Adam Wagner noted that a new generation of High Court judges have grown up in their careers with the Human Rights Act.  He said you cannot underestimate how important this is and how it has marked a fundamental change in our entire legal system.

He went on to describe how politicians and ministers in particular, use or rather misuse the judicial system.  They frequently, he claimed, passed difficult or contentious cases to the courts to decide so that the ‘judges can take the blame for this.’  When there was a furore following the decision, the Home Office would say that they are considering appealing the case which in fact they never did because the judge got it right.

Legal Aid

Another topic discussed was legal aid the severe cuts to its funding.  There were now ‘advice deserts’ all over the country where you will not be able to seek advice.

We have seen legal aid being decimated across areas of fundament importance to ordinary people’s lives: debt, welfare and benefits, housing, employment, clinical negligence, and immigration.   Martha Spurrier

Conclusion

This is just part of this committee’s deliberations on this important topic.  A consistent theme of the evidence given was the malign role played by the right wing media.  Although no one wanted to limit press freedom, the ‘monstering,’ as Adam Wagner put it, of all things to do with human rights was clearly regretted by the witnesses.  It was not clear however what the ‘direction of travel’ was.  The tabloids have been successful by giving the readers what they want.  If the public do not like migrants for example, then providing stories of their misdoings are going to sell papers.  Are the papers stirring things up or are they reflecting what their readers already think?  After all, the right wing papers sell in great numbers and the online version of the Daily Mail was the most read paper in the world.

The role of politicians and in particular ministers, was another theme running through the evidence.  A failure to give a lead and using judges to get out of receiving bad press for themselves showed them up in a poor light.

No doubt we will be hearing more as time goes by.


If you want to join the local group – which is free – you are very welcome to do so.  We suggest coming along to one of our events and making yourself known.  We have a stall in the market place on  the morning of Saturday 23rd of June and we are hosting a film on Thursday 14 June at the Arts Centre starting at 7;30 pm.

 


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


We have reluctantly decided to cancel an event – planned for June this year – which was designed to highlight the positive aspects of the Human Rights Act and the benefits we all receive from human rights legislation generally.  It was to consist of a week of talks and other events in Salisbury with the overall theme of emphasizing how human rights have improved the lot of citizens in the UK.  It was arranged during the anniversary week of Magna Carta.

The idea for the event was spurred by the negative press this legislation receives and the drubbing that European institutions get from our media.  It is connected loosely to the Brexit debate where one of the guiding principles of those who wish to leave the EU is to be free of what they perceive as interference in our justice system by the European Courts.

In planning the event we had assumed that legal firms in Salisbury would be willing to support it and it was something of a surprise that none would.  Indeed, the majority did not reply to our requests.  One firm even hosts a human rights organisation but still did not reply.  We did eventually secure some financial support (from Poole) but it arrived probably too late for us to be able to do the planning.

So it will not now take place which is a pity.  Salisbury has recently become associated with the poisoning issue and allegations that Russia was to blame: highly likely in view of their previous behaviour and the nature of the attack.  At base is the issue of human rights.  Russia – if it is them – is a state in which lawlessness is now the norm.  There is no free press and corruption is the order of the day.  ‘Dirty’ money is looted by the Putin regime and much of it finds its way into the City of London.  Journalists are murdered and anyone looking like they might be a threat is prevented from standing in elections.

In the UK, despite many unsatisfactory aspects in our political process and the revolving door corruption, we are still able to vote them out – a luxury the Russians do not enjoy.  Ordinary people have more rights as a result of the Human Rights Act than previously yet they are constantly told that the act is a menace and needs to be got rid of.   It is sad that we were unable to celebrate this fact.

 

 


Arbitrary arrest of 13 people

This urgent action concerns the arbitrary arrest of 13 health and human rights people in Tanzania.  It is part of a campaign to intimidate gayImage result for tanzania and lesbian people being conducted by the government.  Please write if you can.  Full details on the attached link.

Tanzania (pdf)

 


If you live in the Salisbury area and would like to join the local group you would be very welcome.  Just keep and eye on this site or on Twitter or Facebook (salisburyai) if you prefer for details of our next event and make yourself known.  Our events are listed on the last page of our minutes.


Group meeting minutes available

The minutes of the last group meeting are now available thanks to group member Lesley for compiling them.  We discussed the death penalty report, the forthcoming performance on 18th by Ice and Fire, next year’s proposed Celebration of Human Rights and other planned events.

September minutes (Word)