Posts Tagged ‘Human Rights Act’


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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

Reasons

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

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

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

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

9/11

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 


Happy New Year to our followers and supporters. This is likely to be an interesting year on the human rights front and we shall be keeping an eye on the new Conservative government’s wish to repeal or do something with the Human Rights Act which they dislike so. We do not know what is proposed – indeed it has been under threat for some years now but details of what is proposed are scarce – but with a large majority, they will be able to do more or less as they will.


December meeting of the group takes place tonight, Thursday 12th as usual in Victoria road at 7:30.  Supporters and new members welcome but it is a working meeting.

We have the carol singing next week.


The Salisbury Amnesty group is politically neutral.  We have an interest in the Human rights Act passed with all party consensus in 1998.  The Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election says:

Once we get Brexit done, Britain will take back control of its laws.  As we end the supremacy of European law, we will be free to craft legislation and regulations that maintain high standards but which work best for the UKWe want a balance of rights, rules and entitlements that benefits all the people and all the parts of our United Kingdom.

After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people.  The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime is critical.  We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.  In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates.  Page 48 in the section: Protect our Democracy (our italics)

We can find no similar pledge in the other two main party’s manifesto.  To some extent this is a familiar promise.  In the past, the party has promised to repeal the act and to introduce a bill on rights and responsibilities.  Probably because of the pressure on parliamentary time with Brexit, such a bill has never emerged.  Promises to abolish the act also have never emerged.  We have asked what part of the act they want to abolish but this has never been answered.  The Party does seem to have a problem with the act as it is currently drafted.

The words themselves tell you little and may even seem on the face of it, benign.  What does ‘update the act’ mean?  Seeking a balance between the rights of individuals and our vital national security and effective government is a bit of a clue.  A regular theme of the right wing press is the threat posed by the act to our national security.  This for example from the Daily Mail in 2015:

Another day, another insult to common sense courtesy of the Human Rights Act and the lawyers enriched by this toxic piece of legislation, which allows them so profitably to ride roughshod over the wishes of Parliament and the British public.   Editorial, 1 August 2015

We shall be keeping a watching brief on Conservative party plans if they assume power on 13 December 2019.

Visitors to this site may like to visit Rights Info where this manifesto promise is also discussed.

 


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 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