Posts Tagged ‘“Human rights”’


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.  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, 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
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The New Forest Amnesty group is hosting a talk on 28 November and the details can be found below.  It is free.

New Forest Talk (pdf)


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.


Minutes for the October meeting are attached and thanks to group member Lesley for preparing them.  We discussed the death penalty, North Korea, urgent actions, and future events.

October Minutes (Word)

Meeting

Posted: September 11, 2018 in Group news
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Minutes available shortly.

We shall be holding our monthly meeting this Thursday in Victoria Road at 7:30 as usual.  Supporters welcome.  We shall be reviewing the death penalty; follow up from the Tree of Life street action; forthcoming film,s and a possible event to mark the 70th anniversary of the UN Declaration in 1948.  Also the Christmas tree in St Thomas’s.


Tree of Life signing against death penalty in Japan

Tree of Life. Pic: Salisbury Amnesty

We held our tree of life signing in Library passage this morning (1 September 2018) and collected over 40 signatures.  People were asked to sign small labels which we attached to a small tree to mimic the Japanese custom.  There were several people who were surprised that the methods the Japanese employ – solitary confinement, decades of incarceration and no notice of the execution itself – were still employed by a supposedly civilised country.

All the labels will be gathered up and sent to Amnesty for a combined presentation to the embassy in October.  Our thanks to all those who signed and to group members who spent time on the stand.


If you would like to join the local group, keep and eye on this site or on Twitter or Facebook (accessed on the left) and make yourself known at one of our activities.

Every month, the group publishes a brief report on the death penalty around the world.  See the latest edition here.


Local protest planned

The local group is planning a short demonstration against the visit by Donald Trump to the UK.  It will take place in the market square on 13 July starting at 11am for an hour.  The purpose is to highlight his attitude towards immigrants and the decision to withdraw the USA from the Human Rights Council.

Readers are welcome to join us.


[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.

 


A reminder that the film Hooligan Sparrow will be shown next Thursday 14 June at 7:30 pm.  This is FREE but there is a parting collection to help cover our rental and other costs.  It’s at the Salisbury Arts Centre in the White Room upstairs.  Tickets can be obtained from the front desk.