Posts Tagged ‘refugees’


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  In Egypt for example, the protests were violently put down and all that has happened is one dictator has been replaced by another.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

 

 


Video of the Salisbury group’s refugee action

A few weeks ago, the Salisbury group mounted a short demonstration in support of a better understanding of the plight of refugees.  Refugees and asylum seekers get a bad press in the UK and the UN criticised the article in the Sun by Katie Hopkins referring to them as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral humans’.  A full discussion of the role of media in the debate on refugees and asylum seekers can be found in the 2018 report by the International Organisation for Migration particularly chapter 8 p191ff.

A film of our protest with interviews of two group members, was made by the Salisbury TV station ‘That’s TV’ and this can be seen on YouTube.

We issued a factsheet to passers-by on the refugee situation around the world and our role in it.  In the interview we mentioned the resettlement programme being managed by Wiltshire Council.

Refugee factsheet (pdf)


If you live in the Salisbury, Amesbury or south Wiltshire area generally and would like to join us you would be very welcome.  The best thing is to come along to an event we are running and make yourself known.  It is free to join locally.  Keep and eye on this site, or on Facebook or Twitter if you prefer, to see details of our next event.

Refugee vigil

Posted: March 24, 2019 in Group news, refugees
Tags: , ,

UPDATE:

We were filmed by Salisbury TV (Channel 7 in this area) and they say they will transmit at 6pm this evening.

We shall be holding a vigil for refugees today (Monday 25th) starting at 10am for 2 hours.  Outside the Guildhall in the market square.  We would be grateful for any supporters able to spare a minute or two to drop by.

Refugee factsheet (pdf)


The group will be holding a brief vigil outside the Guildhall on Monday 25th March starting at 10am for 2 hours.  Refugees are a contentious issue in this country and indeed, concerns about immigrants and refugees were a key issue in the Brexit debate.  Although the UK takes in a miniscule number compared to the 25 million or so refugees in the world, they loom large in our political process and in the tabloid press.  Biblical terms like ‘swarms’, ‘hordes’ and ‘floods’ are regularly deployed to describe those fleeing here.

Protest guildhall

Some group members at the Guildhall

We would welcome any support you can give even if it’s just to come and say ‘hello’.  We sometimes feel a little exposed at these events and there are some people who have forcefully held views so shows or support are welcome.

This would also be a good moment if you are thinking of joining the group to make yourself known.  The picture shows a similar event last year.


The minutes of the group meeting in March 2019 are available thanks to group member Lesley for compiling them.  A full meeting with several events planned, see the end of them for the list.  You can also follow us on Facebook,  Twitter and Tumblr.

March minutes (Word)


The next group meeting is on Thursday 14th March at 7:30 but in Attwood Road number 28.  It will be a busy agenda as we have a lot of things planned at present.  All supporters welcome but to note it is a working meeting so there won’t be a speaker.  Last month’s minutes are available here.


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

February minutes (Word)

 


We have a number of events being planned and this is a brief summary for members and supporters.

I Welcome 

At the Methodist Church in Salisbury we have part of the series of photographs taken by Magnum photographers on display.  These show the life of refugees in camps around the world.  On until early February.  Please check opening times on their website

Refugees

still on the subject of refugees, there will be a coffee/mint tea morning at the Methodist Church on Saturday 2 February 10:30 till noon in support of Salisbury Syrian refugee families.  You will be able to do both these events at the same time

Refugee vigil

being organised for March/April.  Keep an eye on this site or Facebook for details

Cathedral Evensong – date TBC

Arts Centre Film

This will be a screening of The Breadwinner on 8th March 2019.  This film is set in Taliban controlled Afghanistan and concerns a girl dressing as a boy so she can feed her family.  Further details nearer the time or from the Arts Centre

Market Stall – 8th June 2019

Refugee Week – 17th-23rd June 2019


Joining.  If you live in the Salisbury/Amesbury/Wilton area you would be welcome to join us.  Human rights are under threat as never before and the situation in the UK is not fully assured.  Some want to abolish the Human Rights Act.  The best thing is to make yourself known at one of our events.  It is free to join us locally but if you want to join AIUK there is a membership fee.


‘I Welcome’ photos on display at the Methodist Church

The plight of refugees entered the news again this year with the attempts by them to cross the Channel in small boats. This prompted the home secretary Sajid Javid to declare that a ‘major incident’ had occurred and he received considerable favourable coverage from the tabloid press. About 221 attempted the crossing between the beginning of November 2018 and the end of December. This compares with the hundreds of thousands who have entered Italy and Greece. To compare the 221 attempts to cross since the beginning of November with the hundreds of thousands who have entered other European states and calling it a ‘crisis’ is absurd.

The Daily Express for example, under a headline ‘Migrant Crisis’ quotes a former home office chief as saying that ‘Britain faces a humanitarian crisis unless it sends back migrants’.

As Roy Greenslade discusses in the Guardian:

For the past couple of weeks, in a period we like to call the season of goodwill, Britain’s newspapers and broadcasters have been reporting on the arrival of desperate men and women on our shores as if they are criminals unworthy of charity or understanding

Guardian 7 January 2018

The Refugee Council regrets the action Sajid Javid took and his reported doubts that these were genuine asylum seekers and that they should be deterred from crossing to make it harder to claim asylum. In response to these comments, Dr Lisa Doyle, Director of Advocacy at the Refugee Council, said:

The comments made by the Home Secretary today are deeply concerning. The outcome of an asylum application cannot be pre-judged before it has been made and must be processed on its individual merit, irrespective of how that person reached the country. Let us not forget that we are talking about people who are in desperate need of protection, having fled countries with prolific human rights abuses. What is more, we are hearing time and again that the conditions in France do not make people feel safe, with migrant camps being razed from the ground and people experiencing violence from the authorities. It’s a shame that the Home Secretary seems to need reminding that seeking asylum is a right and the UK has an obligation to assess claims fairly and grant protection to those who need it.

Refugee Council 2 January 2018 [accessed 7 January]

Immigration, asylum seekers and refugees raise considerable passions in the country and it was a key issue behind the 2016 Referendum. It is likely that many people voted in favour of leaving the EU because they believed it would end immigration of all kinds into the country.

The Salisbury group has mounted a photographic exhibition in the Salisbury Methodist Church during January featuring award winning pictures of refugees in various locations around the world. There are around 40 million internally displaced people and 25.4 million refugees according to UNHCR. The images show some of the desperate situation many of these men, women and children live in.

Part of the exhibition at the Methodist Church

We are grateful to the church for letting us use their space for these photographs.

Refugees

Posted: December 11, 2018 in refugees
Tags: , , , ,

Talk by Daniel Trilling organised by the Salisbury group

The 10th December was the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Salisbury group decided to mark the occasion with a talk on the subject of refugees.  This is a hot topic since one of the contributory factors which led some people to vote to leave the EU in 2016 was the worry about immigration in all its forms.  At the time of the Referendum, there were nightly images of people fleeing Syria and others fleeing wars in Eritrea, Somalia and Mali trying to cross from Libya to Italy in highly unseaworthy boats. 

We were delighted to welcome author and journalist Daniel Trilling who began by talking about his own family’s journeys to these shores from Russia and Kiev.  His grandmother had managed to leave the Ukraine and get into Poland at the time of the civil war in Russia which started just after the revolution.  She made it to Berlin but had to leave again in ’39 because of the Nazis.  She came Britain 3 days before war was declared.  Britain was hostile to letting in adult Jews, as was the USA and Canada, and the ship MS St Louis found it difficult to find anywhere for them to disembark.  There was a book and a film Voyage of the Damned of harrowing attempts by the fugitives seeking somewhere to land .   Much was made recently of the Kinder transport coming to Britain but these were of course children, not adults. 

After the First World War, there was considerable turmoil in Europe with local wars and revolutions.  The Russian revolution left many millions stateless and there were great movement of peoples as the nation states became dominant.  The two main groups of stateless peoples were Armenians and Russians.  The League of Nations created passports for the stateless but only between members of the League.  In 1951 the Convention on Refugees was the foundation for the protection of refugees in Europe.  

His family history therefore was one reason why he became interested in the refugee question and in researching his book, travelled to Sicily, Greece, Calais, Germany and Bulgaria.  Wars in various parts of the world, Afghanistan, Iraq and the collapse of Libya for example, have created huge numbers of people fleeing to seek refuge in another country.  He noted of course that the countries most affected are often those with the least resources to handle the vast numbers involved, Jordan is a case in point. 

Europe has ‘militarised’ its border in an attempt to keep people out.  The problem was the Dublin Treaty which makes the state where refugees first set foot responsible for them.  This again puts great strain on Greece – which experienced severe financial crisis following the 2008 banking collapse – and Italy which is also under considerable financial strain.  Other European nations – with the exception of Germany – are reluctant to play much of a part.  In Greece, the rise of the neo fascist Golden Dawn party made life very difficult for refugees with frequent attacks.  This led to people living in limbo for many years.  

Effects on people 

The media he said tended to focus on the most dramatic cases, for example the boatloads fleeing across the Mediterranean from Libya.  They tended to give an impression of experiences which were over quite quickly when the reality is that people live in limbo sometimes for many years.  In one of the examples he writes about in his book, an 18 year old Sudanese boy lived on the streets of Athens for 3 years living on his wits. 

He spent some time describing the desperate attempts to hide under or in lorries.  One woman lived for 5 months in Calais.  

Perhaps the most significant question to ask is why do people suffer such privation and take such risks to leave their homes and undertake perilous journeys to an unknown country?  It is no accident that most, indeed nearly all, come from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Mali and the horn of Africa.  In nearly all cases, western powers have played a part in the problems being experienced.  Whether it be as a result of colonialization, war or exploitation of the countries’ mineral wealth, we – the rich countries – have had a deleterious effects yet do not want to take responsibility for the results.  

Britain has had a history in the past decade or so of treating people harshly as a matter of deliberate policy.  Largely, this was as a result of tabloid newspaper stories, using biblical language to describe hoards of refugees pouring into the country and living in luxury at others’ expense.  This Daily Express story (one of many) is fairly typical of the genre.  Trilling also pointed out that the government had privatised asylum housing which meant refugees ended up in remoter and poorer areas.  This only increased tensions.  The system was adversarial and complex.   There was no legal aid which has been withdrawn. 

Northern local authorities have the most problems but had born the brunt of the cuts.  By contrast, Theresa May’s constituency, affluent Maidenhead, had no asylum seekers.  

On the other hand the Scottish system was more positive and humane which was encouraging he said.  In answer to a question about how prejudice and hostility could be tackled, he said MPs had to face the hostility head on and not just accept the misinformed prejudice.  He recommended looking at Refugee Council’s web site and Buzzfeed for better information on the subject.  

Daniel Trilling. Pic: Salisbury Amnesty

This was a very interesting and enlightening talk on this most difficult of subjects.  Daniel’s book is called Lights in the Distance published by Picador (2018).

The next meeting of the group is on Thursday 13th at 4 Victoria Road at 7:30.