Salisbury group welcomes Daniel Trilling to Salisbury on 10 December
The author and journalist Daniel Trilling is speaking at the Methodist Church in St Edmund’s Street Salisbury on 10 December on the subject of refugees. He has recently published a book Lights in the Distancewhich has had a number of favourable reviews (see below). The talk begins at 7:30 pm and is FREE with a parting collection to help with our costs. Copies of the book will be available for sale.
The refugee problem has caused immense problems particularly in Europe. It has crucially affected elections in Hungary and Poland and some think that it was one of the driving issues in the Brexit referendum in the UK. The American elections are currently taking place with president Trump making all kinds of claims about immigrants from Honduras now travelling across Mexico to the Texas border.
Lights in the Distance calmly portrays the reality of life for people trying to enter a Europe that largely doesn’t want them … If knowledge is the foundation of action, then [Trilling] has done us a great service by turning masses and numbers into people whom we like, who we can see are like us. (New Statesman)
Brilliantly researched and written Lights in the Distance is, above all, a book of witness … Trilling [brings] his reader as close as possible to the actual circumstances of those who have found their way to Calais, or to Catania in Sicily or to London or to Athens, only to find themselves condemned to occupy space, rather than live. (Observer)
A compelling account of the individual stories of refugees on the move … Its driving characters are nine migrants, and the book is almost entirely dedicated to their personal stories. In a terse and powerful introduction and afterword, the author’s mastery of the details of his subject shines through. (Financial Times)
Subtle but effective … This is what makes Lights in the Distance such a powerful book. In the midst of an escalating crisis, Trilling manages to keep his lens focused tightly on the people who are most intimately affected by the geopolitical catastrophe taking place around them. (Irish Times)
Humane and illuminating, Lights in the Distance is a vital examination of what the new era of border control and deportations really means, what it costs, and who pays the price. (Olivia Laing)
Combining forensic enquiry with moral passion, Daniel Trilling has emerged as one of our most intrepid and resourceful reporters. In Lights in the Distance, he illuminates the vast human tragedy behind newspaper headlines about refugees, forcing us to confront Europe’s legacy of imperialism and nationalism. (Pankaj Mishra)
A deeply moving and much needed reminder of the human tales which are so often obscured by political rhetoric on migration. (Fatima Manji, Channel 4 News)
We hope this talk will shine some informed light on this vexed area. There has been considerable interest in this subject recently especially in the light of Theresa May’s deliberately hostile immigration policy from when she was home secretary. This was under the spotlight when numbers of the Windrush generation were caught up in after having lived here for several decades.
This would be an opportunity to meet members of the local group if you are interested in joining us
The human rights situation in China is dire. The list is long and includes excessive use of the death penalty. The numbers are unknown because they are a state secret but are believed to be in the thousands. China leads the world and may even execute more than the rest of the world put together. Torture is common. There is precious little freedom of speech and journalists reporting in China quickly find police arriving and stopping any interviews. Under its current premier, repression has increased significantly.
The Great Firewall of China prevents contact with the outside world. Lawyers and activists are monitored, harassed, arrested and detained. Religions have a difficult time practising there. Finally there is Tibet and the poor treatment of Tibetans. China is a leading exporter of torture equipment including devices that one might have thought to be confined to the middle ages. Altogether, China infringes nearly all international norms of good behaviour and it matters especially because they are one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
But they are a massive and growing economy and countries want to do business there. None more so than the UK which hopes to increase trade following our departure from the European Union. Hence the prime minister’s visit there this week. As ever with these visits the question of human rights is brought up. There is a kind of dance performed where the prime minister or her spokespeople claim the matter is brought up and the Chinese say nothing was said. The Chinese are very sensitive on the subject and historical memories of the Opium wars and the resultant national humiliation are still keenly felt.
But China wants to be considered a modern country yet its dreadful reputation in the way it treats its citizens and minorities holds it back.
It’s not often we get an insight into what was actually said but after this visit, an editorial in the Global Times waxed lyrical over the visit and praised Mrs May for not mentioning human rights. The prose is odd but the relevant passages are:
May will definitely not make any comment contrary to the goals of her China trip either. For the prime minister, the losses outweigh the gains if she appeases the British media at the cost of the visit’s friendly atmosphere.
China’s robust development has instilled impetus for Europe to overcome its prejudices against Beijing. David Cameron’s government gained Britain strategic initiative by joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Some European media pressed May and Macron on human rights, but the two leaders sidestepped the topic on their China trips. This shows that the Sino-European relationship has, to a large degree, extricated itself from the impact of radical public opinion. Leader 2 February 2018
The central problem is that China is a one-party state where dissent is not permitted. Hence the crackdowns, arrests and suppression of free speech. As time goes by however, more and more Chinese will travel the world and despite the great wall, gain access to the internet (we note some hits from China on this little site!). As the country develops, more and more Chinese will look for freedom and to criticize the politicians. So the Chinese authorities will find it harder and harder – and more expensive – to maintain the status quo. The denial of human rights therefore is not some kind of esoteric luxury or the west seeking to impose its moral order on them. It is a crucial part of their development and ramping up repression and arrests is taking the country in quite the wrong direction.
Failure – if failure it was – by Mrs May to bring up the issue of human rights would not have been just another lecture from a western liberal (if that term can be applied to Mrs May) but a crucial issue for the Chinese themselves as they develop into the world’s largest nation.
Members of the Salisbury group held a vigil in front of the Guildhall in Salisbury in support of refugees and asylum seekers. We were delighted with the response which was not huge but even so, several came forward and thanked us for our efforts which was gratifying. A number signed our petition. Refugees and asylum seekers get a poor reception in this country and the negative nature of coverage by the tabloid press cannot help. We reported in a previous blog, Sir Vince Cable’s observation that Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, suppressed a number of reports which showed the benefits of immigration. She is also famous for the statement to a Conservative party conference about a man unable to be deported ‘because he had a cat’: “I’m not making this up” she famously said. Only she was.
If you live in the Salisbury area and are interested in joining us we would be pleased to see you. The best thing is to keep an eye on this Website or on Twitter or Facebook (salisburyai) for our events and come along and introduce yourself. It is free to join the local group.
This bi-annual event held in London receives a considerable amount of opposition and is a place for protest against the arms trade. The description of the event by the organisers is blandness itself:
World leading event that brings together the global defence and security sectors to innovate and share knowledge.
It paints a picture of people coming together in some kind of seminar format to discuss defence issues as though it is a think-tank. The reality is a little different as it is a place where all kinds of weapons manufacturers can display and secure deals to a wide range of countries who come to visit. If it is as benign as the description implies one has to ask why organisations like Amnesty are denied access? The purpose is to sell arms and to quote the organising company:
It’s a model that works well in the Middle East…There’s a lot of money being spent here in the UAE on homeland security technology, so it’s a good market in which to roll out our brand
Among the invitees are countries with highly dubious and questionable human rights records. These include according to the guest list: Brunei, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE. If we look at Bahrain in particular, a recent Amnesty report on the country published earlier this year concluded, inter alia:
Since June 2016, the Bahraini authorities have dramatically stepped up their crackdown on dissent. As a result, by June 2017, Bahrain’s formerly thriving civil society had found itself reduced to a few lone voices brave enough to speak out. The majority of peaceful critics, whether they are human rights defenders or political activists, now feel the risk of doing so has become too high. Over the course of a year, the authorities increasingly resorted to a wide range of repressive tactics including arrest, harassment, threats, prosecution and imprisonment to silence peaceful critics. Amnesty International’s research concludes that the security forces have even resorted to torturing or otherwise ill-treating human rights defenders, both men and women, a practice that has not been prevalent in Bahrain since the height of the crackdown that followed the 2011 uprising.
The report went onto to describe how Bahrain has backtracked on reform and noted that in the period June 2016 to June 2017, 169 critics or relatives have been arrested, summonsed, interrogated, prosecuted, imprisoned, banned from travel or threatened. Freedom of expression is increasingly criminalised and the opposition party has in effect been dismantled. The report was compiled after a large number of interviews were carried out including with 52 victims, 58 journalists, lawyers and others, and the investigation of 210 cases.
As far as the Arms fair DSEI itself is concerned, Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade which is helping to coordinate protests said:
DSEI will bring many of the world’s most appalling regimes together with the biggest arms companies. Right now UK fighter jets and bombs are playing a central role in the destruction of Yemen; what will be the next atrocity they are used in? War, repression and injustice are fuelled by events like DSEI. It’s time to shut it down for good
DSEI was formerly part of the UK Trade and Industry Department but has now been moved to the newly formed Department for International Trade the minister of which is Liam Fox.
In an interview on the BBC today (11 September) Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, said “[the UK] sells too many arms to countries which abuse human rights.”
The guest list shows several firms with a Salisbury link who are exhibiting at this fair. They include Babcock, Chemring’s, QinetiQ and Cubic.
The government has got itself into something of a fix over the question of arms sales. Whilst claiming to have a strict code and robust procedures, the sale of arms to questionable regimes has increased. Thousands of jobs now depend on this industry and with future problems likely to arise connected with our withdrawal from the EU, from an economic viewpoint we can ill afford to reduce sales of weapons. It is thus on a treadmill requiring it to support the sale of weapons to a range of unsavoury regimes who in turn use these weapons to intimidate their own people or to cause suffering of neighbouring countries such as the bombing of Yemen by the Saudis. It is also important to bear in mind that it is not just weapons that are involved but also security equipment. Autocratic regimes are keen to keep tabs on their citizens and need all the techniques of surveillance to do so. This kind of equipment, although not lethal of itself, does enable individuals to be monitored, watched and harassed.
The position is indefensible and some of the arguments echo those used by the slave trade in the nineteenth century where large numbers of jobs were involved in its continuation.
If you are keen to join us then come to the next event we are holding on 18 September and make yourself known.
UN speech by the Commissioner for Human Rights well worth a read
It is perhaps a sign of the times that Theresa May, the UK prime minister, should find herself quoted in the opening paragraph of a speech by the UN Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Not in a flattering way but quoting her remarks that human rights should be overturned if the ‘got in the way’ of the fight against terrorism. These remarks were made during the election campaign which did not go the way intended by Mrs May. They followed a terrorist attack in London.
Whatever the background, Al Hussein thinks the remarks were ‘highly regrettable’ and are a gift to the many authoritarian
governments around the world. It seems that any idea that the UK is some kind of a beacon for civilised behaviour in an increasingly troubled world has all but gone. The desire to promote arms now matters more than the victims of their use for example in Yemen. Despite the appalling behaviour of the Chinese government, most recently with the death of Liu Xiaobo, our response is the minimum necessary: we are more interested in trade than decent behaviour.
It is disappointing to see the prime minister of the UK being mentioned in this way because whatever her faults, there is no comparison between the behaviour of her government and that say, of Russia, where journalists and opposition politicians are gunned down and which has been described as a mafia state. The activities of governments in the Gulf also leave a great deal to be desired. There are many other countries in the world where autocratic regimes mistreat their citizens, use torture routinely, violently put down peaceful protests and deny freedom of expression.
The remarks were perhaps made more in sorrow reflecting the fact that it was the UK government after the war which was one of those who were active in promoting the role of international law and human rights. Today, Al Hussein notes in his speech, for some politicians see human rights as an ‘irritating check on expediency.’ Some are indifferent to the effects of austerity on their own citizens.
A question he asks are ‘what rights does the prime minister mean?’ a question we asked of our Salisbury MP Mr Glen. It is seldom if ever clear what it is they want to see done away with. This might arise because they are responding to tabloid media pressure which maintains an unceasing campaign against the European Court, the European Convention of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act. A recent example is from the Daily Mail claiming that the Act does help terrorists. Other newspapers run similar stories presenting a drip, drip of negative material against the act. Throw in a hatred of anything European and it is small wonder politicians follow the line. As Al Hussein expresses it:
So why did Prime Minister May said this? At least part of the answer may lie in market conditions. Human Rights law has long been ridiculed by an influential tabloid press here in the UK, feeding with relish on what it paints as the absurd findings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This viewpoint has some resonance with a slice of the public unaware of the importance of international human rights law – often seen by far too many people as too removed from everyday life, very continental, too lawyerly, too activist, ultimately too weird. How can the Court consider prisoners’ voting rights, and other supposedly frivolous claims, when set against the suffering of victims? The bastards deserve punishment, full stop! This may be understandable, at some emotional level. However, one should also acknowledge that British ink, reflecting an enormously rich legal tradition, is found throughout the European Convention on Human Rights.
Although some members of the government seek to reduce the influence of human rights in our society, not all do and the organisation Bright Blue, which describes itself as an independent think tank and pressure group for liberal conservatism, has recently published a report arguing that the Conservatives should make Britain the ‘home of human rights.’ Clearly some fundamental attitudes will have to change if that ambition is to be realised. This report is also well worth a read.
Unless countries like Britain and the USA are willing to provide moral leadership then a further deterioration in human rights around the world is to be expected.
The news yesterday that the Metropolitan Police are looking into evidence of war crimes by the Saudis in the Yemen is encouraging. It comes at a time when the prime minister, Theresa May is touring the middle East, including Saudi Arabia, in an effort to promote trade. She is not alone as Liam Fox is in the Philippines with president Duterte and Mr Hammond is in India. Mr Fox has received widespread condemnation having spoken of this country’s ‘shared values’ with a regime which has extra-judicially killed around 7,000 of its citizens as part of a war on drugs.
There has been a lot happening this week with the awful news of possible use of Sarin nerve agent in Syria allegedly by the Syrian government.
Starting with Yemen: the British government has authorised £3.2bn or arms sales to the Saudis a fair proportion of which have been used to bomb schools, hospitals and wedding ceremonies in Yemen. The result has been a humanitarian disaster with nearly 10,000 killed and a million displaced. RAF personnel are involved in the control room of the coalition although their direct involvement in the bombing is denied. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade is currently pursuing a case against the government.
One would think that as we are selling arms to the Saudis to enable to continue the carnage in Yemen, that our politicians would be a circumspect in criticising others. Yet both the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Theresa May were voluble in criticising Bashar Al-Assad for the terrible events in Syria seemingly oblivious to our own activities in Yemen.
The activities of the prime minister, the foreign secretary and the secretary for international trade have all been widely criticised by a wide range of commentators and organisations. It is becoming increasingly clear that to promote the idea of a ‘Global Britain’ we are going to have to deal with a wide range of unsavoury regimes. This means that any vestige of an ‘ethical foreign policy’ is long dead. The emphasis is now on business with any country and few questions are asked about their human rights.
To take Saudi as an example. In addition to its activities in Yemen, it is an autocratic regime, torture is routine, its treatment of minorities and women is deplorable and it executes people in public after highly dubious trials. But to our government none of this matters and getting them to buy more arms and list their oil company, Aramco, on the London Stock Exchange are the real prizes.
These activities go to the heart of what we are as a nation. The European Union, for all its faults and shortcomings, is a union of countries which believe in the rule of law, democracy and liberal values. We want to leave this union and no sooner have we sent in the letter triggering our departure, than four of our senior politicians dash off to dubious regimes grubbing around for any deal they can get. It is deeply shaming and added to which, they want to come out of the European Convention of Human Rights, the convention we were so instrumental in setting up.
It has quickly become clear that securing trade deals is now paramount, with no questions asked. In defence of our turning a blind eye to the Saudi regime’s lack of human rights, the prime minister says the state is crucial in saving British lives by providing valuable intelligence information, an assertion impossible to prove and extremely convenient. The abandonment of our British values is much lamented. Paradoxically, one of the driving forces for leaving the EU was the desire to reassert British values. The decision to leave seems to mean that we shall have to dump them quickly to enable us to trade with a range of disreputable regimes.
Economically it makes little sense as the amount of trade with these regimes is tiny in comparison to the EU. From the moral point of view, it lowers our standing in the world and reduces our influence. It sets a poor example to other countries wishing to promote their arms sales.
We would welcome anyone in the Salisbury area wishing to join us in our campaigns for better human rights. The best thing is to come to one of our events and make yourself known. Look on this site, on Twitter or Facebook for details of events. We look forward to meeting you.
Letter in the Observer (19 February) from a group of lawyers stressing the importance of ECHR
Theresa May has repeatedly stated her feelings that Britain would be better served by leaving the European convention on human rights than it would leaving the European Union. As we enter Brexit negotiations, there is now every possibility that both these scenarios could easily come to pass. The ECHR has been the bedrock of peace in Europe since the Second World War and was instrumental in the remarkable growth of democracy in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is no coincidence that the one state that is not part of the convention, Belarus, is known as “Europe’s last dictatorship”. The withdrawal of Britain from the EU and the ECHR in succession could embolden populist leaders in countries such as Hungary and Poland to abandon domestic and international commitments to human rights.
We face the threat of a human rights crisis with the UK trading away protections against torture for grubby trade deals with foreign tyrants. We are calling for the EU to make Britain’s membership of the ECHR a legally binding requirement for any future free trade deal with the UK. The rule of law and human rights are non-negotiable when new countries join the EU; they should be non-negotiable when countries leave and desire a free trade deal.
As parliament scrutinises the bill on withdrawing from the EU and further legislation on Brexit, MPs, peers and the EU itself must make sure that Britain’s membership of the ECHR is a requirement of any future trade deal with the EU.
Signed Sashy Nathan, Baroness Kennedy QC, Lord Lester QC, Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, Alex Bailin QC, Alex Grigg, Ali Naseem Bajwa QC, Alistair Polson, Amos Waldman, Anya Lewis, Ben Cooper
Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, Celia Graves, David Jones, Dr Leslie Thomas QC, Grainne Mellon, Top of Form
Greg Ó Ceallaigh, Harriet Johnson, Helen Foot, James Wood, Jelia Sane, John Halford
Jules Carey, Keir Monteith, Louise Hooper, Malcolm Hawkes, Mark Stephens CBE, Navita Atreya, Nerida Harford-Bell, Paramjit Ahluwalia, Patrick O’Connor QC, Phil Haywood
Prof. Fergal Davis, Prof. Francesca Klug OBE, Professor Steve Peers, Ravi Naik, Sadat Sayeed, Sally Ireland, Sarah Forster, Sean Horstead, Sir Paul Jenkins KCB QC, Stephen Lue
We should add that our MP Mr John Glen, is in favour of this policy.
Three men executed today in Bahrain – the first in 2017
Three men were executed today, 15 January 2017, in Bahrain. This has taken place in a country which likes to claim its commitment to human rights. The convictions were allegedly procured using torture which – according to local human rights groups – included suspension from the ceiling, beatings, electric shock to the genitals and elsewhere, food and sleep deprivation. Violent demonstration are said to have broken out.
The human rights situation in Bahrain is described as ‘dismal’ and in addition to the use of torture, there has been an orchestrated crack-down on the right to free speech and human rights activists and opposition politicians face arrest and repression.
Britain is closely involved in the Kingdom and Theresa May visited the country recently as part of a bid to boost trade. This has raised the issue of our relationship with a country with such poor human rights. She was quoted as saying:
There will be some people in the UK who say we shouldn’t seek stronger trade and security ties with these countries because of their record on human rights. But we don’t uphold our values and human rights by turning our back on this issue. We achieve far more by stepping up, engaging with these countries and working with them
It doesn’t seem to be going so well. There is indeed something to be said for engagement if it does over time secure better standards. It was reported today that Yarls Wood detention centre received a visit by Bahraini officials from the very prisons where torture is alleged to take place. The funding was from the secretive Conflict Stability and Security Fund which a select committee of MPs has been unable to find out much about. But once again it looks like fine words when in reality there is no improvement and all that seems matter is securing business. The UK has just opened a naval base in the state so our ability to apply pressure is further limited.
A Salisbury based firm has allegedly been supplying spyware equipment to enable the Bahraini security forces to penetrate mobile phones and computers.
Mail Group Newspapers; Guardian; Observer; Amnesty International; Reprieve; Bahrain Center for Human Rights
A Salisbury based firm, Gamma TSE, has been accused of supplying spyware to enable Bahraini activists to be arrested
UPDATE 15 March 17
Extract from a recent University of Toronto report:
[…] Far from using this spyware solely to track what might be considered legitimate targets, these countries and their shadowy agencies have repeatedly used them to get inside the computers of human rights activists, journalists, opposition politicians, and even health advocates supporting a soda tax in Mexico. Some of the victims of these campaigns have found themselves arrested and tortured. Leaked emails from certain companies reveal that, despite public assurances by executives, the vendors seem cavalier about these type of abuses, have few internal checks in place to prevent them, and, indeed, knowingly court the clandestine agencies responsible for such abuses. Despite these alarming incidents, however, the dynamics of and participants in the market at large remain opaque.
While arguments rage in the USA concerning the alleged interference by Russia of the
presidential elections, a secretive Salisbury based firm, Gamma TSE, has been accused by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development of supplying software called FinFisher or FinSpy to the authorities in Bahrain and elsewhere. This software enables intelligence agencies to insert Trojan software into computers and mobile phones. This in turn enables people critical of the regime to be tracked and if necessary arrested by the security services. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab is documenting the widespread use of this spying software.
Our involvement with repressive states – especially those in the Gulf – is well-known and Theresa May recently visited Bahrain to promote business interests in the kingdom. As we have noted many times before, there seems little interest in the consequences of our arms and security companies activities on the ordinary people who live in those countries, the death and destruction in Yemen being particularly awful.
Gamma is again in the news today (9 January 2017, p13) in a Times article entitled ‘No 10 linked to spyware in human rights row’ which reveals that despite the criticism by the OECD, they have been invited to the Home Office sponsored International Security and Policing exhibition in London. Amnesty reports show that the human rights situation in Bahrain is very poor with reports of torture and other forms of abuse:
[it] details dozens of cases of detainees being beaten, deprived of sleep and adequate food, burned with cigarettes, sexually assaulted, subjected to electric shocks and burned with an iron. One was raped by having a plastic pipe inserted into his anus.
It said the report showed torture, arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force against peaceful activists and government critics remained widespread in Bahrain.
The OECD report was not conclusive about Gamma as it was a ‘reluctant participant in the proceedings refusing to productively engage in a September 2013 mediation and employed stalling efforts.’
Privacy International say:
Gamma has proven itself to be and irresponsible corporate actor that is indifferent to the human rights impacts of its activities.
The government [of Bahrain] continued to curtail freedoms of expression, association and assembly and cracked down further on online and other dissent. Opposition leaders remained imprisoned; some were prisoners of conscience. Torture and other ill-treatment remained common. Scores were sentenced to long prison terms after unfair trials. Authorities stripped at least 208 people of their Bahraini nationality. Eight people were sentenced to death; there were no executions.
A firm helping regimes with a record of mistreating its citizens and regularly using torture, is based in the village of Porton, near Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Government plans to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights
The Conservative government has long disliked the European Convention and is now proposing to put withdrawal in the next manifesto. This will be a serious mistake and will affect the human rights of many individuals in the UK. It will also send a message to many other countries around the world whose record on human rights leaves a lot to be desired.
One of the problems with discussing this issue is that it is clouded by a programme of disinformation by the tabloid press. Being a European creation it is damned by association. It is also, in their eyes, a serious threat because it gives people some rights concerning privacy. Since large parts of the British press are concerned with the private lives of celebrities and profit from such stories (which to be fair have an avid readership), anything which inhibits their ability to publish such material is going to harm profits. There has thus been a continuous series of stories which rubbish the Human Rights Act and the European Convention (ECHR). Small wonder therefore that politicians follow this line and brave it is for those few who stand up for the Act.
Theresa May has a particular animus against it and is famous for her fatuous remark about someone not being deported because of a cat. “I’m not making this up” she famously said: only she was. The person involved was a Bolivian who wasn’t an illegal immigrant anyway but was a student who had overstayed his visa. At the tribunal and later at appeal, part of the evidence for his right to stay, was his relationship with a British woman, various other domestic matters, and their ownership of a cat.
A more serious case which caused Mrs May angst whilst at the Home Office was the case of Abu Qatada. The Home Office spent many years trying to deport him and the HRA was blamed by her and the right wing media for being unable to do so. In simple terms, he could not be deported because either he – or the witnesses against him – would be tortured by the Jordanian authorities. He was eventually deported following diplomatic negotiations which led to Jordan agreeing to renounce torture. It was never really explained during all the months of dispute about the need to deport him, why he was never put on trial here.
In a speech in April last year Theresa May (then Home Secretary) set out her reasons for wishing to depart from the ECHR:
[…] The ECHR can bind the hands of Parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals – and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights. So regardless of the EU referendum, my view is this. If we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court. (26 April 2016)
Almost every part of this paragraph is nonsense but one element is ‘[it] does nothing to change the attitude of governments like Russia’s’. We have just seen the brutal activities of Russian forces in action in Syria and prior to that, in Ukraine and Chechnya. Human rights in Russia are at a low ebb and the murder of opposition leaders and journalists a fairly frequent occurrence. But Russia has been subject to the ECtHR for some years and something like half their judgements are against Russia, Turkey, Romania and Ukraine. It is, in a small way, a civilising influence. It has had an effect on their activities.
On the other hand there has been a miniscule number of judgements against the UK – 10 in 2012 for example. Indeed if one looks at the statistics, between 1959 and 2015 there have been 525 judgements concerning the UK of which 305 decided that there was at least one violation. That is 305 over a period of 56 years. From all the sturm and drang in the media you would imagine it was at least ten times greater.
The chief worry is that if we – one of the founders of the European Court – pull out it will give the Russians the perfect excuse to do so as well. One of the lawyers acting for the survivors of the Beslan massacre in Russia said:
It would be and excuse for our government to say we don’t want it either. Putin would point at the UK straight away. It would be a catastrophe. [the UK] has to understand; we all live in the same world and we all have impact on one another. (quoted in A Magna Carta for all Humanity by Francesca Klug, Routledge, 2015, p193)
At the end of the extract from Theresa May’s speech she goes on to say ‘if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court.’ But what laws do we want to reform? We still wait after more than five years for sight of the British Bill of Rights although it is still promised.
There are two aspects to the proposed withdrawal: internal and external. Internally, it will reduce the rights of individuals in their claims against the state. People like the Hillsborough survivors would never have succeeded in their quest for justice without article 2. The parents of the Deepcut shooting would never have received justice without the ECHR. On that subject, Theresa May also wants to remove the armed services from the act, a view echoed by the local MP for Devizes.
Behind all this anti-ECtHR rhetoric, are the assumptions that all EU rulings are wrong and that we have a superior and infallible legal system. We do indeed enjoy a very good system – witness the low number of rulings against us by the European Court – but it is not perfect and judges have shown themselves to be too keen on supporting the establishment. There is also the issue of sovereignty and a belief that it is only our parliament who should decide our laws. The problem here is the weakness of parliament in challenging the executive.
Externally, it will send a harmful message to countries like Russia and Turkey where human rights are fragile. It is astonishing to recall that it was a conservative, Sir Winston Churchill who was instrumental in forming the Convention. Yet now it is the same conservatives who want to abolish it because, now and again, we fall foul of it and have to change our procedures or right a wrong.
Coming out of the European Convention would be a serious error and a backward step. Our influence in the world would be diminished. As a result of Brexit, we will be desperate to secure trade deals with whoever we can. Such limited concerns as we do have for human rights will all but disappear in the rush to sign a deal. Witness our activities in the Yemen where we are more concerned with selling £3bn of arms than we are with the results of the bombing. In the UK, the ability of ordinary people to uphold their rights in every day situations will be diminished.
The local group hopes to campaign in favour of the Human Rights Act and related issues as when we get some details from government. If you believe these matters are important, as we do, both for people’s rights in this country and our influence overseas, you would be welcome to join us. Details will be here and on twitter and Facebook