Posts Tagged ‘UN’’


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

Al Hussein, UN. Pic: Times of Israel

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.

 

 


Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo has liver cancer

Liu Xiaobo who has liver cancer and was serving 11 years for ‘inciting subversion of state power’ which means any activity which seeks to undermine communist power.  Liu was seeking reforms in China and improved democracy.  He is now out of prison but essentially under arrest.  Since his diagnosis, the Chinese did not want a Nobel Lauriat dying in prison, so released him to a hospital where he is expected to die.  It is alleged the poor state of medical attention in prisons in China meant he did not get treatment earlier enough and this may have hastened his end.

China is accused of many failings to do with human rights.  Activists and lawyers are targeted and frequently arrested.  There has been a crackdown on lawyers.  People with religious convictions are persecuted.  The internet is heavily restricted and press freedom is also extremely limited.  The country is a heavy user of the death penalty and executes more of its citizens than all the rest of the world put together.  The precise number not known since it is a state secret.

The country is extremely sensitive to outside criticism and were furious when Liu was awarded the Peace Prize.  Trade with Norway was curtailed which probably did not concern them too much since they are a wealthy country.  The Beijing government summoned the Norwegian ambassador in protest.  It called Mr Liu a “criminal”, saying the award violated Nobel principles and could damage relations with Norway.  The Norwegian Nobel committee said Mr Liu was “the foremost symbol” of the struggle for human rights in China.  It took six years before relations were normalised between the two countries according to the New York Times.

In some respects China is a powder keg.  As long as prosperity increases then many people are happy to go about their lives and not bother too much about issues of freedom and human rights.  They will not have access to sites or information which discuss or promote such issues (such as Amnesty International) and so the ruling communists need not worry too much about a restive population.  Step by step they are securing hegemony over Hong Kong.  Some ‘below the line’ comments in the press stories suggest that the Confucian tradition also plays a part and that, unlike Western nations, this tradition of loyalty to the state is more a feature of political life.

Another factor is that it is said by some observers that the Chinese rather resent being subjected to Western moral codes, in which they had no part in formulating, being applied to them.  This does have some force except that they were a member of the Security Council when the Universal Declaration was signed in 1948.  It does overlook the fact that the Declaration caused the Western nations some discomfort as well: the British and French with their treatment of the colonial peoples and the USA with its treatment of black people.

If China wishes to become a leading world nation then it is going to have to accept the norms the rest of the world tries to live by.  The treatment of Liu Xiaobo (and many, many others) has been disgraceful.

And what of our Foreign and Colonial Office?  It says:

Minister for Asia and the Pacific Mark Field said:

I am pleased that the 24th Round of the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue has taken place. Senior officials discussed the full range of our human rights concerns, including freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, access to justice and ethnic minorities’ rights. They also discussed areas where the UK and China could collaborate more closely, including modern slavery and women’s rights.

The UK strongly believes that respect for human rights is vital for growth and stability, and that these regular talks are an important part of our relationship with China. The dialogue has, once again, been held in a constructive and open manner. I am grateful for the valuable contribution made by civil society organisations before and during this exchange. [accessed 29 June]

Post Brexit the emphasis is going to be on trade and the UK government is unlikely to raise difficult issues with the Chines government or risk being treated like Norway.

Sources: Amnesty International, New York Times, BBC, Guardian.


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The prospects for human rights in 2017 look grim

Their are many reasons to be pessimistic about human rights in the year ahead.  The election of Theresa May and Donald Trump are both bad omens and the rise in importance of China and Russia is also a bad sign.  On almost every front, the post-war ideal of steady improvement in both democracy and human rights around the world now seems under assault.  In the UK, the majority of the media keep up a relentless attack on human rights painting them as a threat to justice and social order.  It is hard to believe that we are now debating the merits or otherwise of torture following President Trump’s remarks this week.  How have we come to this?

Post war

Graphic: Linkedin

Perhaps the most important factor, and one difficult to discern, is the recent decline in optimism which was visible following WWII.  That war and the terrible events which took place with the murder of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, led the world to say ‘never again’ and led to the Universal  Convention on Human Rights.  This led in time to the European Convention on Human Rights a convention strongly driven by Winston Churchill.  There was a feeling in the years that followed, with such conventions and other subsequent treaties, that the world was on an improving path and the horrors of the Second World War would not be repeated.  Improvements included a steady reduction in the number of countries using the death penalty.  The cold war eventually came to an end.  On the other hand, the use of torture around the world is still widespread with 141 countries still practising it according to Amnesty and this is specifically banned by the Universal Convention.

It was not of course plain sailing and we now realise that Chairman Mao murdered many millions of Chinese and there have been other monsters such a Pol Pot.  Nevertheless, there was this feeling that things were steadily improving and the UN provided a forum for nations to settle disputes short of going to war.  There was an assumption of western values of fairness, justice, free speech and the rule of law were becoming the norm.

Following Syria it is clear that this is no longer the case.  Human rights in China are poor in the extreme.  Thousands are executed and torture is routine.  There is no free press and it is a one party state.  Things are also deteriorating in Russia under President Putin.  Russia’s ‘victory’ in Syria has changed the dynamic.

UK

Last year, we celebrated the 800 years since the signing* of Magna Carta.  This was an attempt by the barons of the day to wrest some powers from the king.  It would be unwise to summarise British history in a paragraph, but an element of our history has been a steady attempt – sometimes peaceful, sometimes not – to secure rights for ordinary people against whoever was the elite or in power at the time.  It might be landowners or it might be factory owners for example.  They had the wealth and the power and were extremely reluctant to release any of it to the benefit of those at the bottom of the social order.  The lives of farm workers and those in factories was grim indeed and attempts to form unions was fiercely resisted.  The legal system did little to ameliorate the plight of the powerless in society.

The modern day Human Rights Act incorporated the ECHR into British law and meant that every citizen could defend his or her rights in the courts and that public organisations had to treat everyone with fairness, dignity and respect.

But we would argue that the fundamental thing the act did was to spell out what those rights are and it represented a major shift from rights being grudgingly given to the people to them being theirs as of right.  As Gearty expresses it in his book On Fantasy Island;

The Human Rights Act has a enables a range of individuals to secure legal remedies that in pre-act days would never have been achieved, perhaps even contemplated.  […] it has been particularly valuable for those whose grip on society is fragile, whose hold on their lives is precarious, whose disadvantage has robbed them of means of adequate engagement with adversity. (Conor Gearty, OUP, 2016, p131)

[…] it is clear that the human rights act is a documents that is profoundly subversive of the partisan national interest .  To put it mildly some people – often quite powerful people – do not like this.  (op cit, p8)

It is this shift of power that is so deeply resented and ‘some people,’ which includes some politicians, have grown to dislike the loss of power and assumed patronage that they had become used to.  The virtual ending of legal aid in the UK was a symptom of this desire to remove the ability of ordinary people to achieve redress or argue for their rights.

Picture: Left Foot Forward

Others of the ‘some people’ include chunks of the media.  The HRA created a right of privacy and this represented a huge problem for the ‘kiss and tell’ end of the media world.  These stories depended on substantial infringements of privacy, by phone hacking, not to expose corruption, but to find intimate details of politicians, celebrities and people in the public eye.  Owners of newspapers – all of whom live overseas – were exempt from this scrutiny and intrusion of course.

The result of this assault on their business models is of great concern to them and this is most probably the main reason why they have produced relentless series of negative stories about Europe and the HRA.  Rupert Murdoch was famously quoted in the Evening Standard as saying:

I [Stephen Hilton] once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. ‘That’s easy,’ he replied. ‘When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.

It must also be why there are few political champions for the Act or the ECHR.  Any politician speaking up for it risks at best being ignored or at worst, having his or her private life raked over for something with which to denigrate them.  There is instead an almost unseemly rush to join in the claims to ‘bring sovereignty back’ or to take control of our laws.

Brexit

Graphic: Huffington Post

A real worry has to be Brexit.  The plan is to seek trade deals around the world sufficient to counter the effects of losing our access to the European market.  This is likely to be tough as we will no doubt soon learn from the USA.  To achieve these trade deals it is likely that our insistence on human rights will be weakened or even jettisoned altogether.  As we have noted in many previous blogs concerning Saudi and Yemen, our principal interest there has been in selling them weapons.  Despite considerable and irrefutable evidence of infringements of international humanitarian treaties, selling weapons is the primary aim of policy.

Until very recently, ministers have not needed to worry too much about the atrocities in Yemen.  Most attention was on Syria.  We did not even know British personnel were involved until it was blurted out by a Saudi prince.  In the last few months however, there have been two debates in the Commons and press interest is now at a slightly higher level.  The two debates revealed ministers more interested in promoting arms sales because of the economy and the jobs created, rather than in promoting human rights.

Public reaction

Perhaps the greatest worry of all however is the attitude of the public at large.  How concerned are they about human rights issues?  There seems little evidence that they are.  The Investigatory Powers Bill – referred to as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ – passed easily through parliament with little public outcry.  Kate Allen, director of Amnesty said:

The UK is going in the wrong direction on rights, protections and fairness.  Public safety is paramount but not at the cost of civil liberties.  [Said in connection to the Snooper’s Charter]

It is hardly surprising when the major part of our media has carried out a sustained campaign against all things European leading, some might argue, to the decision to leave it.  It is truly ironic that for many years the Daily Mail has carried out a campaign against what it calls ‘Frankenstein Foods’.  The introduction of genetically modified foods has been seriously restricted by the European Union.  The trade deal with USA is likely to involve the import of GM foods of varying kinds as ministers will be unwilling or unable to resist the pressure if we want to continue to export to them.

The general tone of press coverage has been that we do not need the act.  It’s only of benefit to terrorists and assorted criminals who escape justice because of it (they argue).  The benefits of the act to ordinary people are rarely mentioned and often one can scour a story for any mention it where it was used.

Putting all these elements together, the sense that the steady progress of western values has come to an end, a hostile media keen to bad mouth human rights and to denigrate the Human Rights Act, the Conservative government’s prolonged threat to abolish it, the decision to leave the EU needing a concerted effort to secure trade deals at any cost, and many of the public who are not concerned about such matters, means that the prospect for human rights does not look promising.


* in fact the sealing

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Lecture by Prof Phillippe Sands at Southampton University

Phillippe Sands

It was a pleasure to attend the annual lecture organised by the Romsey and Southampton Amnesty group given by Phillippe Sands (the link is to several of his articles).  It was based on his book East West Street concerning in part the city of Lviv which was known at Lemberg in the nineteenth century and was also known as Lwów.  Under the Soviets it was called Lvov.  Its importance in his story was that two people came from the town who were very influential in the post-war developments of human rights. 

Hersch Lauterpacht. Picture: the Guardian

First was Hersch Lauterpacht who was born just north of Lemberg and moved there in 1911, and the second was Rafael Lemkin who was born in Ozerisko and moved to Lemberg in 1900.  They both worked behind the scenes during the Nuremberg trials.  But their claims to fame are that Lauterpacht was instrumental in getting the world to agree the need for action on crimes against humanity and Lemkin on the concept of genocide.  It is surprising that these two concepts are fairly recent and both date from 1945: one assumes they have been around for a lot longer.  But that they both emanate from two men from the same town in east Poland is even more remarkable.  Despite this and despite the fact they worked in the same field, they never met as far as is known.

Lauterpacht it was who wrote the International Bill of the Rights of Man which invoked Churchill’s commitment to the ‘enthronement of the rights of man.’  His book was key in the development of the UN declaration.

Sands discussed the arguments concerning whether ‘genocide’ should be included and in

the early years it was sometimes in and sometimes dropped.  It met resistance because of legal doubts.  Lemkin was keen to introduce this as a crime largely because of the German’s crimes in the war an in particular the activities of Hans Frank who oversaw the slaughter in his former town and Poland generally.  Frank was hanged after the Nuremberg trials.

 

He finished his lecture by discussing briefly, the current state of affairs with regard to human rights.  He expressed an ‘acute sense of anxiety at what stirs in our midst’ referring part to the far right groups in eastern Europe especially as they suffered so much under the Nazis.

He said he had a ‘sense of going backwards’ with our own politicians wanting to come out of the European convention which he thought was ‘unbelievable’.  The platitudes of many of the current politicians seems to reflect a lack of knowledge of post-war events.


East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity  is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20).


Saudi Arabia has successful blackmailed the UN to remove itself from a blacklist

Source: youthhealthmag.com

Human rights groups around the world have condemned the decision by the U.N. to remove Saudi Arabia from a blacklist of countries which are accused of abusing children’s rights.  This arises from their bombing activities in the Yemen conflict but also the general treatment of children in Saudi.  In Yemen, 1,953 children were killed and it is estimated that 60% of these deaths are as a result of Saudi bombing.  Britain is a major supplier of weapons to the regime and British service personnel are advising the Saudis.

The kingdom, who routinely violates their own citizens’ human rights on a daily basis, threw a fit when the UN published its report and threatened to withhold funding from the organisation.

Foreign Policy reported that:

senior Saudi diplomats told top U.N. officials Riyadh would use its influence to convince other Arab governments and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to sever ties with the United Nations.

On Monday, Ban Ki-moon said

The Saudi coalition would be removed from the list, pending a review. Saudi U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi insisted the removal was “irreversible and unconditional.”

Human rights groups, including Amnesty, have rightfully condemned and blasted the UN for their reversal:

It appears that political power and diplomatic clout have been allowed to trump the U.N.’s duty to expose those responsible for the killing and maiming of more than 1,000 of Yemen’s children,

Sajjad Mohammad Sajid, Oxfam’s country director in Yemen, said in a statement:

The decision to retract its finding is a moral failure and goes against everything the U.N. is meant to stand for.

Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch deputy director for global advocacy, said that the office “has hit a new low by capitulating to Saudi Arabia’s brazen pressure” and “Yemen’s children deserve better.”

Amnesty International’s UN office claimed:

…if the U.N. doesn’t start standing up for human rights and its own principles then they will become part of the problem rather than the solution.

Saudi Arabia will not be the first country to browbeat the UN – at one time or another all countries have done it especially where embarrassing national interest is a stake.  This does seem to have been an especially egregious example however as the Saudi state’s crimes against children, and others, is well documented.  Combined with the bizarre election of the Saudi’s onto the Human Rights Council of the UN – supported shamefully by the UK Government – it begins to make a mockery of this international body.

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We reproduce a piece written by Fiona Bruce MP on the subject of violence against women and the denial of human rights in North Korea [DPRK]

As we mark International Women’s Day, I am minded to reflect upon the recent conference in the House of Commons hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, of which I am Co-Chair.  Titled Addressing Violence against Women and Girls in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the conference looked to a forgotten corner of Asia and a forgotten group of people: North Korea’s women and girls.

Notorious for its diplomatic belligerence, its disregard for international law and its nuclear programme, the DPRK (or North Korea) successfully concealed its widespread human rights violations from the world for decades.  An era of silence ended in 2014 when a United Nations Commission of Inquiry reported:

The gravity, scale and nature of [North Korea’s human rights] violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.

The severity of this UN statement is worth repeating: North Korea’s human rights situation has no parallel in the contemporary world.

Violence against women

As the international community slowly awakened from its slumber, it was no longer farfetched to recognise North Korea as the largest concentration camp the world had ever known or to rank the horrors of Yodok, Hoeryong, and Pukch’ang alongside Auschwitz, Belsen, and Dachau.  It became a fact that North Korean women have and continue to experience sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault and harassment in public and private spheres of life; human trafficking; forced abortions; slavery; sexual exploitation; psychological violence; religious and gender discrimination; and institutional and economic violence.

This violence in North Korea is neither occasional nor confined to certain quarters — it is endemic; it is state sanctioned; and it is perpetrated against women precisely because they are women.  In every sense of the term, North Korea’s abuses are ‘gendered’.

Why has the international community been silent on this issue?  We can look to many factors, but first and foremost is the discourse that surrounds North Korea.  Dominated by talk of nuclear weapons, regional security, engagement, unification, and humanitarian aid, there has been little room for North Korean women.  And, if truth be told, advocates have simply not been loud enough on this issue.

This year’s International Women’s Day marks an important phase for women’s rights.  Just months after the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women, and fifteen years since the pioneering UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, this is the year that the world is developing the Agenda for Sustainable Development looking to 2030.  The Sustainable Development Goals include a stand-alone goal to achieve gender equality and empowerment for women and girls.

North Korea’s female population should not be forgotten on March 8th.  Gendered violence and discrimination are destroying lives and ruining families in North Korea.  Women are enduring unimaginable suffering and the UK must use what engagement it has with the DPRK to push for real change.  The APPG’s conference on VAWG in North Korea brought together North Korean victims, exiled DPRK Government officials and experts on gender and the rights of women and girls.  Women’s and girls’ human rights is an area in which the UK exhibits international leadership. Let us draw from our knowledge and set out to challenge gendered violence in the DPRK just as we do in so many other countries in the world.

Fiona Bruce, MP for Congleton, is Co-Chair of the APPG on North Korea jointly with Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP and Lord Alton of Liverpool.


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No end in sight

This is the title of a report produced by Amnesty International concerning the use of torture in China.  It was only last month that China’s president received a red carpet treatment on his visit to Britain with smiles all round.  The subject of human rights was taboo and was not to be mentioned during the course of his visit.  The aim was to boost trade and to secure deals such as the nuclear power plant investment.

Human rights infringements are a major issue for China and there is always the hope that there will be a steady improvement over time.  Indeed, it is a favourite argument by politicians that engagement – whether through trade, culture, sport or otherwise – is the best way to effect improvements in countries still practising torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments.

Only it doesn’t seem to be working in places like Saudi Arabia or China despite the huge effort put into engagement with their leaders.  Amnesty has just published No End in Sight which shows that if anything, it is getting worse.  Despite having signed up to UN Charter against torture, it is still widely practised in all its medieval brutality.

Tiger bench

Tiger bench

The rot seems to start in police stations and the system of securing confessions acts as an incentive to extract one, by force if necessary.  The methods are extremely unpleasant and the least graphic (though no lest brutal) is the ‘tiger bench’ illustrated left.

The report explains the weak nature of the justice system which means no meaningful enquiries are made and that lawyers are themselves coerced or threatened if they try too hard to stop it.

It is alarming that this major nation, which is a member of the Security Council and is thus in a position to influence a lot of what happens in the world, should be steadily getting worse not better as far as human rights are concerned.  It is disappointing that the opportunity to express our concerns was apparently not taken during President Xi’s visit.


Sources

The Independent;

The Guardian;

Amnesty report


The situation in North Korea remains dire as far as human rights are concerned and a number of NGOs have written to the Security Council asking for action to be taken

North Korea letter.

 

 


Why Eritrea?

In all the discussion about the relative merits of refugees from the various war-torn parts of the world, the Syrians are presently claiming most attention.  We all understand how dreadful their plight is, and so too those fleeing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the Sudan.  But Eritrea?  Eritrea is not actually at war with anyone (well, it’s in a face-off with Ethiopia, but wouldn’t dare to take on its bigger neighbor in a full-scale war), and the regime is in total control of the country.  So why the desperation of people to escape to Europe?  Indeed the British government has changed its view of the country in recent months to say that it is safe for asylum seekers to be returned home. The Home Office said:

its guidance on Eritrea is based on a careful and objective assessment of the situation in Eritrea using evidence taken from a range of sources including media outlets; local, national and international organisations, including human rights organisations; and information from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

However they have relied largely on a Danish report, the authors of which have disowned for its misinterpretation, and Eritrean government sources, rather than the reports of human rights groups.

The UK’s position is totally confused, as they are supposedly taking account also of a recent UN report, which would also give a somewhat different picture.  The report, by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, cites a raft of human rights violations – some, it says, which may constitute crimes against humanity – of a ‘scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere’. The report strongly urges continued international protection for Eritrean refugees fleeing human rights violations, and warns against sending them back to danger in a country that punishes anyone who tries to leave without permission

President Aferworki

President Afeworki

Following its independence in 1991, the country has lapsed into a total disregard for the rule of law.  Elections have been regularly postponed – President Isaias Afeworki has never faced the electorate – arbitrary detention is rife; torture is so common that the Commission concluded that it was government policy, and mass surveillance and neighbourhood spying is the norm.  Justice is arbitrary, detention conditions are appalling, and complete disappearance not unusual.  So far, so typical dictatorship but in Eritrea it is egregiously appalling.

The speciality of the state is that, under the pretext of defending the integrity of the State and ensuring national self-sufficiency, much of the population is subjected to open-ended national service, either in the army or through the civil service.  When they turn 18 or even before, all Eritreans are conscripted.  While national service is supposed to last 18 months, in reality conscripts end up serving for an indefinite period, up to 20 years in extreme cases.  Thousands of conscripts are subjected to forced labour that effectively abuses, exploits and enslaves them for years.  Women conscripts are at extreme risk of sexual violence during national service.

Many others – detainees, students, members of the militia – are also subjected to forced labour.  The report says

The use of forced labour is so prevalent in Eritrea that all sectors of the economy rely on it and all Eritreans are likely to be subject to it at one point in their lives.  The commission concludes that forced labour in this context is a practice similar to slavery in its effects and, as such, is prohibited under international human rights law.

The Eritrean Foreign Ministry inevitably claimed the Commission’s report contained ‘wild allegations’ which were ‘totally unfounded and devoid of all merit’ and charged the UNHRC of ‘vile slanders and false accusations’, without addressing any of the issues.  The British government have since modified their stance based on Eritrean assertions that military service will be limited to 18 months to 4 years, which would render it legal, but there is no evidence of this happening.

These widespread abuses have prompted thousands of Eritreans to flee their home country in search of asylum in Europe.  According to the latest estimates produced by Italian authorities, 32,000 Eritreans were rescued in 2014 as they attempted to traverse the Mediterranean – the majority of all migrants rescued by Italy’s comprehensive Mare Nostrum operation.  Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency has placed the number of Eritreans under its concern outside the country at more than 357,400.

This is the country we are intending to return refugees to as being “safe”.  The Government needs to think again.


UPDATE: 3 August

At the end of this blog we wrote ‘it seems therefore that nothing will change’.  How wrong can you be as it has just been announced that the FCO will no longer be specifically campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty.  The FCO to us was dated 6 July and Mr Glen’s covering letter dated 14 July.  So in the space of a few weeks abolishing the death penalty world wide has gone from ‘a human rights priority for the UK’ to being no longer a policy.  The group plans to write to Mr Glen again to seek clarification.


The Salisbury Group wrote to the local MP, Mr John Glen to ask for a more robust response by our government to the No to the death penaltybarbaric activities of the Saudi government in particular the increasing number of executions which are taking place.  In our letter we said:

[we are writing] to you in connection with the increasing level of executions currently taking place in Saudi Arabia.  (Over the course of the first five months of this year, the number of executions has equalled that of the whole of 2014).

You will no doubt be aware that on his recent visit to the country, President Francois Hollande made a public statement to the effect that all executions, not just those of his own nationals, should be banned, and called for the abolition of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

M. Hollande was prepared to do this, despite the fact that France – as does the United Kingdom – has significant financial interests in the its dealings with Saudi Arabia. The British government, however, has never seen fit to raise the issue in public, preferring to pursue a policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’.  This policy has manifestly had no effect.  Numbers continue to rise, and the Saudi Government have now advertised for eight additional executioners – ‘no particular skills required.’

As a group, we are asking that your government should take a much more robust line over the issue with the Saudi government.

Whereas the government – including the Prime Minister – has been vocal in its criticisms of the Islamic State for its appalling behaviour and of Russia for its activities in Ukraine, they seem strangely silent when it comes to Saudi Arabia.  This contrasts with France which has openly criticised them and Sweden which has decided no longer to sell them arms.

Mr Glen replied, enclosing a letter from the FCO minister, and said:

I enclose correspondence from the FCO minister Tobius Ellwood in reply to your recent letter about the UK’s apparent reticence when it comes to condemning the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

As you can see, the approach taken by the government is not in any way indicative of an equivocal view on this practice, which is as barbaric as it is ineffective.

However, the government recognises that its abolition is not a matter of mere legal reform but would require a seismic societal shift.  It has therefore taken an approach which it feels is most constructive – engaging behind the scenes rather than inflaming the situation and triggering a backlash through outspoken public critique.

The letter from the Foreign and Colonial Office is as follows:

[…] The abolition of the death penalty is a human rights priority for the UK.  The UK opposes the death penalty around the world because we believe it undermines human dignity and there is no evidence that it works as a deterrent.

Saudi Arabia remains a country of concern on human rights, because of its use of the death penalty as well as the restricted access to justice, women’s rights, and the restrictions of the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion or belief.

Ministers, our Ambassador, and the Embassy team in Riyadh frequently raise the issue of the death penalty with the Saudi authorities, bilaterally and through the European Union.  As it is part of Sharia Law, we must recognise that total abolition of the death penalty is unlikely in Saudi Arabia in the near future.  For now, our focus is on the introduction of EU minimum standards for the death penalty as a first step, and supporting access to justice and the rule of law.

The British Government’s position on human rights is a matter of public record.  We regularly make our views well known including the UN Universal Periodic Review process and the Foreign and Colonial Office’s  annual Human Rights and Democracy Report.  We also raise our human rights concerns with Saudi Arabian authorities at the highest level.  But we have to recognise that the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia reflects widely held conservative social values and that our human rights concerns are best raised in private rather than in public.

It seems therefore that nothing will change.  It is important to recognise that behind the scenes lobbying can be constructive.  However, the policy of raising matters ‘in private rather than in public’ does not appear to be working.  Successive governments have courted the regime and Saudis are free to invest in London and elsewhere in the UK.

Eurofighter of the type sold to Saudi ArabiaIt would be naïve not to recognise the reality behind this reluctance to criticise the Saudis and the importance to the government of the sale of arms and the supply of oil.  Saudi Arabia is a key market for the UK and much effort is put into promoting sales including by members of the royal family – see the Guardian article:  Human rights are of secondary concern.

As long as these interests are paramount, it is difficult to see how the toll of executions can be checked in the near future.