Posts Tagged ‘UN’’


Is the situation with human rights around the world in terminal decline?

The title of this piece ‘What’s it got to do with us?’ was said at a signing in Salisbury by someone invited to sign a card for a prisoner of conscience.  She did not sign.  Of course, anyone involved in any kind of street signing will have come across this kind of response from people who are not persuaded there is any point in sending such cards and who do not think someone in prison in a foreign country has anything to do with us anyway.

This year sees the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This was done following the second world war and with the formation of the United Nations itself was part of a belief that there had to be a better way for countries to organise their affairs.  Although there was a desire for such a better way, it would be a mistake to overlook the difficulties in negotiations to get UNDHR agreed.  The colonial powers – principally UK and France – had worries about what was happening in their colonies.  They were reluctant to see rights being applied there especially in view of the brutal suppression of freedom movements.  Nevertheless, it was signed and it did usher in a new world order.

Looking at the world today however, does not lead us to believe that we are on an improving trend.  It is hard to select from a series of terrible events to illustrate the point.  The suppression of free speech and the arrest of thousands of journalists and academics in Turkey is one example of many elements of the declaration being ignored.  Syria, which has seen thousands die from bombing and the use of gas, is another example, this time by a member of the UN Security Council itself, namely Russia.  In China, vast internment camps established in Xinjiang to detain hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, and the arrest of human rights lawyers has been detailed in a UN report.  As Human Rights Watch expresses it:

The broad and sustained offensive on human rights that started after President Xi Jinping took power five years ago showed no sign of abating in 2017.  The death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in a hospital under heavy guard in July highlighted the Chinese government’s deepening contempt for rights.  The near future for human rights appears grim, especially as Xi is expected to remain in power at least until 2022.  Foreign governments did little in 2017 to push back against China’s worsening rights record at home and abroad.  World Report, 2018 [accessed 18 November 2018]

In Yemen, which this site has featured in a number of blogs, has seen a country taken to edge of viable existence by a campaign of bombing by Saudi Arabia and atrocities by the Houthis.  The Saudis have been supported by arms from the UK, France and the USA.  British RAF personnel are supposedly advising the Saudis.  The point here is not just the misery inflicted on the country but that schools, hospitals, weddings and other community events have been targeted in the bombing campaign.

Seventy years after the signing of the Declaration, we should be celebrating steady improvements across the world.  We are not.  Rights and freedoms are routinely violated in many countries around the world.  Torture is still widely practised by the majority of countries: countries that have signed up not to use it.   Even countries like the UK have been found shamefully outsourcing its use of this abhorrent practice to Libya.

We could go on listing wars, the displacing of millions including the Rohingya from Burma, the continuing scourge of slavery which is probably at a higher level today than during the triangular trade, and the murder of journalists in countries like Russia.

Here in Salisbury we have seen the brazen Novichok attack on the Skripals by what seems, beyond doubt, to have been Russian GRU agents.  In Turkey there has been the murder and probable dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi.  None of this kind of activity is new – the CIA have been involved in murders and coups especially in South America – but that we have become inured to it.  To turn on the news is to witness war, misery, tides of refugees fleeing persecution or war, stricken cities and starving peoples.   There is a distinct feeling that the international rules based order ushered in after the second world war, now seems to be crumbling.  Famines in the ’80s and ’90s in Ethiopia and Somalia resulted in huge humanitarian efforts and the British public were moved by the scenes and reportage from the area.  Considerable sums were collected to help.  Today, we see the enormous damage and misery in Yemen but there is no sense of national outrage.

Causes 

John Bew, in a New Statesman¹ article, argues that the events of 2007 and 2008 were an important factor.  This is part of the theme of Adam Tooze’s recent book Crashed: how a decade of financial crises changed the world².  Up until the crash, there was a feeling of ever increasing prosperity (for some at least) and that free market ideology had won the day.  The crash destroyed that belief and importantly, ordinary people, not especially steeped in economic thought, began to realise that things were not right.  There was also a shift in power eastwards towards China and away from the west.  With it, the assumptions of democracy, free trade, and a rules based order had been weakened.  With the increasing interconnectedness of the world order and global trade, the ability of societies to deal with the ‘left behinds’ diminished.

With this decline, countries like the UK needed to work harder to sell goods to pay their way in the world.  That often meant looking the other way when we sold arms to unsavoury regimes.  ‘If we do not sell them, the Chinese will’ was a common belief.  Although the UK government often proclaims that we have a tough regime for arms control, the fact remains that brokers and dealers frequently and all too easily circumvent them.

The architects of the new world order after WW2 were the victorious powers: USA, China, Russia, UK and France.  These are the biggest seller of arms today joined perhaps by Israel and Germany.  The very countries wanting to achieve peace in the world are those busy selling the means to destroy it.

As the Amnesty annual report puts it:

In 2017, the world witnessed a rollback of human rights.  Signs of a regression were everywhere.  Across the world governments continued to clampdown on the rights to protest, and women’s rights took a nosedive in the USA, Russia and Poland.
From Venezuela to Tunisia, we witnessed the growth of a formidable social discontent, as people were denied access to their fundamental human rights to food, clean water, healthcare and shelter.
And from the US to the European Union and Australia, leaders of wealthy countries continued to approach the global refugee crisis with outright callousness, regarding refugees not as human beings with rights but as problems to be deflected.
In this climate, state-sponsored hate threatens to normalise discrimination against minority groups.  Xenophobic slogans at a nationalist march in Warsaw, Poland and sweeping crackdowns on LGBTI communities from Chechnya to Egypt showed how the open advocacy of intolerance is increasing.  Annual Report 2017/18 [extract]

Prospects

The prospects for human rights around the world look grim.  The idea of a steady improvement around the world does not look promising.  The belief in a new world order following the war also looks rather thin and forlorn.  With the major countries, who should be setting an example but are not doing so, the chance of improvement in the future does not look great.

In the UK, the are some in government who would like to remove the Human Rights Act from the statute book to be replaced by a weakened bill yet to be published.  If that ever sees the light of day we shall be campaigning against it.

There is also the problem of compassion fatigue.  No sooner does one calamity – whether man made or natural – disappear from our screens, than another one appears.  There seems no time to recover between them.  It is perhaps not surprising that people feel a sense of hopelessness.  The scale of some events is so huge, the quarter of a million Rohingya forcibly displaced  for example, that any response seems puny by comparison.

But people who believe in human rights and their importance in the world continue the fight.  We continue to highlight as many examples of wrong doing as we can.  In the words of our founder ‘better to light a candle than curse the darkness’.

If you live in the Salisbury area we would welcoming you joining us.  Events are posted here and on our Facebook and Twitter pages – salisburyai


  1. Revenge of the Nation State, 9-15 November 2018
  2. Adam Tooze, published by Alan Lane 2018
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Meeting

Posted: September 11, 2018 in Group news
Tags: , , , , , ,

Minutes available shortly.

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


Select committee issues two damning reports on UK’s role in torture

The Intelligence and Security Committee released its report in the UK’s role in torture on 28 June 2018 and this revealed the shocking extent of MI6’s involvement.  It is government policy, and the legal position, that the UK does not use torture nor does it outsource the practice to other agencies or governments.  It is counterproductive since under torture, victims are likely to say anything to get it to stop.  The evidence thus gleaned is of doubtful value as was dramatically shown in Iraq and our decision to invade.  It is also a key part of the Human Rights Act.  Article 3 protects you from:

– torture (mental or physical)
– inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and
– deportation or extradition (being sent to another country to face criminal charges) if there is a real risk you will face torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the country concerned.
As you would expect, public authorities must not inflict this sort of treatment on you. They must also protect you if someone else is treating you in this way. If they know this right is being breached, they must intervene to stop it. The state must also investigate credible allegations of such treatment.  Equality and Human Rights Commission

That we were involved in this activity has been known for some time although often the details were not available.  So were the denials and here is Jack Straw – the Home Secretary for much of the time when this was happening – claiming in an interview:

Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop.  Quoted by Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph, 11 April 2012 [accessed 3 July 2018]

Peter Oborne continued: After Mr Straw spoke out, further denials followed. Tony Blair insisted that Britain had never engaged in the practice.  Mr Straw’s successor, David Miliband, was equally adamant.  Sir John Scarlett, until recently head of the Secret Intelligence Service (and the official responsible for the notorious dossier of September 2002 which asserted that Saddam Hussein was capable of deploying weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes) was forthright. “Our officers are as committed to the values and the human rights values of liberal democracy as anybody else,” he said, adding that there was “no complicity in torture.  (ibid)

The scale of the activity revealed by this report was a surprise.  Up until the report was published it was known that the activity had taken place on a modest scale but the facts show otherwise:

• On 232 occasions UK intelligence officers were found to have continued supplying questions to foreign agencies between 2001 and 2010, despite knowing or suspecting a prisoner was being tortured or mistreated.
• There were 198 occasions when UK intelligence officers received information from a prisoner whom they knew was being mistreated.
• In a further 128 cases, foreign intelligence bodies told UK intelligence agencies prisoners were being mistreated.
• MI5 or MI6 offered to help fund at least three rendition operations.
• The agencies planned or agreed to a further 28 rendition operations.
• They provided intelligence to assist with a further 22 rendition operations.
• Two MI6 officers consented to mistreatment meted out by others.  Only one of these incidents has been investigated by police.
• In a further 13 cases, UK intelligence officers witnessed an individual being tortured or mistreated.
• MI5, MI6 and the military conducted up to 3,000 interviews of prisoners held at Guantanamo.
• No attempt is being made to find out whether guidelines introduced by the coalition government in 2010 are helping to prevent the UK’s intelligence agencies from continuing to be involved in human rights abuses.
• The UK breached its commitment to the international prohibition of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
• On at least two occasions ministers took “inappropriate” decisions.
• Jack Straw authorised payment of “a large share of the costs” of the rendition of two people in October 2004. The Guardian 2 July 2018

Not that this is the full story.  The government prevented individual officers from giving evidence so there may well be more to come out in future.  On this matter, Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty said:

It is obvious that the ISC was prevented by the Government from producing a thorough report about what really happened – it says so itself.  The ISC had no powers to summon witnesses or demand full evidence, and its findings were always subject to redaction and veto from the Prime Minister herself.  Instead of the independent, judge-led torture inquiry promised by David Cameron, we’ve had an under-powered, over-controlled review by a committee that was never empowered to get the job done.  While the Committee’s report represents a helpful step forwards, it is not the definitive account of what really happened. It was always the wrong tool for the job.
With the President of the United States personally praising waterboarding and the CIA led by someone closely linked to torture, now is not the time to brush this issue under the carpet. We need a full judge-led inquiry now.  Amnesty statement 

The Response

In the face of damning evidence and a considerable amount of research carried out by the committee over many years, one might have thought that a contrite response from the head of MI6 at the time, Sir Richard Dearlove, would be appropriate, if not a full apology.  Not a bit of it.  Here he is quoted in the Sun* newspaper:

As far as my former service is concerned, the mistreatment issue has been blown out of proportion by pressure from certain interest groups [one assumes Amnesty is among them].  There never was a systemic problem, and there are no skeletons in the cupboard from my time.  The staff served the nation magnificently and with due care for our respect for the law.  In extreme circumstances, there will always be incidents that one regrets.  But nothing illegal was perpetrated – which is as achievement given the extent of the provocation.  Warning of the chilling effect that the MPs’ withering criticism could have, the ex-spymaster added: It’s time to move on and not allow our willingness to take risks to be diminished.  The Sun 29 June 2018

No mea culpa there.  Quite what the ‘provocation’ is not explained.  Torture seems to be part of a need to ‘take risks’.  This quotation – if it is an accurate statement of his position – is disgraceful.  That the former head of the service brushes aside a comprehensive and detailed description of our – and his service’s role – in water boarding, stress positions and other forms of degrading treatment is utterly reprehensible.  His defence seems to rest on the fact that MI6 officers did not actually do the torturing themselves.

But he is not alone.  This is the Sun’s editorial position:

WHAT did we gain by MPs blowing five years probing what MI5 and MI6 knew of the US torture of terror suspects back in 2001?  Their report admits our spooks were directly involved only twice.  And if it extracted vital intelligence preventing further atrocities after 9/11, so what if we turned a blind eye?  Yes, torture is barbaric.  But the CIA firmly believes it saved lives.  Would those people wringing their hands over it prefer to have risked thousands more being massacred by al-Qaeda?

Still perpetuating the myth that torture is necessary and saves lives.

As a nation we pride ourselves on civilised behaviour.  We promote such behaviour around the world and in the UN.  We are signatories to key treaties and it is government policy that we do not torture people.  We have the Human Rights Act which prohibits it.  Government ministers constantly claim that such practices are alien to our culture and way of doing things.  We have a fundamental sense of decency it is claimed.  However, Peter Beaumont, a journalist with the Observer, says over the years he has ‘been lied to a lot’.

British intelligence officers, despite all the denials, were aware of the mistreatment, they benefited from it and even supplied their own questions for the victims of mistreatment despite knowing those being interrogated were being brutalized.  1 July 2018 

Even now, people like Sir Richard Dearlove are in denial.  The government has done all it can to frustrate the enquiry and to prevent it getting to the truth.  Jack Straw and others have many questions to answer.


Joint statement by human rights organisations

*a tabloid newspaper part of the Murdoch group in the UK.

 

International Holocaust Day

Posted: January 28, 2018 in Burma, genocide
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Remember the Rohingya

January 27th was International Holocaust Day where we remember the terrible events of the Second World War.  That war and the appalling treatment of gypsies, gay people and Jews by the Nazi regime, led to the creation of the crime of genocide to recognise the intention to get rid of an entire race of people.  People said ‘never again’ and shortly after the war the UN Declaration of Human Rights was declared as a common standard on how states should behave towards their citizens.

Regrettably, it has not seen an end to massacres and genocide.  Since the war, we have seen massacres in Cambodia, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia and Uganda.  The total annihilated in these and other similar events exceeds the death toll in WWII.

In our last post we reported on a talk given at Southampton University on the latest example of genocide currently taking place in Burma/Myanmar.  The UN Human rights Chef describes this as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ which has been taking place since 1978.  It is ethnic in origin.  He draws a parallel between the events in Burma and those in Nazi occupied Europe in the ’30s and ’40s.  An Amnesty article on the situation there can be found here.

The latest post by Rights Info discusses these issues and goes into a lot more detail.  The Holocaust is remembered and we are, rightly, reminded of it on 27th.  There is however a sense in which we have become used to these events and our powerlessness to prevent them.  We do not have specific memorial days for the more recent genocides although these are included in the Holocaust memorial.

In a recent debate in the House of Commons, Mark Field a Foreign and Colonial Office Minister said:

[…] In my role as FCO Minister for Asia, I remain persistent in our lobbying the Government of Burma to allow the Rohingya back to their homeland with sufficient guarantees on security and, importantly, on citizenship that they will be able to rebuild their lives.  As I have said before, that can begin only when conditions allow for a safe, voluntary and dignified return.  My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans [Anne Main] spoke passionately about the importance of Rohingya representation in that process.  If the returns are to be genuinely voluntary, there must a consultative process to establish the refugees’ intentions and concerns.  24 January 2018

At the event in Southampton, in answer to a question, one of the problems the Rohingya have is a lack of representation.  This is partly because they do not have a leader able to speak for them which in turn is because of the lack of spoken English.

We must not forget the genocides which are taking place now when we remember the events of 80 or so years ago.  Although the Holocaust was an historical event, genocide is still being practised today.

 

 


The UN to send a team of experts to the Yemen
UK government tried to frustrate this

The United Nations has just announced in the last few days, that it is to send a team of ’eminent international and regional experts with knowledge of human rights law and the context Yemen for a period of at least one year’.  (HRC 36)  They will conduct a ‘comprehensive examination of all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law.’

Readers of this blog and elsewhere will be aware by now of the dire situation in that country.  The latest figures, reported by the BBC, show that over 8,500 have been killed, mostly in air strikes, and around 48,000 injured.  A cholera epidemic has hit the country and over 700,000 are affected by that.  Matters are made worse because hospitals are bombed and there is a blockade hindering or preventing medical supplies getting through.  About 20 million citizens are in need of aid of some kind.

The crisis has come about because of Houthi rebels fighting government forces.  What has made matters worse is the aid the UK and other governments have provided to the Saudis.  In the past these have included cluster munitions – now banned but allegedly still being used – and Paveway bombs to replace them.  RAF personnel are involved in the control room but it is claimed they are not involved with the actual bombing.  The involvement of British military personnel was kept secret and was only known when it was revealed by the Saudis themselves.  Targets have included weddings, funerals, schools, markets and medical facilities.  Only recently, Amnesty reported on residential building hit by a US made bomb killing 16 civilians.  This was due to a ‘technical error’ it was claimed.

The establishment of a team to look into human rights violations is to be welcomed and in a statement, Amnesty International said:

A resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council today, authorising the establishment of group of international experts to investigate abuses by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, is a momentous breakthrough that will pave the way for justice for countless victims of human rights abuses and grave violations of international law, including war crimes.

The resolution was passed in Geneva today by consensus, after intensive negotiations.  It is the result of years of campaigning and lobbying by Yemeni human rights organisations as well as Amnesty and other international human rights and humanitarian organisations.  30 September 2017

Negotiations have been intense reportedly and it was the Canadian and Netherlands governments holding firm which secured a result.  The US, UK and French governments were dragging their feet.  This is because these governments have significant and lucrative weapons sales to the Saudis.  Only a few days ago, success did not look promising with the Daily Mail reporting a stalemate.  The actions by our government, the US and France prevented a proper commission of enquiry.

The Guardian reported on 24 September the UK’s role in seeking to block the enquiry:

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson last week rejected the need for such an inquiry, arguing that the UK was “using a very, very wide variety of information sources about what is happening to acquaint ourselves with the details” about Yemen.

But the revelation that the UK neutered EU attempts to bring about such an investigation is likely to raise questions about its motives.  Since the conflict began, the UK has sold more than £3bn worth of weapons and military equipment to the Saudis and defence contractors hope more deals are in the pipeline.

“Blocking attempts to create an international inquiry is a betrayal of the people of Yemen who have suffered so much during this conflict,” said Polly Truscott of Amnesty International.  “It’s shocking. The UK ought to be standing up for justice and accountability, not acting as a cheerleader for arms companies.”

Human Rights Watch has also spoken out about the role of our arms sales in worsening the conflict.  With Brexit on the horizon, the need to secure such arms sales will only increase and indeed, the Trade Secretary Liam Fox is off to Saudi soon to try and secure more sales of aircraft.

UPDATE: 2 October

A number of stars wrote to the Observer on 1 October calling for a ban on arms sales to Saudi.  Names include: Ian McEwan; Bill Nighy; Phillip Pullman.

 

Sources: Amnesty; BBC; The Daily Mail; Human rights Watch; Middle East Monitor; UN; Observer; Guardian


Maybe you feel shocked at the shameful role our government has played in this war and would like to do something about it.  If you would like to join us you would be very welcome.  Come along to one of our events which are listed at the end of our minutes or keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter or this site (Salisburyai).  It is free to join the local group

 

 

 

 

 


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.


Follow us on Twitter and Facebook, salisburyai.  If you live in the Salisbury area and are interested in promoting human rights please get in touch.  The best thing is to come along to one of our events and make yourself known.


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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