Posts Tagged ‘UN’’


Conor Gearty discusses this question in the European Human Rights Law Review

Readers of this site will be familiar with Mr Gearty as we reviewed his book On Fantasy Island a few years ago.  In this article*, Mr Gearty discusses the current state of human rights.

Anyone looking at the current state may conclude that little has improved since the end of the war.  The atrocities committed during the war, most notably the holocaust, although millions also died in Soviet Russia during the Stalin era, led to the formation of the UN and ultimately the signing of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  There was a strong hope at the time of ‘never again’.

Currently, we have terrible events in Myanmar with the killing and driving out of Rohingyas.  Syria has seen massive destruction and civil war and the use of chemical weapons.  The Uighur people in China are being persecuted for their faith and about one million are being forcibly ‘re-educated’.  We have seen genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda.  The treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis is disgraceful.  All these and many more are carried on with little sign of realistic intervention by the UN.  It is as though the Declaration was never agreed all those years ago.

Reasons

Conor Gearty discusses some of the reasons for this decline in human rights around the world.  His first argument is that the responsibility was placed on governments.  It was no doubt assumed at the time that governments could be relied on to be the police so to speak.  Experience has shown that it is governments which are the problem and who are all too keen to deny the human rights of their citizens.  Several of the Gulf states are prime examples of denial of basic liberties and the rule of law.  Abuses and the use of torture are routine.

The problem with the reliance on states is the UN principle of non-interference in the affairs of states.  So acting through them, but being inhibited from interfering with them, means the UN is largely neutered when it wants to take action.  He also makes the point that non-state actors are not controlled by human rights considerations.  He instances the World Bank and IMF which both impose conditions on state’s finances which in turn can leave them to handle the human rights consequences.

We can add to this the rise in corporate power.  There are many corporate actors now which are bigger than many of the states they operate in.  The large resource companies and banks are able to act with impunity in many countries.  They can extract wealth corruptly with ease and deny the host country the proceeds.  The UK is a major centre for this corruption and Transparency International has published a number of reports giving the details.  Recently, there has been a series of revelations concerning Isabel dos Santos alleged looting of Angola.  She was helped in this activity – which involved complex entities and transactions in several countries – by one of the UK’s big four accountancy firms PwC.  It is difficult for countries stricken by this plunder of wealth to improve the well being and human rights of its citizens while vast sums are stolen from them.  But human rights only appear in the background and the corporate and City firms are not a direct part of the UN Declaration.

Austerity is something which has hit the poorest the hardest.  Gearty argues that this has led some to argue that human rights are no longer ‘fit for purpose’.  Many of these factors are economic in nature and seem outside the remit of human rights laws – at least directly.

9/11

Another factor which has acted against the interests of human rights he argues and left many organisations ‘stuck of the wrong’ side were the attacks on the Twin Towers and elsewhere in America by al Qaeda.  America launched its ‘war on terror’ and a whole series of human rights infringements followed.  The development of black sites and Guantanamo Bay enabled the US to hold large numbers of people incommunicado and without due process and to institute regimes of torture [warning: the pictures are distressing].  This left many human rights organisations seemingly defending the rights of terrorists.  Terrorism has never been defined he argues.  Guantanamo Bay is still a blight on the politics of the USA: out of the 780 held there and subjected to harsh treatment over several years, 731 were released without trial (source: Human Rights Watch).

Additionally, in the UK, we have seen a concerted press campaign to argue that human rights are being used to defend criminals, terrorists and ‘citizens of nowhere’ as he terms them.  They are not for ordinary people but for the ‘unworthy’ is the message increasingly portrayed.

This has enabled the current Conservative government to argue for the Human Rights Act to be abolished although a number of years have passed since David Cameron first promised to do so.  It has never been clear what it is that the Conservatives want repealed or removed from the HRA, a question we asked the Salisbury MP Mr John Glen but without a clear answer.  This year (2020) we may get to find out.

There is clear evidence that commercial and trading considerations outweigh human rights.  This is another example of states – who should be the guardians – are in fact cheerleaders for arms firms.  We have highlighted on this site the UK’s role in selling arms to the Saudi government to carry out its hideous destruction of Yemen.  The government also supports the annual DSEI arms fair and goes to great pains to exclude human rights representatives from attending.  There is little doubt that to ensure the success of post Brexit Britain, little regard will be given to human rights in the rush to secure trade agreements around the world.  In our last post, we highlighted a Salisbury firm which is alleged to sell spyware equipment to enable regimes with poor human rights records to penetrate the phones, emails and computers of those it does not like.

Conclusions

The basic issue is that with governments the custodian of human rights, the protection of basic rights would always be on shaky ground if governments are themselves not committed to upholding them.  Nowhere is this more relevant than with the plight of refugees: it being governments which place them in a perilous position in the first place and then other governments which close their borders and fail to help them.

Politicians are more concerned with securing and holding on to power that on maintaining the rights of its citizens.  The right wing press and some politicians have portrayed these rights as somehow the preserve of criminals, terrorists and the like who use them to escape justice.  So abolishing the act cannot come soon enough for them.

Another crucial factor is the increasing pressure of external factors which impinge on people’s rights.  These are the drivers and it is rights which suffer at the end.  Responses to these pressures have led several leaders to act in denial of human rights.

New threats, such as inequality, climate change, and the replacement of manual work by AI and machines, mean those who fear that the old social contract is no longer in their interests are making their voices heard.  They say, “these are our jobs”, “this is our land”, “our community has certain shared values”, and “people like us are the only real citizens”.  These sentiments, echoing around the presidency of Donald Trump or during Brexit, are in direct opposition to human rights.

States don’t much like rights – they’re an annoyance or an embarrassment.  The survival, and flourishing, of human rights requires people, the citizenry, the populace, to say that these rights are important and to demand that their governments observe them.  And by that same logic, the people can sink them, too. In the end it is us, we – however we define that problematic term – who will make the difference between the failure or success of human rights, whatever the external and internal threats we face.  The Conversation, October 23 2018

If we accept that a reliance on governments to be the custodian of our rights, then their future is unlikely to be positive.  As pressures build, whether from economic, climate or AI, then the rights of its citizens will be the first to go.  These arguments point to viewing human rights in a more nuanced way.  Rights are now influenced by a range of factors beyond straightforward considerations of what the state and judiciary do.  The City of London for example, plays a key role internationally in helping move vast quantities of wealth out of the reach of governments thus making improving the living standards of its citizens harder if not impossible for them to achieve.

The central problem seems that by placing the protection of human rights entirely in a legal setting, it risks becoming bound up in a too narrow frame of reference.  There needs to be a shift in thinking away from the state and the law and towards more ethical considerations.  We need to move towards a society structured around the well-being of individuals not one where people have to fit in with the demands of the state.  Since the state only has partial power in any particular country, citizens are at the mercy of non-state organisations, international companies, the climate, and ever changing technology.  Recent events in China, show that even with the enormous power of the communist party, it became the victim of a virus.  The sum of these forces frequently (nearly always in fact) act against the rights and well-being and rights of its citizens.

 

*Is the Human Rights Era Drawing to a Close?  European Human Rights Law Review, Issue 5, 2017

 

 

 

 


Arsenal football club embroiled in an embarrassing human rights dispute

The UK’s Arsenal football club became embroiled in an embarrassing and potentially expensive dispute with the Chinese authorities this week concerning the statement made by one of its footballers, Mesut Özil. The problem arose because Mesut, a Muslim, said on Instagram, concerning the plight of the Uighurs in China:

East Turkestan, the bleeding wound of the Ummah, resisting against the persecutors trying to separate them from their religion. They burn their Qurans. They shut down their mosques. They ban their schools. They kill their holy men. The men are forced into camps and their families are forced to live with Chinese men. The women are forced to marry Chinese men. But Muslims are silent. They won’t make a noise. They have abandoned them. Don’t they know that giving consent for persecution is persecution itself?

Sport, money, human rights, politics brought together in one place


UN Human Rights Council publishes a report yesterday (3 September 2019) on human rights infringements by Britain France and USA

The UN’s panel of eminent experts on Yemen has today published a damning report on the activities of the UK government and others into the atrocities being committed in Yemen.  They conclude that international human rights law has been infringed.  The most damning conclusion is:

The Experts found reasonable grounds to believe that the conduct of hostilities by the parties to the conflict, including by airstrikes and shelling, continued to have an extreme impact on civilians and many of these attacks may amount to serious violations of international humanitarian law.  The Experts further found reasonable grounds to believe that, in addition to violations related to the conduct of hostilities, the parties to the armed conflict in Yemen are responsible for arbitrary deprivation of the right to life, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, torture, ill-treatment, child recruitment, violations of fundamental freedoms, and violations of economic, social and cultural rights.  These amount to violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, as applicable. Subject to determination by an independent and competent court, many of these violations may result in individuals being held responsible for war crimes.

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade has waged a long legal battle with the UK government which was successful in June  persuading the Court of Appeal that the Secretary of State’s actions were ‘irrational and therefore unlawful.’

Further background on the UN report can be found in a Guardian article 3 September.

Another extract from the report details activities we have previously highlighted:

The report notes that coalition air strikes have caused most direct civilian casualties.  The airstrikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.  Based on the incidents they examined, the Group of Experts have reasonable grounds to believe that individuals in the Government of Yemen and the coalition may have conducted attacks in violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution that may amount to war crimes.
“There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties. I call on them to prioritise human dignity in this forgotten conflict,” said Kamel Jendoubi, chairperson of the Group of International and Regional Eminent Experts on Yemen.

The UN report can be accessed here.


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Are human rights more under threat now than ever?

In this blog we look at the current state of human rights.  We discuss some of the grim examples around the world and the influence of the arms trade and the continuing strength of slavery.  We also look at climate change and how that is impacting on human rights together with new technologies and the activities of corporations.  


The future of human rights around the world looks increasingly bleak.  The gradual shift in power eastwards is just one of the slow drip of factors changing the landscape.  We have also seen the rise in nationalism and far right organisations in Europe with their anti-immigrant mindset.  There are a large and growing number of authoritarian governments including China, Turkey, Russia, Oman, Bahrain and many others.

In the Middle East, nation after nation is ignoring the rights of its citizens.  Executions after cursory trials, the use of torture, disappearances and the denial of free speech and freedom of the press are common throughout the area.  The promise of the Arab Spring has come to naught.  The monarchies and dictators quickly regained power largely because the grass roots uprisings could not organise or find a voice.  In Egypt for example, the protests were violently put down and all that has happened is one dictator has been replaced by another.

Major affronts to the cause of human rights have occurred in Burma with the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people.  This with a country led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and in whom so much hope was placed.  The hatred of Rohingya minority is so deep that it has led to these terrible events.  See also a talk on this subject given in Southampton.

China’s treatment of the Uighurs has also caused considerable alarm.  Around one million are detained in various camps for ‘re-education’.  This allegation came to light in 2018 and is denied by the Chinese authorities.  In August of that year, a UN committee heard that up to one million Uighur Muslims and other Muslim groups could be detained in the western Xinjiang region.  At the same time, there’s growing evidence of oppressive surveillance against people living in Xinjiang.

It seems a long time since the optimism of the UN Declaration of Human Rights agreed in 1948.  It was declared at the time as a ‘milestone document’ and in many respects it was.  It set down in 30 articles how human beings were to be treated.  The motivation was the horrific events of the second world war and in particular, the systematic murder of Jewish people in Europe.  There was a clear sense of never again should these things be allowed to happen.  Significantly, it was agreed by a wide range of countries and it led ultimately to the European Convention and the Human Rights Act in the UK.   The word ‘genocide’ was created at this time.

Human Rights tableau, France.  Photo: Salisbury Amnesty

Unfortunately, declarations and other fine words matter little if they are ignored in practice.  To take one article, article 5 on the prohibition of torture.  According to an Amnesty report in 2015, 122 countries in the world still use this practice, often routinely.

Another example is slavery, prohibited under article 4 of the UHDHR.  According to Antislavery the practice is live and well and takes many forms including selling women and girls into prostitution, forced marriage and bonded labour.  Many people in the UK believe that slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century with the banning of the triangular trade and do not realise that it is greater today than it was then.

So although the articles of the Declaration set out how states should behave and it is indeed true that many countries adhere to these principles, it is also true that a significant number of countries do not and it could argued that the situation is getting worse and not better.

It is also depressing to note that a number of UK MPs are lukewarm over the issue of human rights in this country.  The website They Work for You reveals that the new prime minister Boris Johnson, the new home secretary Priti Patel and our own MP John Glen are all listed as ‘generally voting against equality and human rights.’

Causes

One significant factor in the decline in human rights is the arms trade.  A key factor here is that the top sellers of arms to the world are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council namely, Russia, China, USA, France and the UK.  Two other prominent arms exporting countries are Israel and Germany.  One would expect that holding such an exalted position in the UN – as a result of being on the winning side of WW2 – would result in responsible behaviour and the setting of an example to the rest of the world.  The opposite is the case and as we look at conflicts and wars around the world, weapons made by or brokered by these nations are usually to be found.  In all the wars, it is ordinary people, women and children who suffer either from wounds, lost limbs or sight, lost education or displacement to join the 25.4 million or so who live in camps outside their own country (UNHCR figures).

Human rights possess inherent preventive power. The international human rights system was created in response to conflict to help prevent future conflict.  It has a special role in averting the escalation of violence.  Just as war, conflicts and insecurity increase the incidence of human rights violations, societies that respect human rights experience less violence and insecurity: they are more resilient, and they are more inclusive.  The Secretary-General has acknowledged this, identifying human rights as the “critical foundation for sustaining peace”

UN Annual Appeal 2019

A vivid current example is Yemen.  Not only do we supply weapons to the Saudis who use them to bomb a wide range of civilian targets, but we also supply RAF personnel to advise them.  This was a secret spilled by a Saudi prince at a London conference about 2 years ago much to the embarrassment of HMG.  What is astonishing is that the former Foreign Secretary travelled around the middle east seeking to promote peace.  Yemen is all but wrecked and our arms companies have played a significant part in the destruction.

The Court of Appeal has recently ruled against the government in the case of Yemen in a case brought by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.  The government is to appeal this judgement.  Recently, missile parts made in Brighton have been discovered in Yemen in contravention of international human rights law.

Climate and human rights

Increasingly, climate and the future of life on the planet is a concern.  As temperatures rise, it has an effect on hydrologic conditions, ecosystem functioning and agricultural productivity.  These effects are discussed in some detail in a United Nations report and in many other publications including the IPCC report.

A feature of these reports is the issue of human rights most particularly among those most affected by climate issues.  These are often women, children and indigenous populations who get in the way of forest clearances, dam projects or other major activities which threaten their environment and livelihoods.

A major fear – arguably a selfish one – concerning the effect of climate change is immigration.  The war in Syria and to a lesser extent conflicts in Mali and Somalia, resulted in huge movements of peoples, mostly into Europe, which gave us a taste of what major migrations of peoples will look like.  This had signifcant political implications in most EU countries, indeed the immigration issue was an influential feature of the Brexit debate in the UK.  It is curious to note in passing that worries about immigration at the political level do not seem to flow through into a desire to take resolute action on climate change which will be a key driver of people emigrating.  Climate will have a destabilising effect on many regimes as their agriculture is affected.  The previous prime minister Theresa May’s hostile immigration policy was (is?) almost ironic since the ‘hostility’ referred only to people.

Corporate changes

A significant difference since the war concerning human rights is corporate power and influence.  Although corporations have wielded great power in the past, controlling them was handled by states, for example anti-trust actions in the USA against the oil companies and other monopolies.  Modern internet companies pose an altogether different threat.  Firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter operate across the world and seem to answer to no one.  They extract enormous quantities of data about individuals and Facebook was alleged to be influential in elections.  The thrust of the UN Declaration was the individual and his or her relationship with the state.  Today, people are almost threatened as much by the activities of international corporations who are seemingly uncontrolled and uncontrollable.  They have also shown themselves all to ready to adjust their policies to suit despotic regimes such as China and seek to do business there.

Another looming technological threat is face recognition which is just beginning to become noticed as such in the UK.  Although it has benefits – finding missing persons or lost children, as well as an anti crime tool – it has enormous implications for civil liberties and individual rights.  The right to privacy will be substantially lost as the technology develops.  The influence of technology and the increasing influence of AI has been termed ‘digital feudalism.’  The crucial issue with these technological issues is control.  We have recently introduced GDPR legislation into the UK to protect citizens from unwarranted intrusion.  Yet the tech giants are outside this regime: it is not possible to find out from Facebook what information they have on you.

And we do not have to go far to see a more sinister aspect of the technology problem.  A firm based just outside Salisbury in the village of Porton, makes and supplies equipment which enables regimes to intercept and monitor phone calls and internet traffic.  They supply some well known countries with grim human rights records enabling them to find and arrest lawyers, opposition politicians and human rights activists.

Both these factors shows the individual to be threatened by corporate and state actors which both operate outside proper – or indeed any – democratic controls.  Mr Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, declined to attend the house of commons select committee on his company’s alleged role in the Referendum.

So the nature of human rights has changed since the post war days and the foundation of the current human rights climate.  The hope after the war that a new rules based international order with the UN as some kind of controlling force has all but ended.  Despots around the world are increasingly ignoring treaties and international obligations and acting with impunity.  The Palestinians live in an open prison in the Gaza strip while Israel relentlessly take more and more of their land ignoring numerous UN resolutions.  New threats have appeared with the giant internet companies and with climate change.

There are however, some major changes in the current concerns and the beliefs behind those who promoted a better world after the second world war. Gone is the sense of optimism and a desire that by acting together in a rules based world order, we could see a brighter future for ordinary people in the world. ‘Never again’ was the clear desire amongst many people who had experienced two terrible wars and the holocaust.

That optimism for the future has all but disappeared and we have become used to horrific events in places like Syria, Chechnya, Burma, Libya and many other places around the world. Yemen has already been mentioned but there are countless other wars around the world which only scarcely get a mention. Wikipedia provides a list and there are 4 current conflicts with a death toll of 10,000 or more and 6 where the death toll is between 1,000 to 10,000. There is a very long list of smaller conflicts. In all these, it is the vulnerable who suffer and the children who are either sucked into the conflict or whose education is halted.

The UK was one of the early signatories to the UN Declaration although it has to be admitted that, along with France, there were worries at the about our activities in the colonies.  We as a nation have been active in promoting human rights – we once had an ethical foreign policy – although less so in recent years.  Yet we are host to the City of London which is the worlds leading centre for money laundering and tax evasion.  It handles vast quantities of ‘dark money’ and some its banks have been fined billions of pounds for illicit money transfers on behalf of arms dealers, drug smugglers and other criminal elements.  This weakens our moral position, a fact which is not lost on some foreign autocrats.  It is difficult for us to adopt a high moral position when our financial institutions are helping Putin loot the Russian state, a fact revealed in the Panama papers.

Are there any positive signs?  There has been a significant rise in activity and interest in climate issues with the Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg.  However, this has not spilled over into concerns about human rights.  There has been a dramatic attitudinal shift concerning the internet companies which have gone from hero to zero in the matter of a few years.  More people are concerned about their activities for example with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.  Nevertheless, many people remain unconcerned about privacy or civil liberties issues.

Overall one must remain gloomy.  The spirit of optimism has gone and it is difficult to find any commentators expressing a positive view of the future.  Concerns about climate are essentially parochial and climate stress in other parts of the world achieve little more than passing interest.  Commercial interests remain entrenched and powerful and are still able to sow confusion and doubt about the real impact of climate change.  They are still able to claim that human actions are not necessarily to blame and that there has always been climate change.  Politicians show little urgency or real interest in these matters.  Revelation after revelation emerges about Yemen and the destruction there, partly supported by our arms sales, yet nothing changes.

The problem in the modern era is that human rights issues are more diffuse and threats come from several different directions.  After the war it seemed simple enough to set up a system to prevent a repeat of the horrors of the Second World War.  Now, it is authoritarian regimes, corporate power, the rise of AI and its effects, climate destabilisation, the arms trade and political indifference.  The media’s role is also a factor with some outlets either not covering some of these issues or diminishing their significance.  All play a part in threatening the wellbeing of millions of people.

There still remains a need for human rights organisations to promote the cause.  Perhaps one optimistic sign is the number of organisations engaged in this work some of which are listed at the bottom of our site.  There are many others.

 

 


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

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
Tags: , , , ,

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.