Posts Tagged ‘UNDHR’


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

 

 

 

 

Refugees

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

Talk by Daniel Trilling organised by the Salisbury group

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

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

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

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

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

Effects on people 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Trilling. Pic: Salisbury Amnesty

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

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


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

List of forthcoming events being organised by the Salisbury Group

We have a fairly active programme of events and they are gathered here for convenience.  If you live in the Salisbury or even South Wilts area you would be welcome to come to any one of them.  If you are thinking of joining, then make yourself known to one of the group.  You would be very welcome.

Refugee Vigil – to be re-arranged.  We did have a date but unfortunately it clashed with the fair in the Market Square so it has been postponed

Citizenship Day – 26th October.  Where go into schools in the area and discuss human rights issues with pupils.  Despite several requests, the UTC has not responded

Christmas Tree Festival – 3rd – 10th December.  This is in St Thomas’s Church in the centre of Salisbury and we will be displaying a tree there.  It will focus on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Human Rights Day Speaker – 10th December.   We are delighted to welcome Daniel Trilling who is an author and journalist and who will be speaking at the Methodist Church at 7pm.  This is a FREE event but we ask for a parting collection to help cover our costs

Exhibition of Refugee Photographs – January 2019 – Some

I Welcome exhibition

details to be worked out but these are the photos we displayed in the Library (pictured) and we are pleased that the Methodist Church has agreed to host them during the month.

 

Arts Centre Film – 8th March 2019.  We host a film once and sometimes twice a year in the Arts Centre.  Details nearer the time.

Market Stall (pictured) – 8th June 2019.  Fund raising stall we hold in the Market Square once a year

 

 

 

Carol singing.  With the aid of the Farrant Singers, we travel around the Victoria Road, College Street areas singing carols.  This will be in December and details to be announced.

We are also on Twitter and Facebook, salisburyai