At home and abroad: Britain accused of “leading the charge” against human rights.


It’s been a long-term annoyance to Prime Minister David Cameron throughout his tenure in office. It encapsulates much of what British conservatives hate about Europe, from meddling bureaucrats to endless red tape constraining a great nation’s sovereignty.

But perhaps this is one irritant set to end. As the general election rushes ever closer, the Conservative Party are pushing ahead with plans to limit the authority of the European Court of Human Right (ECtHR). In addition to removing it’s influence on the operations of the UK judiciary, we may also be about to see a complete scrapping of the Human Rights Act and it’s replacement by a vaunted “British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities”.

What might this mean in the concrete? Under a renewed Conservative government, the ECtHR would lose out altogether to the authority of the UK Supreme Court, with Parliament having effective control over implementing (or not) the European Convention on Human Rights. A resulting British Bill of Rights, according to the Prime Minister, would thus be “rooted in our values” as the “country that wrote Magna Carta” and liberated “Europe from fascism”.

Yet Amnesty International, in its recent World Report, has given a grim account of Britain. Draft proposals for the new bill of rights were cited as involving “significant restrictions” on existing liberties. Issues relating to surveillance at home and torture overseas came in for special mention, alongside the possibility of war crimes allegedly carried out by British troops in Iraq. The UK, according to Amnesty, was said to be “leading the charge against basic human rights”; a shocking accusation that bears examination inside and outside of Europe.

Economic Rights?

In 2013 the United Nations dispatched it’s own special rapporteur on housing, the Brazilian-born Raquel Rolnik, to investigate the UK’s housing situation. Her findings didn’t bode well for Britain’s reputation, with Ms Rolnik targeting one of the more controversial policies of the government, that being the now notorious “bedroom tax”. After a lengthy report, Ms Rolnik openly stated that such a “tax” was having “an enormous impact on [a citizen’s] right to housing and also on other human rights, like the right to food [and] the right to education.”

This is a painful verdict for a nation now experiencing a renewed growth in homelessness.  Laying blame squarely on government policy, charity groups like Crisis have claimed that “all forms of homelessness have risen due to the shortage and high cost of housing” particularly due to “reforms and cuts to housing benefits.”

Life on the streets is particularly grim. According to a recent research paper compiled by the National Health Service and the charity organization St. Mungo’s Broadway, the life expectancy of a homeless Briton stands out at forty-seven years. For the rest of the population it’s seventy-seven years.

Crisis made the claim as of last year that one in ten Britons have now endured homelessness at some point in their lives, with one fifth of those having experienced such a calamity in the past five years.

Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) British citizens are entitled to “adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” This is evidently something that the United Nations are well aware of, and with their findings were not shy about calling the UK’s human rights record into disrepute.

Yet the best method Conservatives could resort to in this case was to deride the UN rapporteur’s  mental health. Branding her a “loopy Brazilian lefty”, Conservative MP Stuart Jackson was only outdone by the then Housing Minister, Kris Hopkins, who held Ms Rolnik responsible for a “misleading Marxist diatribe”. The Department for Work and Pensions subsequently made the interesting judgement that the UN’s conclusion “was clearly written before any research was actually completed.”

A proposed follow-up investigation by the UN didn’t help calm any nerves.  In mid-2014 reports were appearing that the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) were targeting a prominent member of the UK government – Ian Duncan Smith – for his role in formulating policy allegedly to the detriment of the rights of the disabled. One Professor Gabor Gombos, himself a former member of the CRPD, admitted that this investigation was going ahead, despite the usually secretive nature of such proceedings.

“The Committee started its first inquiry procedure against the United Kingdom.” he claimed, whilst speaking at the International Disability Law Summer School at the National University of Ireland, Galway, last summer. “This is a public piece of information,” he added, although subsequent details, as well as a potential timeframe for results, remain secret.

Protective Edge: Made in Britain

In international trade, however, the UK has also run into problems with human rights law. Britain is a major arms exporter, yet is all the same bound by the EU – most notably the 2008 Common Position – to refrain from selling weapons to human rights abusing nations.

Yet the UK has risen to prominence here on at least two occasions of late. Firstly, during Israel’s latest operation, “Protective Edge”, the likelihood of British weapons being employed against Palestinians triggered an attempt to bring the government to court. The law firm, Leigh Day, acting on behalf of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) issued the government with a formal request in August for a full investigation of UK arms sales to Israel.

“The public is rightfully shocked by the bombardment (on Gaza) that has been taking place and the UK needs to take responsibility by revoking all current (arms export) licenses,” said Andrew Smith, in a press release for CAAT, last summer. “It should announce a full embargo on all arms sales to Israel as well as an end to all military-industrial collaboration with Israel.”

The quantity of British weapons heading to Tel Aviv had been hinted at in the UK press. Although hardly considerable compared to other deals, Israeli sources have admitted to receiving equipment relating to the construction and maintenance of the Hermes-class armed drone, a vehicle that had seen extensive use during Protective Edge. Components relating to small arms, as well as the Merkava series of battle tank, are also thought to originate from the UK, with at least seven million pounds worth of such material being shipped just six months prior to the onset of Protective Edge.

With the subsequently aborted ceasefire in which Israel exacerbated it’s ground war, Britain refused to further examine it’s weapons exports, prompting Leigh Day to escalate it’s legal challenge. After a prolonged exchange of claim and counter-claim, CAAT, however, called off the potential action, citing government information downplaying the possibility of British weapons being used in violation of international humanitarian law.

CAAT maintains that their decision to give up their case was due to there being “little chance of success” if “the proper procedures had been followed” and that “this shows, yet again, that a change in policy, rather than the rules, is needed.”

Yet under the aforementioned 2008 Common Position, EU nations are supposedly held to account when it comes to selling weapons to potentially rights-abusing countries. Point two of the Position calls for an arms exporting nation to bear in mind “respect for human rights in the country of final destination” alongside “respect by that country of international humanitarian law”.

What’s more, the 1998 EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports stipulates that weapons must not be sold to nations which then “might be used for internal repression”. Whereas this may not be specifically applicable to Israel, the relationship between Britain and Bahrain warrants examination.

The Bahraini government has taken an excessively dim view to the proliferation of pro-democracy protests since 2011. In what has been sporadically covered in the western media, Bahraini security forces have used extreme violence in dealing with political demonstrations, in some instances even torturing and killing detainees.

In it’s World Report from 2014, the organisation Human Rights Watch claimed that the police and army had “continued to arrest scores of individuals arbitrarily in towns where anti-government protests regularly take place” citing “reports of torture and ill-treatment in detention”.

What does this have to do with the UK? For one, Bahrain has become a target for British weapons exports, with CAAT citing attempts to cultivate “high-level political relationships” between the two nations in tandem with a flourishing arms trade. Bahraini military officers, it’s claimed, have even been trained in England itself at the prestigious Sandhurst Military Academy. Such a warming of relations seems to be earning results in the form of a proposed base for the Royal Navy on Bahraini territory that, arguably, will host a variety of warships to secure the UK’s interest in an increasingly turbulent locale.

“This is an extremely important region for us,” claimed British Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, last December. “We have commercial interests here but also political interests.”

Such interests, however, do not appear to involve the plight of Nabeel Rajab, himself a prominent member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Rajab has just received a prison sentence for posting a comment on twitter that allegedly “insulted state institutions”. He is likely to serve six months.

Yet this has not stopped some rather peculiar statements from the UK establishment. In a recent address to the House of Commons, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, was optimistic on the Bahraini government’s track record on human rights, claiming it was “travelling in the right direction”.

Why say such a thing? The beleaguered Rajab has his own opinion. In an interview for the IBTimesUK last summer, he claimed that the UK and Bahrain had an understanding on closer ties, with Bahrain allegedly having “bought the silence” of the British on it’s rights abuses in return for weapons deals and, of course, the new naval base.

“The arms trade has increased, the business between the UK government and Bahrain has increased after the (earlier) crackdown” he said. “That’s why you see not only silence in the British government but also harassment (of) human rights defenders and even to the people living in this country who came seeking asylum from Bahrain.”

Back home, after leading a demonstration in 2012, Rajab was arrested and held in detention for six months. During his time in captivity, he claims he was held in solitary confinement; solitary if you exclude the dead animal the guards had previously thrown into his cell.

Rajab argues that, on a subsequent visit to the UK prior to his most recent conviction, he was accosted by immigration officials and held with his family in a temporary detention area. During interrogation, British officers apparently quizzed him on his political activities, particularly the nature and reason behind his recent imprisonment.

“The UK government has put a lot of time, effort and political capital into arming and supporting the Bahraini regime,” said Andrew Smith of CAAT. “With the new naval base, and with the possibility of Typhoon (fighter jet) sales on the horizon, this looks unlikely to change.”

In this instance it seems that we are witnessing yet another case of British political expediency taking precedence over its human rights obligations.

A troubled relationship

 The above represents a grim accounting of some of the more problematic cases the UK is involved in. Yet the government’s typical hostility to human rights institutions may be part of wider frustration with what they see as an impediment to desired policy.

Amnesty International has subsequently linked a hostility to human rights as part of a broader suspicion towards the European Union. Given the obviously continental nature of the European Convention on Human Rights, it seems that resentment towards the EU has spilled over into a general disregard and perhaps even contempt for effective human rights law.

There may be something to this. Ever disturbed by the growth of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) to their right, the government seem to be attempting to keep things both nationalistic and simplistic. In their 2014 Euro election manifesto, the Conservatives pandered to an increasingly Eurosceptic public, making the amorphous promise to deliver “more powers back to Britain” and, disturbingly, remove “unnecessary interference from the European institutions, including the European Court of Human Rights”.

For Amnesty International this is already established. Indeed, the presence of “nationalist, thinly veiled xenophobic attitudes” was noted in their assessment, with “human rights a particular target” for politicians most notably in the UK and Switzerland

If this is indeed true, then this is a doubly troubling case of human rights being sacrificed for narrow electoral gain.

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