The promise of a new dawn: the prospect of Turkey embracing liberal values without embracing the Western liberal order

Over the course of the past several years, and to the surprise of most international observers, Turkey has turned its back on the West, eschewing the path it had been pursuing towards liberal, democratic values for the previous half a century. It has curtailed its relationship with the EU in favour of an alignment with Russia and Iran. With a demagogic and powerful populist in charge who has overseen purges of the nation’s military, bureaucracy, academia and media, the human rights prospects for Turkey appear bleak. However, in recent months a new political party has been launched which promises to change this by making Turkey a truly liberal and democratic country.

 A new party

Launched just over two months ago, the so-called Good Party has adopted a centre-right platform and – befitting its name – a slogan declaring “Turkey will be good”. It boasts pluralism, democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and nationalist values as its core principles.

Its leader is Meral Aksener, a former Minister of the Interior who has become a particularly vocal critic of President Erdogan since his successful and widely criticised bid to secure greater executive powers via a national referendum. As a national politician with two decades of experience and right-wing credentials, Ms Aksener is seen as a likely contender for the presidency in 2019.

In her first address to her followers, Ms Aksener advocated liberal principles and cited the Venice Commission, a Council of Europe advisory body pertaining to constitutional law. She argued against media censorship and in favour of democratic institutions.

Interestingly, the Good Party has also stated that it will uphold human rights, not as a favour to Western powers, but as a good in themselves. Such an attitude stands in contrast to conventional wisdom which has reasonably interpreted Turkey’s liberal orientation as being part and parcel of its relationship with the Western international order, particularly the EU but also the United States.

It is worth considering whether Turkey can indeed embrace liberal values without embracing the nations and international organisations which constitute the liberal world order.

The relationship with the EU

Until recently, Turkey’s relationship with the EU seemed likely to blossom into a successful bid for membership.

Among the first to become a member of the Council of Europe in 1950, Turkey applied to join the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), in 1987, before becoming an associate member of the Western European Union five years’ later. It was in 2005 that Turkey applied to join the EU in what has proven to be a long, tortuous process with no success yet in sight, despite optimistic projections that the process would end within a decade.

Indeed, while the Leave campaign during the UK’s EU referendum vote warned of Turkey’s impending accession to full EU status, experts have pointed out that this was and remains unlikely in the near future. Many have argued that the EU’s door has only ever been “half open” to Turkey. For instance, as recently as 2016, only 15 of the 35 negotiating 'chapters' (the different policy fields containing current EU rules which must be adopted by national candidates) had been 'opened' and are therefore being discussed, and just one had been provisionally 'closed', or agreed upon. Other countries – such as Montenegro, Croatia and Iceland – have made significantly more progress despite initating formal bids at similar or later times than Turkey.

Despite a greater willingness on the EU’s part to work with Turkey over the past couple of years to stem the migrant flow into Europe, the chances of Turkey’s bid succeeding appear remote. A key factor of this stagnation is, of course, Turkey’s worsening human rights record. Indeed, the EU has recently proposed cuts to Turkey's EU membership aid on the grounds that “Turkey is not respecting freedom of speech, freedom of expression, human rights and is drifting further away from European democratic standards”.

Looking at the broader picture of Turkey’s relationship with the West, Kemal Kirişci a senior fellow at TÜSİAD and director of the Brookings Institute’s Turkey Project, argues in a new book that Turkey’s Western alignment has been at the root of the country’s historical diplomatic and military prowess. Presenting his argument in the Brookings Institute’s podcast, he argues, in line with conventional thinking, that Turkey’s relationship with the West is strained by the former’s desire to pursue an alternative alignment.  

The alternative alignment

Dr Kirişci contends that to some extent the Christian democratic vision of Europe championed by key European players such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicholas Sarkozy made Turkey more uneasy about joining the EU. This served to embolden Turkey’s pre-existing desire to look more Eastward and regional both in terms of her geopolitical alignment as well as her espoused values.

For example, a term now often deployed to refer to the perceived Turkish alignment is the ‘Iran-Turkey-Russia axis’, while such a configuration is often linked to Turkey’s growing religious conservatism manifesting itself, not least, in promoting an education system which omits Darwin’s theory of evolution and forcefully promotes tenets of Islam.

Certainly, Turkey is often characterised as a country torn between pursuing a secular, modern Western style state – an endeavour which defined much of the twentieth century, from Atatürk's Reforms to post-World War Two geopolitical manoeuvring – and asserting itself as a regional power more inclined to the East and capable of establishing a neo-Ottoman Empire or commanding the Islamic world.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Turkey has fluctuated in its geopolitical alignments. It has also fused East and West together. Writing for the New York Times, Behlul Ozkan from Marmara University, labels the then-Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s pursuit of a pan-Islamist empire an “Imperial Fantasy” and argues that, paradoxically, this pursuit has been grounded in Western political theories which predominated before 1945, such as the German notion Lebensraum, ‘living space’.

The internal tension between East and West, then, does not simply manifest in Turkey in dichotomous alignments and value systems, but also manifest in fusions. In this respect, Mr Halacoglu’s assertion that Turkey can pursue its own path, upholding Western values on its own terms is a significant – but often overlooked by those who see Turkey’s human rights record as defined by the prospect of EU membership – feature of the Turkish national and cultural character.

Conclusion

The growth of illiberalism and attacks on democracy in Turkey took much of the world by surprise. Should the Good Party gain some traction, Turkey could surprise the world again. Yet the extent to which a reformed Turkey would internationally align itself with Western nations is up for debate.

Geopolitical realities in which the US remains a superpower and Russia and her proxies are increasingly assertive might render a sort of third way difficult to achieve. Yet, the country which bridges East and West stubbornly seeks to remain in a category of its own.

Joel Collick is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue

The report on Liverpool prison is the canary in the coal mine and it compels us to act

Advent is always a busy time for journalists, and the last few weeks of 2017 were particularly eventful. A Royal engagement, a Cabinet resignation, Brexit papers and blue passports all made the headlines, but it was a quite different story that ought to have been of most concern to conservatives.

A report on conditions inside Liverpool prison, leaked to the BBC, described them as the worst ever seen by inspectors. Rats and cockroaches were rife, and some areas were so hazardous that they could not be cleaned. It was easy to get drugs, but much harder to get help – half of the prisoners said that they had been victimised by staff, and one in three said that they felt unsafe. Healthcare was failing. Self-injury was rising.

Liverpool’s story of abject failure is a canary in a coal mine – a reminder that, as minds turn to the next stage of the Brexit negotiations in the New Year, the government neglects domestic policy at its peril.

No public service in England and Wales has deteriorated more dramatically and more profoundly in recent years than the prison system. If Liverpool really is the worst prison in the country, other official inspection reports published in 2017 have revealed that it faces stiff competition.

Violence was so severe in Aylesbury, a prison holding 18- to 21-year-olds, that the young people were afraid to leave their cells. Feltham, a west London prison holding children, was “quite simply, not safe for either staff or boys”. Even the inspectors felt unsafe when they visited Garth, in Lancashire. In Cookham Wood, a prison for 15- to 18-year-olds in Kent, a child was assaulted every six days.

Haverigg prison, in Cumbria, was at the centre of a major police investigation. Two men had escaped from Pentonville prison, in London, and another had been murdered. Men in Lincoln prison slept in their clothes because the heating did not work. One in four men released from Exeter prison had nowhere to live. 

Brixton prison, in London, was found to be “awash with drugs”. In Birmingham prison – the scene of a riot in 2016 – one in seven men had acquired a drug habit since arriving in the jail. The same went for Bristol. In Northumberland prison and in Featherstone prison, near Wolverhampton, the ratio was one in five. In Guys Marsh, in Dorset, it was one in four.

Each week brings new tragedies. A person dies by suicide in prison every five days. More than 110 incidents of self-injury and 75 assaults are recorded in prisons each day. There are surely more that go unreported.

If we are to get out of this mess, we must first understand how we got here.

More than 85,000 men, women and children will have spent Christmas in prisons in England and Wales. The prison population has more than doubled since the mid-1990s. We lock up more people than any other nation in Western Europe, with an incarceration rate twice as high as Germany.

As the prison population has grown, so overcrowding has got worse. Three in four men’s prisons are holding more people than they are designed to accommodate.

The figures are eye-watering. Wandsworth, a London prison designed to hold no more than 943 men, is creaking with a population of 1,564 living in squalor. In Leeds, there are more than 1,100 men crammed into a jail designed for 669. Lincoln prison has room for only 403 men, but it is being asked to look after 663. The list goes on.

Overcrowding on such a scale was never sustainable. When austerity came, the impact was disastrous. Research by the Howard League for Penal Reform has shown how the number of front-line officers in some jails was cut by up to 40%. A major recruitment drive has begun in an attempt to plug the gaps, but many experienced officers have left and, perhaps unsurprisingly, retaining new ones is proving difficult when prisons are in such a parlous state. 

With fewer staff available to escort prisoners to work, education and exercise, jails have gone into lockdown with men spending up to 23 hours per day inside their cells. Inspectors found that some men in Swinfen Hall prison, in Staffordshire, had to wait for four days for the chance to have a shower.

Such conditions fuel tension. Deprived of purposeful activity, prisoners will look for other ways to make the time go by faster. It is surely no coincidence that drug use has escalated. Where there are drugs there is debt, and where there is debt there is bullying and violence. 

None of this is going to help prisoners become law-abiding citizens on their release. It is dangerous for prisoners and staff, and it is dangerous for the public, too, because problems in prisons will in time spill out into communities. So while events in Brussels will surely dominate the headlines again in 2018, Ministers cannot afford to be distracted from pressing issues at home.

The Rt Hon David Lidington MP – our fifth Secretary of State for Justice in five years – has said that he wants to see the prison population fall. Circumstances require him to do all he can to make this aspiration a reality. By taking sensible steps to bring down numbers, we can save lives, protect staff and prevent more people being swept away into deeper currents of crime and despair.

Rob Preece is Campaigns and Communications Manager at the Howard League for Penal Reform

Children’s human rights need to be central to government thinking

Some people still believe that children cannot be rights holders. In fact, by definition, human rights are for everyone, including the youngest members of society. Children also have their own international treaty that sets out specific rights for all under-18s. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) sets out the basic things that children need to thrive and have a good childhood but also acts as a safety net so children always receive at least the minimum standard of treatment.

The UK signed up to the UNCRC in 1991. This means that all areas of government and public institutions, including local government, schools, health services, and criminal justice bodies, must do all they can to fulfil children’s rights.  However our new report, ‘State of Children’s Rights in England 2017’ has found that the safety and wellbeing of some of England’s most vulnerable children is being ignored by these very public institutions whilst the Government is consumed by Brexit, be that the negotiations with the EU, the parliamentary passage of the ‘Brexit Bills’ or securing new trade agreements.   

Our report takes a look back at the past year to assess how well the Government has met their obligations in implementing the UNCRC, based on evidence from our 150 members (made up of the leading children’s charities and academics) and analysis of new data and statistics. While there are positive examples of government action to improve children’s lives highlighted in the report (for example, steps taken to better safeguard children in care and those with mental health issues) we still have a long way to go until the positive vision of childhood set out in the UNCRC is a reality for children in England. It is clear that the voices of children, and those who work with and for them, are struggling to be heard against the cacophony of debate concerning the UK leaving the EU.

The report contains the story of 17 year old Matthew who feels very anxious all the time and finds it difficult to sleep. He is in such a low mood that he lacks the motivation to do anything. Bravely he approached his GP who agreed with him that he might be suffering from a mental health condition and referred him to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services but Mathew was rejected on the basis he did not meet the eligibility criteria. Unfortunately, he is not an isolated example. Despite the Government making considerable effort to tackle children’s mental health and significant ongoing investment, over a quarter of children referred to specialist mental health services are not accepted for treatment.   

Then there are other children like Fowzia, 16, who had to live in squalid and unsafe bed and breakfasts for six months, well past the legal limit of six weeks, with public bodies failing in their duties to inspect her accommodation and safeguard her vulnerable family:

“The B&B was horrible. There were no cooking facilities or fridge so we had no choice but to buy fast food and my mum was getting very little benefits. We had to all live in two small rooms. It was really squashed and my disabled little brother had to share a bed with my mum. It was cold and dirty and when we complained, no one helped us or ever came to inspect it. At one point, someone broke into our room which scared us all.”

There are yet more shocking findings in the report. Whilst, positively, the number of under-18s being arrested has dropped by more than half in the last six years, the use of spit-hoods, Tasers, stop-and-searches and police-cell detentions on children in England have all increased in the same period. Alarmingly, our research found one police force had used a spit hood on a child aged just 10 years old. Despite risk assessments by the police highlighting the dangers of ‘breathing restriction and asphyxia’ and the Independent Police Complaints Commission investigating the deaths of several adults following the use of spit hoods, their use on children is becoming more and more widespread.

Our report also explores other areas where children’s basic human rights are being breached by public institutions. Examples include the increasing numbers of children being sexual exploited and the greater likelihood of children from disadvantaged backgrounds having poorer health and doing less well at school than their peers, negatively affecting their childhood and long-term life chances. Given the findings of the report, we are calling on the Government to ensure that Ministers have a legal obligation to consider how their decisions and policies will affect children’s human rights. This would help to ensure that children’s basic needs are no longer ignored.

Natalie Williams is a Senior Policy and Public Affairs Adviser at Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE)

China in two tales – the Chinese Communist Party and the expulsion of Beijing’s ‘low-end population’

On 30 November, 600 or so representatives of political parties from around the world descended in Beijing to attend a ‘high-level dialogue’ between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the world’s political parties – nearly 300 of them. They were treated with banquets, probably dances and songs too, in the company of members of the Politburo.

The roster of the 300 parties reads like a list of the Workers’ Parties and People’s Parties from the communist bloc of the Cold War era, sending congratulations to Chairman Mao every so often. But in 2017, more embellishment was needed for the theatre: in attendance were ‘VIPs’ representing the United States’ Republican Party, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, France’s Republican Party, Canada’s Liberal Party, and alas, the UK’s Conservative Party.

The attendees toured the Party School, and by way of an exhibit, were lectured on the Party’s achievements over the last five years. They heard General Secretary Xi Jinping’s keynote speech calling for collaboration for a world free of fear and poverty; his catch phrase has been “a community of a shared future for mankind.” Seminars were held to highlight China’s contributions to the world, while chastising Western democracies for overlooking and downplaying China’s greatness. According to state media, participants gave rousing speeches extolling the CCP’s superior leadership both at home and aboard, China’s contribution to world development and peace, and China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI).

But something else was also going on in Beijing, as the 600 politicians bathed in CCP’s magnanimous hospitality: around the capital’s outer suburban belt, up to 200,000 migrant workers in over 100 localities were evicted by force in a matter of a few days, sometimes overnight. Men and women, old and young, took what meagre belongings they could carry and trudged out into the sub-zero weather, to train stations that took them back to the villages they had come from, to other temporary lodgings to get their bearings, and through the streets. For those slow to move, their shops were smashed and homes raided by uniformed police or militia. Bulldozers soon came and razed everything into big heaps of rubbish.

The mass expulsion of Beijing has only just begun. Two million will be forced to leave Beijing by 2020, according to municipal planning authorities. Other large urban centres will see the same changes.

The order of this mass clearance came in the form of a piece of A4 paper pasted on walls and doors, mostly in no more than two or three sentences: you must move out of your residence before the end of the day, or before 72 hours, and after that utilities will be severed. Some notices gave the pretext of a fire hazard, while others gave no reason. Observers note that it’s been long in the planning to remove the ‘low-end population’ from Beijing, and one of the considerations is political security.

I look at these flimsy pieces of white paper, rumpled with wet paste, and think: look no further. This is a perfect example of how China is governed, how much power the Communist government has over the people, and how it exercises that power with abandon.

Without the need to expound, these A4 notices tell just how many human rights the citizens of China enjoy. Before entire streets, towns, and properties are bulldozed, no public hearings were held, no consultations were made, no reasons were given. Men in uniform, or sometimes plainclothes, came in with clubs, with a license to strike property and human beings alike without having to show who they are. Most people scurry away, leaving their factories, shops, restaurants, and vendor carts behind. Nobody knows where they are going and how they will rebuild life after being uprooted and thrown out, overnight.

Online, the term ‘low-end population’ is censored; the feeble efforts to provide relief by Beijing residents, NGOs, and a few house churches have been quickly extinguished. A team of college students going to do field work on the eviction are monitored by police.

Over the last five years, the Chinese government has stepped up measures to take an even tighter grip on society. In all aspects of human rights, it has taken away what little space there was for independent action, including news reporting, NGO rights advocacy activities, and the work of human rights lawyers and defenders. Furthermore, it has expedited a series of legislation through its rubber stamp congress to codify long-standing repressive and cruel practices, such as enforced disappearance.

Only recently did China observers begin to use the term ‘neo-totalitarian’ to describe the political reality in China now. The term ‘authoritarian’ has never been accurate, and is even less adequate now to define a wealthier and more powerful China that strong-arms its people and the world. Recent assessments, including the U.K. Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s report ‘The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016’, as well as the European Council on Foreign Relations’ newly published report ‘China at the gates: A new power audit of EU-China relations’, are much needed correctives for our damaging slowness to recognise the menace of a communist China.

We have the banquets and the notices, all in one week and in one city. The banquets, I’m sure, were exquisite — nothing like the flimsy A4 orders of eviction.

Yaxue Cao is the Founder and Editor of China Change

Beyond Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: Freedom of speech in Iran

The past month has seen increased media focus on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian journalist who has been held in Iranian custody since April last year.

Boris’ ‘gaffe’?

The increased focus has largely been driven by comments by the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson who, three weeks ago, told the Foreign Affairs Committee that that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been arrested in Iran for “simply teaching people journalism”.

This unsubstantiated statement –  contradicting her legal defence that she was in the country to visit her family – was subsequently cited by Iran as "proof" of her guilt and grounds for an additional five years to be added to her sentence. 

The Foreign Secretary endured significant criticism for this alleged ‘gaffe’ and was later forced to apologise. However, it should be noted that there are kernels of truth in the statements issued by Johnson’s defenders who have argued that the political anger directed at the Foreign Secretary distracts from the numerous human rights violations that the authoritarian Iranian regime has committed.

The Islamic Republic’s heinous treatment of journalists goes beyond Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliff and, until it became a more political story about the Foreign Secretary’s future, her case had attracted little media attention.

The British government and the Foreign Office must, of course, do their very best to reverse this human rights violation by Iran and secure Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. However, they must also do more to address the wider systemic issues pertaining to journalism and free speech in Iran.

Historical freedom of expression in Iran

Before the overthrowing of the Shah in 1979, Iran was a pro-Western authoritarian regime, lacking the theocratic limitations and repressions on freedom of expression which would characterise Iran after the Revolution. Yet, the Savak, the state secret police, was notorious for cracking down on critics of the regime.

Since the Revolution, Iran has turned towards religious fundamentalism and sought to enforce clauses in the regime-change constitution which lie at the root of the state’s violations against freedom of speech in recent decades. A report published last year by the independent human rights watchdog, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre (IHRDC), attributes the Islamic Republic’s repression of free speech to the vague clause in the constitution which forbids expression which constitutes “infringement of the basic tenets of Islam or public rights”.

In 1988 the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution (SCCR) was established by Ayatollah Khomeni and has been responsible for enforcing limitations on published material. The President of Iran serves as the ex officio chairman of the Council.

Ten years later, the Iranian government shut down what TIME magazine called “the most remarkable newspaper to appear in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution”, ending its seventh-month life span and resulting in the imprisonment of the paper’s editor for “political dissent”.

Another notable incident occurred in 2006 when the reformist, Abbas Abdi, was imprisoned for publishing polling which showed that the Iranian public were supportive of relations with the United States. That same year, 17 students were prevented from completing university degrees due to their “political activism and beliefs”. 

Recent violations

In recent years, there have been hopes that Iran would move more towards liberal values and embrace principles of human rights. Following the election of the “moderate” candidate and current president Hassan Rouhani in 2013 there was jubilation amongst Iran’s liberal youth. Simultaneously, the P5+ nuclear deal was being pursued in the hope that the identified moderate camp would be strengthened, with President Obama calling on “the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations”.

Certainly, it is significant to note that, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent organisation that promotes press freedom around the world, the number of journalists behind bars at the end of 2016 stood at eight, a decrease from 19 in 2015, making it the first time in eight years that Iran was not among the world’s top five jailers of journalists.

However, the optimistic projections of a reformed Iran are yet to come to fruition. Indeed, the CPJ is among the 34 organisations who have called on the UN General Assembly to vote in favour of a proposed resolution on human rights which condemns Iran’s human rights violations.

The petition cites the assessment published by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran which criticises the various legislative measures and proposals of the regime such as the 2016 Political Crimes Bill which criminalises defamation against government officials, members of parliament and the judiciary as well as attempts to “reform State policies”.

Iran is also reprimanded in the Special Rapporteur for judicial decisions to hand out lashes to bloggers and journalists such as Mohammad Reza Fathi who published posts critical of city officials. In total the report notes that by the end of 2016, at least 24 journalists, bloggers and social media activists were either in detention or sentenced for peaceful activities

The independent watchdog for democratic political and civil rights, Freedom House, provides a similarly sobering assessment, awarding the Islamic Republic a score of just 17 out of 100 for its aggregate freedom provisions, drawing particular attention to the “restrictions on freedom of expression” and “arrests of journalists, bloggers, labor union activists, and dual nationals visiting the country, with some facing heavy prison sentences”. Likewise, Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed disappointment last year that President Rouhani has failed to live up to his campaign promises to respect civil and political rights, including but not limited to, those pertaining to freedom of expression.

Indeed, in addition to the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, HRW has sought to shed light on Iran’s treatment of journalists, recently condemning the detentions without formal charges of two Iranian journalists; Sasan Aghaei, the deputy editor of the reformist daily Etemad, and Yaghma Fashkhami, a journalist for the Didban Iran website.

Conclusion

The UK government has been under increasing pressure to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from unjustified imprisonment and Boris Johnson’s political future has been cast into doubt. Both situations are a direct result of the scrutiny and amplification of journalistic freedom. 

Freedom of expression is the first freedom from which all other civil and political liberties follow. There is perhaps no better way of ensuring that we never take this freedom for granted than by defending and fighting for it wherever it is threatened. Taking on Iran over free speech is both a worthy cause and a reminder of our hard-fought privileges and the price we would pay for giving them up.

Joel Collick is a research assistant at Bright Blue

Small changes, big difference: how fixing recall practices can improve our criminal justice system

That UK prisons are overcrowded is well-known. That current recall practice is the second biggest drive behind the dramatic growth of the prison population is not. Nor is the concept of recall itself familiar to many.  

Despite its apparent innocuity, however, there are compelling arguments for a rethink of the practice’s use.

What is recall?

Recall refers to the practice of bringing offenders who are out on licence or parole back into prison. A person may be recalled if they commit, or behave as though they might commit, another crime.

The length of time in which the prisoner must return to prison depends on the type of recall. Fixed-term recalls (FTRs) incarcerate the offender for 14 days (if serving a sentence of less than 12 months) or 28 days (if serving a longer sentence). Standard recalls bring the offender back to serve the remainder of their sentence unless the parole board releases them earlier. This more stringent category applies to those who are serving a sentence for a violent or sexual offence, are on extended sentences, or are deemed to pose risks to society.

The use of recall has grown substantially. Over the past 20 years the number of people in prison due to recall has increased by 4,300%. This means that while in June 1995 there were 150 people in prison on any given day due to recall, by June 2016 there were 6,600. In the year 2015-16, more than 22,000 prisoners were recalled.

The increase in recall usage can be explained by a legislative agenda which has lengthened recall sentences and expanded the remit for recall eligibility. The Crime & Disorder Act (1998) made offenders serving between 12 months and four years eligible for executive recall, rather than via a courts process as was previously the case. The Criminal Justice Act (2003) instigated numerous changes: increasing the length of the ‘on licence’ status which imposes restrictions and obligations on the offender who is deemed to be serving his sentence but outside of prison; making the standard recalled offender liable to serve 100% of their original sentence, rather than the previous 75%; and stipulating that the parole board review all recall cases, thus reducing re-release rates.

While the introduction of FTR in 2008 initially stabilised the recall population, the Offender Rehabilitation Act (2014), which made those serving less than 12 months eligible for the practice for the first time, has caused numbers to increase again.

It is important to note at this point the types of offenders who are recalled and the stated for recalling. The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) points out that nearly 8,000 recalled offenders were serving sentences of less than 12 months, and therefore were unlikely to be serious offenders. It is only a minority of recall cases (45%) that involve people being charged with a criminal offence. The remaining majority of recalls are solely due to ‘non-compliance’ with the offenders’ licence. Indeed, the Howard League for Penal Reform calculates that in the year 2015-16, nearly 8,000 recalls were issued for “failing to keep in touch”, and over 5,000 for “failing to reside” at a particular address.

Problems with recall

From a human rights standpoint, some legal experts argue that recall procedures essentially constitute new sentences and are not simply law enforcement mechanisms. This would mean that recalls undermine fundamental principles of justice as exercises of arbitrary power which deny due process.

Beyond thorny legal issues, recalls also have a significant impact on the prison population, exacerbating the perennial prison issues of overcrowding, understaffing and public costs. As the HM Chief Inspectorate of Prisons (HMCIP) report of Portland Prison said last month: “At a time when prisons are already filled to bursting, it made no sense to ratchet up rules on recall and send thousands of prisoners back behind bars after release.”

The context of this statement presents another problem with recall practice. The HMCIP assessment noted that prisoners were deliberately breaching their licence so as to be recalled and smuggle drugs or other illicit items into prison. Such a ‘courier’ practice is recognised to have a direct negative impact of prison safety levels, another area of great concern for government and policy makers.

In addition to the impact on wider prison problems, recall usage can be highly detrimental to the offenders who are punished by this practice. First, it is worth noting that the various circumstantial problems which offenders face upon release such as mental health issues, finding suitable and permanent accommodation, or getting back into work or onto the payroll, can be significant impediments to fulfilling certain licence demands. Recalling prisoners for breaches which may have been hard if not impossible to avoid is thus a questionable practice.

Further, there is a growing presumption against short sentences due to high reoffending rates for such categories of offenders: nearly 60% of prisoners serving less than 12 months reoffend, not least because of the lack of support for offenders released after short sentences. It is on this basis that the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in its rehabilitation report stated that “a rapid cycle of short sentence, release and recall is a poor outcome for offenders, the prison service and society.” Thus, short recall sentences such as FTRs prove highly damaging to offender rehabilitation, which contributes to higher reoffending rates and less safe communities.

Reforming current practices

One way in which recall could be reformed would be ending FTR. While, of course, the introduction of FTR was meant as a positive step to reduce the severity of recall for non-dangerous offenders, recall could be ceased altogether for such low-risk criminals. The practice of sending low-risk offenders back into prison for a mere fortnight or month does virtually nothing to improve public protection or serve any retributive or deterrent purpose. It is costly and can inhibit rehabilitation, not least because, as the HMCIP report on Portland Prison details, prisoners are in fact incentivised to breach their licence and return to prison.

Another option constitutes reversing the practice instigated three years ago of recalling offenders on short sentences. According to the most recent Offender Management statistics, over 1,000 such prisoners are in custody, or nearly a fifth of the total recall population. As the Howard League point out, reversing this trend would reduce prisoner numbers by 7,500 per year.

A third area of reform would be to cease using recall as punishment for licence breaches and issue community penalties instead. These alternatives would be cheaper, produce higher rehabilitation rates, and better reflect the relative mildness of the offence. It would also immediately free up over 3,000 prison spaces. On the other hand, the reasoning behind recalling offenders for such breaches is not entirely without merit, as breaking the terms and conditions of release might indeed signal that the criminal is likely to reoffend. At the very least, however, greater attention should be paid to offenders’ motives or personal situations to reduce instances of unreasonable recalls.

A lot of the above could be accomplished without any legislative changes or significant risk to public safety and the benefits to the criminal justice system would be immediate and manifold. As with any criminal justice reform, however, it is obviously important to tread carefully: while prisons may be overcrowding and rehabilitation success limited, the solutions must not be rash and serve to threaten public order or undermine principles of retributive justice. 

Conclusion

Reforming recall could help criminals rehabilitate, reduce reoffending rates, quell prison violence, and help control an out-of-control prison population. It could also take the edge off some of the more punitive and less justifiable aspects of our penal system. It is thus both pragmatic and ethical. It is also relatively easy to do.

HMCIP is expected to release a report on recall practice soon. Upon its publication, Ministers should pay careful attention and consider taking action.

Joel Collick is a research assistant at Bright Blue

The UK should not abandon the Charter of Fundamental Rights

This week, as Parliament once again debates the EU (Withdrawal) Bill – more commonly known as the Repeal Bill – one of the fiercest battle lines will be the future of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The Government is determined to leave the Charter behind in Brussels. But a growing number of Conservative backbenchers – backed by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP – have urged the Government not to turn the Repeal Bill into a referendum on human rights.

Even Charter sceptics have reason to question the decision to drag it into the debate over the Repeal Bill.

The Bill’s authors characterise it as a copy-and-paste exercise designed to provide legal continuity after Brexit. David Davis described it as ensuring that “the same rules and laws will apply the day after exit as before”. The Charter, of course, is one of those laws – yet the Government has marked it out as the only one it will not bring home.

The Repeal Bill was not drafted as the vehicle for deciding which EU laws we should keep and which we should dump. It “does not aim to make major changes to policy,” Davis writes.

The broad legislative power devolved to ministers under the Bill is meant only to preserve the snapshot of EU law on exit day, with minor adjustments to correct various technical deficiencies arising from withdrawal, he insists.

Primary legislation to make policy changes, alongside the usual parliamentary scrutiny, will follow the Bill in due course, we are promised.

But removing the Charter is a significant change in policy.

Davis suggests that the Charter was only ever meant to apply to EU member states, saying leaving it behind “is the natural consequence of the decision to leave the EU”. But, whether they voted leave or remain, the public did not vote to give up their rights.

Some believe that scrapping the Charter will not matter, claiming it does not protect any rights not already covered by some other law. This is demonstrably false. Courts have noted that the Charter “clearly goes further, is more specific, and has no counterpart” when it comes to protecting  privacy.

Davis himself used the Charter to challenge the UK’s  surveillance laws.

A few weeks ago, the Charter provided people employed at London-based embassies critical protection against workplace discrimination and abuse.

The Charter has been used to fight discriminatory insurance rules, to require public explanations for decisions that sacrifice individual rights in the name of national security, and to establish the 'right to be forgotten' among other things.

Keeping the Charter means keeping our ability to enforce it in exactly the way it can be enforced now, only with the UK Supreme Court taking over from the European Court of Justice as its interpreter.

Even Mr Justice Mostyn, who is no fan of the Charter, conceded its value, saying: “[t]he Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated into our domestic law large parts, but by no means all, of the European Convention on Human Rights... The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union contains, I believe, all of those missing parts and a great deal more.”

The Charter has the unique ability to strike down unlawful primary legislation that violates human rights – forcing the Government to act in a way that other laws cannot. 

The point is this: even if the notion of the Charter’s continuing viability after Brexit leaves you uneasy, taking it away from everyone in the UK is an important policy decision that should not be shoe-horned into the Repeal Bill.

For lots of people, some of the EU regulations Ministers will cut-and-paste under the Repeal Bill were major reasons they voted to leave. And the future of many of those regulations will be debated in subsequent legislation before Parliament. 

As with those regulations, the UK needs a proper debate about the Charter and its relationship to the UK human rights framework. The Repeal Bill is not the place for that debate. Let the Charter stay, alongside all the other EU laws in the Repeal Bill, so the Government can get on with the task of sorting out Brexit.

There is a world of possibilities for post-Brexit Britain. Abandoning the Charter at this stage would start us down a path before we have even settled on our destination.

Martha Spurrier is the Director of Liberty

Britain has a duty to stand up for Hong Kong

Twenty years ago, Hong Kong was handed over to China, on the understanding that its way of life, rule of law and basic freedoms would be protected. ‘One country, two systems’ was the concept designed to describe the unique combination of China’s sovereignty and Hong Kong’s autonomy. The Sino-British Joint Declaration gave Britain a responsibility to monitor the situation in Hong Kong for the first fifty years after the handover. And the prime minister at the time, Sir John Major, told Hong Kongers a year before the handover that “if there were any suggestion of a breach of the Joint Declaration, we would have a duty to pursue every legal and other avenue available to us.” Hong Kong, he promised, “will never have to walk alone”. 

Twenty years on, it is time to make good that promise. In the past few years, ‘one country, two systems’ has been increasingly eroded, Hong Kong’s freedoms threatened and the rule of law undermined. China says the Joint Declaration is an historical document of no relevance. So far, Britain’s response has been tepid. The Foreign Office’s six-monthly reports, which it is required to present to Parliament, have until recently been extraordinarily weak – described by the Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten as “fairly neutral and … rather anodyne”. The most recent report was somewhat more robust, but that was starting from a rather low bar. The UK, argues Chris Patten, “risks selling its honour” over Hong Kong.

From the imprisonment of peaceful pro-democracy student leaders to the abduction by Chinese security agents of booksellers publishing critiques of China’s leaders, from threats to journalists to attacks on academic freedom, from the disqualification of elected pro-democracy legislators simply for failing to take their oaths properly to censorship of education curricula to remove references to politically sensitive episodes in Chinese history such as the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, all the signs are that Hong Kong’s freedoms are being strangled. A new report by the Henry Jackson Society details the rollback of civil, human and legal rights.

Just under a month ago, I experienced this first-hand when I was denied entry to Hong Kong, on the direct orders of the Chinese government, simply because I had been outspoken on human rights. To my astonishment, I was described as a serious threat to the “sovereignty, safety and interests of the nation”. The next day, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam refused to rule out the possibility that Chris Patten could be banned. On this occasion, the Foreign Secretary’s response was strong and the issue received attention in Parliament, drawing a much-needed spotlight on the threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Two months after the handover, I moved to Hong Kong. I worked for the first five years of Chinese sovereignty as a journalist in the territory, and although I could see some subtle warnings of threats to come – particularly in terms of self-censorship by the media – by and large when I left in 2002 I was confident that 'one country, two systems' was intact. As a journalist, I didn’t expect Hong Kong to fall from 18th in the world in 2002 to 73rd in 2015 in Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom index. And I certainly never anticipated that fifteen years after I left Hong Kong I would be denied entry to the place I had once called home.

In 2016, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission held an inquiry into human rights in China, and published a report called The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016, in which we included a section on Hong Kong. We received submissions from various activists, academics and politicians in Hong Kong. They all had the same message. “Precious rights and freedoms guaranteed under ‘one country, two systems’, such as freedom of the press, of publication and of academic thought, are being chipped away,” Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary Anson Chan and the founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party Martin Lee argued in their joint submission. Professor Victoria Tin-bor Hui, Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, agreed, concluding that “most pillars of freedom have been made increasingly hollowed.”

Increasing concerns about the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary have been highlighted. Last month twelve international lawyers, including the former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, Lord Carlile QC and the chair of the human rights committee of the Bar Council of England and Wales, Kirsty Brimelow QC, issued a public letter expressing their concerns about the imprisonment of pro-democracy student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow. They noted that the law under which they were charged, the Public Order Ordinance, has been criticized by the United Nations for “facilitat[ing] excessive restrictions” to basic rights, and argued that it “is incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which applies to Hong Kong”. They noted that Hong Kong’s retired Court of Final Appeal judge Kemal Bokhary warned of “storm clouds” over the judiciary five years ago and that in 2014, China issued a White Paper declaring that Beijing has “comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong” – instead of “the high degree of autonomy” provided for in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution. China also announced that Hong Kong’s judges are merely “administrators” who must love the country and be "subject to oversight by the central government”. In the conclusion of twelve eminent international lawyers, “the independence of the judiciary, a pillar of Hong Kong, risks becoming a charade, at the beck and call of the Chinese Communist Party. Hong Kong’s rule of law and basic freedoms, at the heart of the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, now face grave threats.”

Creeping erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms began slowly some years ago, but it is in the past three years that the situation has deteriorated dramatically. In 2014 China reneged on its promise to allow genuine multi-party democracy and universal suffrage in elections for Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2017, a decision that sparked the ‘Umbrella Movement’ bringing thousands of protesters on the streets for 79 days. The police responded with teargas, beatings and arrests. Martin Lee described in The New York Times his own experience: “At 76 years old, I never expected to be tear-gassed in Hong Kong, my once peaceful home. Like many of the other tens of thousands of calm and non-violent protestors in the Hong Kong streets …, I was shocked when the pro-democracy crowd was met by throngs of police officers in full riot gear, carrying weapons and wantonly firing canisters of tear gas. After urging the crowd to remain calm under provocation, I got hit by a cloud of the burning fumes. The protesters persevered. They ran away when gassed, washed their faces and returned with raised hands. But the police continued to escalate the crisis. Their aggressive actions hardened the resolve of Hong Kongers, many of them too young to vote, to defend our freedoms. These include the long-promised right to elect our leader.”

The imprisonment of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow brought the threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms to the world’s attention. Prior to the twelve international lawyers, a group of 25 eminent international politicians, diplomats, activists and religious figures issued an open letter in protest, calling the sentence “a death knell for the rule of law and human rights” in Hong Kong. The three activists’ release on bail earlier this month is a welcome move, and perhaps a sign that international advocacy works and that Hong Kong’s judicial independence is not completely lost. Nevertheless, when they were jailed their colleague Derek Lam said starkly: “In the past, when we chant ‘release political prisoners,’ we’re referring to [those in China] … but now it’s Hong Kong.” As Anson Chan and Martin Lee argue, the Joint Declaration and 'one country, two systems' was meant to guarantee that “no Hong Kong resident would have to fear a midnight knock on the door”. With the abductions and arrests that have happened, they now conclude that “none of us is safe”.

For all these reasons, a new organisation is being launched in London next month to be a voice for Hong Kong and to conduct research, provide briefings and carry out advocacy. With a cross-party group of Patrons including the former Conservative Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown, the former Labour Shadow Foreign Minister Catherine West MP, the cross-bencher Lord Alton and the former chief prosecutor of Slobodan Milosevic Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the new organisation – to be called Hong Kong Watch – will work to better inform Parliamentarians, the media and the general public about the challenges Hong Kong faces. We believe it is time that Britain lived up to Sir John Major’s promise and to our responsibilities under the Joint Declaration. It is time for Britain to stand up for Hong Kong.

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, and served as a member of Bright Blue’s Human Rights Commission.

Mental health in UK prisons – the human rights perspective

As concern about the state of mental health in UK prisons grows, particularly regarding the dramatic increase in prisoner suicide and self-harm, so too does the relevance of human rights.

This concern is not a small one. Ministry of Justice Deaths in Prison Custody figures reveal a steady increase in self-inflicted deaths from 58 in 2010 to 119 in 2016, the highest since records began in 1978. Likewise, statistics provided by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales reveal that there were 32,000 incidences of self-harm in 2015, signifying a 25% increase from the previous year. 

A human rights framework for prisons

It is because of these disturbing trends that the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) conducted an inquiry into mental health and deaths in prisons. Published in May earlier this year, the report prefaces its review on a framework of human rights legislation with which to view prisoners and mental health issues. The report uses the framework of Professor Philip Leach, a human rights law professor at Middlesex University and director of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, who divides the pertinent human rights legislation into three areas: the international human rights framework (including both legally binding treaties and non-binding but “legally relevant” standards); European regional standards; and national human rights legislation.

First, under the international human rights framework, Professor Leach highlights the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which insists that prisoners be treated with humanity and respect for their inherent dignity, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which states that disabled persons must be respected their “physical and mental integrity on an equal basis with others” and that they are entitled to guarantees and treatment in compliance with the Convention “including by provision of reasonable accommodation”.

Compounding these legally binding international treaties are non-binding standards. Most notable among them are the UN standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, or the ‘Nelson Mandela Rules’, which expect prisons to facilitate: remedial, social and health-based assistance; provision of healthcare services to protect the physical and mental health of prisoners; at least one hour of suitable exercise in open air daily; and only a limited use of solitary confinement measures, restricted to exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, as Penal Reform International points out, the unanimously adopted revision of the rules in 2015 clarified that prisoner health is a state responsibility and that prison health services should be of equal standard to those in the community.

Second, with regards to European regional standards, there are the expectations outlined in the European Prison Rules, many of which affirm the UN standards, such as the rule that “every prisoner shall be provided with the opportunity of at least one hour of exercise every day in the open air”. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT Standards) likewise stresses that prisoners should spend “a reasonable part of the day” outside of their cells and should be “offered the possibility to take outdoor exercise daily”. The CPT also references suicide prevention, insisting that there should be “adequate awareness” and “appropriate procedures” in place to prevent self-inflicted deaths.

Finally, on the matter of national legally-binding legislation, there is the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which the Human Rights Act enshrines in UK law. Article 2 stipulates a right to life, placing a positive obligation on the state to protect those in its care, including prisoners, for whom a safe environment must be provided through risk assessments, health services provisions, and permitting regular family contact.

The 2015 Harris Review, an independent report into young offender suicide in custody, clarifies that this article constitutes a positive obligation on the state, arguing that the article is in breach “if the authorities knew, or ought to have known, that there was a real and immediate risk of self-inflicted death” and failed to do “all that could reasonably have been [done]”, citing Keenan v. UK as an example of this. This ECHR case awarded Susan Keenan, mother of Mark Keenan who suffered from psychiatric disorders and committed suicide in custody, compensation for damages because the prison had failed to fulfil their positive duty of care by failing to note the immediate risk of suicide.

UK prisons’ performance on human rights

Considering these standards, is clear that current practices in UK prisons merit improvement from a human rights perspective. Indeed, the CPT themselves issued a report about UK prisons last year, and determined that urgent measures were needed to reverse the recent trends of escalating violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths.

A 2016 report on prison suicides by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Centre for Mental Health illustrates how the state is not taking sufficient, positive steps to protect prisoners in its care. It identifies the underperformance of the Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) programme in flagging those at risk of self-harm: less than half of prisoners who committed suicide in 2015 were on the ACCT at the time of their death. The report also criticises certain disciplinary measures constituting a so-called ‘basic regime’ which “contravenes international human rights standards”. Eight percent of investigated prisoners who committed suicide between 2007 and 2012 were on this regime, despite the regime prisoners accounting for just 2% of the prison population.

A 2015 Prison Reform Trust study on segregation units similarly criticises the prison services’ shortcomings on human rights issues. These units facilitate just 20 to 30 minutes of daily outdoor exercise for prisoners, well short of the 60 minutes stipulated in the Nelson Mandela Rules and the European Prison Rules. This is in part attributable to a 2011 Public Service Instruction (PSI), which reduced the minimum requirement to just 30 minutes for prisoners on restricted regimes. The Trust adds that they “are unaware of any other European jurisdiction where the official requirement is for a period of less than an hour.” Likewise, restrictions on contacting helplines such as the Samaritans or Listeners are raised as highly problematic for mental health and human rights reasons.

While it may be easy to neglect what, quite literally, goes on behind closed doors (and firmly locked and bolted ones at that), it is important to remember that human rights extend to everyone, including those whose liberties we have rightly curtailed. It seems that with regards to its prisons, the UK needs to remember better and act more forcefully to make adequate provisions for human rights.

Joel Collick is a research assistant at Bright Blue

Not fighting for Allah: how Iran exploits Afghan migrant poverty to fuel the Syrian civil war

Beyond the furore of President Trump’s combative stance towards the Iran nuclear deal and the consequentially combative stance of European leaders towards President Trump in return, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been at the centre of a less public controversy: its exploitation of impoverished Afghan migrants, including children, by sending them to Syria to fight for President Bashar al-Assad.

Of course, such recruitment methods and belligerent military activities are the tip of the iceberg of a long-running destabilisation programme orchestrated by Tehran. For it is not only Iran’s domestic policies that have merited international criticism from a human rights perspective, but also their political and financial support for other human rights abusers in the region; from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite militants in Iraq to Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Gaza strip.

Recruiting Afghan fighters

This latest scandal, however, as reported by Human Rights Watch (HRW) is perhaps particularly disturbing due to both the manifold layers of human rights violations being committed and the fact that young children are being cynically recruited to partake in one of the greatest contemporary humanitarian catastrophes.

Children, some as young as 14, are amongst the recruits of Afghan migrants sponsored by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to support the Assad regime in Syria. They are also amongst the fatalities: HRW has identified eight Afghan children who fought and died in Syria and notes that the Iranian media has reported at least six more such fatalities.

According to Afghan interviewees, Iranian officials ask potential recruits for their age at sign-ups at Afghan migrant registration centres – but they do not ask for corroborating documentation. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court stipulates that the military use of children under the age of 15 is a war crime. Further, the Operational Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Iran has signed, though not yet ratified in parliament, argues for an age limit of 18.

The recruits constitute an Iranian-backed Afghan armed group known as the Fatemiyoun division. Its 15,000 fighters’ motives appear not to be religious, but economic: the recruits seek financial support or residency status for them or their families. There are three million Afghan migrants residing in Iran, approximately half of whom are undocumented, and while Iran refers to its Afghan fighters as “volunteers”, these communities’ circumstances call in to question just how voluntary such sign-ups are.

One first-hand account of Iranian exploitation comes from Shams, a 25-year-old who fought in Syria twice in 2016 and now lives in Kabul: “For me, it was just about money. Whoever I saw was going for money and to have free entry to Iran. I never saw anyone fighting for religious reasons.” According to Shams, Afghan Shiites are given one and a half million rials if they register for the Fatemiyoun at a recruitment centre and receive an additional three million rials a month.

Consequently, Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry has called on Iran to stop sending recruits to Syria, and a parliamentarian in Kabul has reprimanded Iran for treating these migrants “like slaves”.  Rebuke also comes from Sarah Leah Winston, Executive Director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division: “Rather than preying on vulnerable immigrant and refugee children, the Iranian authorities should protect all children and hold those responsible for recruiting Afghan children to account.”

 Afghan migrants living in Iran

The highly unethical nature of such recruitment methods is evident when the migrant communities’ circumstances are assessed. One recent review conducted by Nasim Sadat Hosseini Divkolaye from the Iranian Blood Transfusion Organisation and American physician and human rights expert Frederick M. ‘Skip’ Burkle Junior highlights the plight of Afghan migrants due to poor healthcare provision. Citing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which enshrine the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of health, the authors argue that the problem of limited healthcare access, which is compounded by the migrants’ propensity to work in hazardous labour without work-related insurance, constitutes inadequate human rights provisions.

More stinging criticism, however, can be found in HRW’s extensive report from 2013, ‘Unwelcome Guests: Iran’s Violation of Afghan Refugee and Migrant Rights’, which draws attention to the desperate situation of many Afghans. Crucially, the report documents the fact that Iran increasingly deploys deportation and detention procedures without due process and has simultaneously limited legal avenues for Afghans to claim refugee or other immigration status in Iran, violating its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Thus, the migrant communities have found it increasingly difficult to claim residency in Iran and their ability to remain in the country without fear of deportation has also become more perilous in recent years. It is no wonder many young Afghans are tempted to risk their lives in a brutal war they do not believe in.

The growing numbers of disheartened Afghan refugees leaving Iran confirms the thrust of the aforementioned reports. One such 26 year-old Afghan refugee who was born in Iran and has his eyes set on living in Germany is quoted saying that “the Iranian government didn't treat us like humans – we couldn't go to the hospital with insurance”. His “first dream”, he says, “is to have human rights.”

These accounts of mistreatment of Afghan migrants jar with the praise bestowed on Iran by the UN in March for its “exemplary” behaviour in hosting refugees. They also provide sobering contextualisation to the undoubtedly positive developments from the UNHCR’s Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR) whereby Iran has provided medical assistance to refugees on the Afghan border, granted health coverage to many documented migrants, and enabled many Afghan children to partake in the Iranian education system.

None of these actions detract from or justify the more expansive areas of Iran’s human rights violations in its use of child soldiers, neglect and exploitation of its vulnerable Afghan migrant communities, and its furtherance of Syria’s humanitarian tragedy by bolstering the Assad regime.

Joel Collick is a research assistant at Bright Blue