Why the British Government should consider re-opening the Dubs amendment to protect unaccompanied children in Europe

In the face of unprecedented numbers of people in forced displacement world-wide, European states have been forced to consider their own policy responses with the arrival of significant numbers of people seeking sanctuary in Europe. In the UK, the so-called ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais, France, was a highly salient issue on the UK political agenda, not least because it appeared that most of the individuals in this makeshift camp were hoping to continue their journey onto the UK. However, since the camp’s demolition in 2016 many have now returned, and there are again approximately 700 displaced people living in the area, among them, hundreds of unaccompanied children. As is so often the case in large-scale humanitarian crises, the situation in Calais being no exception, children are amongst the most vulnerable individuals. They face an increased risk of exploitation and abuse, often at the hands of traffickers, where high levels of insecurity and precarity directly affect their rights to health, education and development at a crucial time in their lives.

As a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the British Government is committed to upholding the rights of the child regardless of nationality, race, colour, sex, language or religion. The unaccompanied children who currently reside in Calais are of direct relevance to the UK and its policy makers – many hope to reach the UK and are likely to have family and support networks there. Due to the lack of legal routes to seek asylum or apply for family reunification in the UK, these vulnerable children continue to risk their lives at the back of lorries each night, and their day-to-day existence is characterised by violence and ill-health. Despite its international commitments, in February 2017 the UK Government withdrew its support for a piece of legislation known as the Dubs amendment. First introduced in 2016, the legislation was intended to provide a safe, legal route for unaccompanied children to reach the UK from France, Greece and Italy.

Our findings clearly indicate that schemes like the Dubs amendment are still very much needed to protect the human rights of vulnerable children. After the aforementioned demolition of the ‘Jungle’ camp, 98.8% of the children we interviewed in April 2017 were unaccompanied. The living conditions for these vulnerable children are far below any internationally expected standards, with the majority finding themselves in destitution and without access to clean water or shelter. An alarming 85.9% of children said they don’t feel safe in and around the Calais area, and 96.5% of children had experienced police violence in the area, including tear gas, physical violence and verbal abuse. Alongside violence and detrimental living conditions, our research found that only 16.9% of children had access to information about their rights and how to break out of their current situation. Instead, they continue to endure inhumane conditions and abuse in the hope that they will eventually be able to cross the border and, for many of them, submit their asylum case or family reunification application to the British Home Office.

In order for the British Government to move towards effective policy action to resolve the situation in Calais, the rights of the child as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child need to be at the centre of policy making.  A key decision that would help the Government honour its tradition of human rights and child protection would be to re-open the Dubs scheme, allowing unaccompanied children safe, legal passage to reach the UK. Once re-opened, its criteria ought to be expanded to ensure that the most vulnerable children do not risk being excluded, and a revised cut-off date should be implemented to address additional concerns. Importantly, a multi-agency effort is required to ensure that those children who qualify under the Dublin lll regulation with relatives in the UK are identified and quickly transferred. Safe legal routes such as the Dubs scheme and Dublin lll are integral in combatting the growing power of traffickers who are known to exploit vulnerable children.  As well as this, the UK must continue to work with French counterparts to advocate for the safeguarding and rights of the child on French soil. The current approach of intense policing and heavy-handedness revealed by RRDP research needs to stop, as it does nothing to resolve the situation. Instead, resources should be dedicated to setting up a standard safeguarding framework, comprising monitoring mechanisms to minimise the risk of unaccompanied children going missing and falling into the hands of traffickers, along with an adequate team of social workers, medics and interpreters. The provision of water and shelter is also urgently required in the interim.

While much of the discussion in Britain on unaccompanied children in displacement has revolved around proof of age, nationality and the strength of family ties, the human rights situation faced by displaced children in Europe continues to deteriorate. Due to the serious nature of the child protection failure unfolding in Calais and beyond, it appears to be of utmost importance that the debate in the UK moves beyond such divisive matters and that the focus is shifted towards finding constructive solutions to the situation. Regardless of the motivation for the journey, unaccompanied children must be treated as children first and foremost and afforded adequate levels of protection under national and international law.

Alice Lucas is the Senior Programme Officer at Refugee Rights Data Project (RRDP)

RRDP envisions a world in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to all individuals, including refugees and people in displacement. To work towards their vision, they conduct first-hand field research, develop partners’ awareness of the situation on the ground, and actively engage in dialogue with all stakeholders to inform policies and practices that affect refugees and displaced people seeking sanctuary in Europe.

You can follow RRDP on Twitter: @RefugeeData

The ECHR and the 'living instrument' doctrine

In Bright Blue’s new report ‘Fighting for freedom?’, former High Court Judge and QC Sir Michael Tugendhat assesses the historic and future relationship between conservatism and human rights. In opposition to previous Conservative Party commitments to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA) and the Prime Minister's’ scepticism of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Sir Michael defends the UK’s current human rights framework, arguing that the Conservatives should not pursue either of these changes.

The report also addresses the seven main Conservative critiques of the UK’s current human rights framework that Sir Michael identifies. These include:

  • International courts instructing the UK

  • A higher body of law than UK law (the ECHR)

  • Mission creep and judicial activism of European judges

  • The undermining of UK courts

  • The undermining of the UK Parliament

  • Giving prisoners the right to vote

  • The undermining of British security

Sir Michael responds to each of these criticisms methodically, demonstrating the mistakes and bad faith that often motivate them, while also conceding the need for reform in various specific areas.

Perhaps the most contentious of these criticisms is the idea that the ECHR has been guilty of ‘mission creep’ over the past 70 years at the hands of activist European and British judges.

This claim was made most prominently in ‘Protecting human rights in the UK’, a report by the Conservative party proposing changes to Britain’s human rights laws. The report argues that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has developed ‘mission creep’ by adopting “a principle of interpretation that regards the Convention as a ‘living instrument’.” This principle allows the court “to expand Convention rights into new areas, and certainly beyond what the framers of the Convention had in mind when they signed up to it.”

This criticism of the ECHR as a ‘living instrument’ is misplaced and shows little understanding of how laws are made and interpreted. Treating the ECHR as a ‘living instrument’ means conferring to the words of the convention the meaning they bear at the time the ECtHR is making a decision, rather than the meaning the words might have borne at the time the ECHR was entered into by the framers in the early 1950s, or the original intent of the framers (where that is discoverable).

The judicial activism that the ‘living instrument’ doctrine requires should not be regarded a fault, as it is essential if laws are to remain relevant. UK common law is itself a body of law that has developed through judicial activism, and necessarily so. First, because there is no foundational document setting out the common law which was framed at a particular date. Second, because much of common law was formed during the middle ages, when standards were very different from today. If judges had not been as activist as they were in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, we would not have the common law protection of human rights which was the source for the ECHR.

Bearing the above in mind, the criticism that the ECHR has expanded “beyond what the framers of the Convention had in mind when they signed up to it” starts to look distinctly unconvincing. The framers of the ECHR would have understood that it would need to be applied in circumstances that were unforeseeable at the time, and that it would therefore have to be treated as a ‘living instrument’. Since the UK signed the ECHR in 1950 there have been significant changes in attitude to matters such as capital punishment and discrimination on grounds of gender or sexual orientation. The ECHR must also now be applied in relation to things which did not exist in 1950, such as CCTV, IVF, the internet, various medical advances, and much more besides. Treating the ECHR as a ‘living instrument’ is essential if the law is to adapt to these changes.

It is difficult to find fault with the ‘living instrument’ doctrine in principle, and upon closer examination, most of the objections towards the ECHR by Conservatives involves criticism of individual cases, rather than the ‘living instrument’ doctrine itself. Conservatives seem to object not so much to judicial activism, but to instances of judicial activism on issues where they disagree with the judgement of the ECtHR. For instance, the ECtHR has been activist in its interpretation of article 10 with little objection by Conservatives, as it has resulted in increased press freedom in relation to matters of public interest.

However, there has been widespread criticism of the ECtHR’s decision that the UK’s blanket ban on voting for prisoners is in violation of Protocol 1 of the ECHR. This decision has been used as an example of a case in which the ECHR has been interpreted too broadly, and resulted in undue judicial meddling in politics. In Hirst v UK (No 2), the ECtHR accepted that depriving prisoners of the right to vote can be justified in serious cases. But it held that the prohibition in the UK violated the rights of some prisoners because the disqualification was “irrespective of the length of their sentence and irrespective of the nature or gravity of their offence and their individual circumstances”.

Whilst a reasonable person could object to this decision by the ECtHR, the principle that the ECHR should be regarded as a ‘living instrument’ is not the problem here, rather it is the application of this principle to a particular case. Therefore, the claim by the Conservative Party that the ‘living instrument’ doctrine is a powerful objection to the ECHR is unfounded. Furthermore, whilst the ECtHR may have applied the doctrine too liberally in some cases, in the vast majority of instances the ECtHR is simply updating the law to maintain its relevance in the face of changing attitudes and circumstances.

Freddie Lloyd is a research assistant at Bright Blue

Conservatism and human rights - Episode 31

In the final human rights podcast Laura speaks to Sir Michael Tugendhat, former High Court judge and QC, about the report he authored for Bright Blue 'Fighting for freedom?' in which he sets out the historic and future relationship between conservatism and human rights. Bright Blue director Ryan Shorthouse argues that the Conservatives should champion human rights in order to attract more younger voters.

Bacha bazi: Afghanistan’s darkest secret

Bacha bazi, or ‘boy play’, is an Afghan custom that involves boys as young as nine being forced to dress as women and to dance seductively for an audience of older men. These young boys are typically owned by wealthy patrons, and are regularly the victims of sexual assault and abuse. Bacha bazi was common, particularly in rural parts of Afghanistan, for hundreds of years, before being outlawed by the Taliban government in the 1990s. The practice underwent a resurgence after the overthrow of the Taliban by US forces in 2001, and whilst efforts have been made over subsequent years to stamp out the practice, they have been largely unsuccessful due to government corruption and the reluctance of the US to involve themselves in domestic Afghan affairs. In January 2017, the Afghan government belatedly moved to criminalise bacha bazi, and is finally beginning to act to prevent abuse and protect victims, with mixed success thus far.

History of the practice

Bacha bazi has antecedents in ancient cultures throughout central Asia. However, the practice appeared in its modern form in the 19th century. It typically involves wealthy Afghans, often Pashtuns, who acquire young men or boys for the purposes of sexual entertainment and exploitation. Women are prohibited from working as dancers or entertainers in many parts of Afghanistan, and young boys are used instead. These boys, known as bacha bareesh, or ‘beardless boys’, are generally between ten and eighteen years old, and tend to come from poor backgrounds. Parents are persuaded to hand over their sons for financial reimbursement, with the promise that they will be given work and an education. Ostensibly, the young men work as dancers at private parties, however many are coerced into having sexual relationships with their masters. Boys who refuse to do so are often raped, and, in some reported cases, murdered if they manage to escape. The boys are also generally deprived of education, ruining their life prospects when they are eventually discarded after having become too old.

According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), victims are often beaten, with injuries including internal haemorrhaging, protrusion of intestines, throat injuries, heavy internal bleeding, broken limbs, fractures, broken teeth, strangulation, and in some cases, death. Unsurprisingly, the AIHRC found that 81% of victims want to leave the so-called ‘profession’, which is reality constitutes human trafficking.

During the Afghan civil war, the Taliban made bacha bazi illegal as it was regarded as un-Islamic and incompatible with Sharia law. From 1993, until the US invasion of 2001, the practice was punishable by death.

Whilst the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by the US improved the prospects of certain oppressed groups in Afghanistan, for example women, it actually increased the prevalence of bacha bazi. The Taliban’s harsh punishments for those accused of participating in the practice were no longer enforced due to the vacuum of power left by the war.

Although child abuse remained illegal, the practice of bacha bazi itself did not, which provided cover for sexual abuse. Government complicity in the practice also quickly became a problem. Many high-ranking officials reportedly engage in bacha bazi and are rarely prosecuted by their peers.  A 2014 report by the AIHRC assessed that most people who engage in bacha bazi paid bribes to, or had relationships with, law enforcement, prosecutors, or judges that effectively exempted them from prosecution.

Throughout the period of US occupation, US commanders also made little effort to stamp out the practice. Lance Corporal Buckley was reportedly told to “look the other way because it’s their culture”. The US armed forces had a policy of ignoring child abuse committed by allied Afghan militias in order keep them on side during the fight against the Taliban. Special forces commander Dan Quinn was relieved of his command and withdrawn from Afghanistan after he beat up an American-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave.

The spokesman for American command in Afghanistan defended this policy, arguing that “allegations of child sexual abuse…would be a matter of domestic Afghan criminal law… There would be no express requirement that US military personnel in Afghanistan report it.” However incidents such as the Dan Quinn case placed new scrutiny on the policy of ordering soldiers to ignore child sexual abuse by their Afghan allies, with NGOs such as Human Right’s Watch arguing that the US government’s bankrolling of the Afghan government gives it both the responsibility and the leverage to stop the continuation of this abuse.

Recent developments

International condemnation regarding the lack of action on bacha bazi has grown in recent years. In 2014, the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, told the General Assembly that “laws should be passed, campaigns must be waged and perpetrators should be held accountable and punished”.

A recent report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) also strongly criticised Afghan government officials for active complicity in “the sexual exploitation and recruitment of children by Afghan security forces”.

However, it is generally accepted that the problem is not getting any better. Suraya Subhrang, the child rights commissioner at the AIHRC stated this year that "before, bacha bazi existed in some special areas, but now it is everywhere. It is happening in Takhar [province] and the rest of the north".

These abuses continue despite President Ashraf Ghani’s June 2016 pledge to organise “thorough investigation and immediate action” concerning bacha bazi abuse by military personnel. Ghani promised this January that bacha bazi would be criminalised, with punishments including up to seven years in jail for sexual assault and capital punishment for cases that involve more than one boy being violated. The penalties and guidelines, according to the President’s senior adviser, would be listed in an entire chapter focusing on criminalising bacha bazi in Afghanistan’s new penal code. However, this promise has yet to result in any concrete action thus far.

If it does occur, criminalisation would be a positive step, however experts argue that it would not in itself be sufficient, as the government does not have the capacity to enforce the criminalisation of the practice. Professor Jasteena Dhillon, an academic expert on Afghanistan, recently argued that reform can only come through a change in culture, and that this will necessarily involve in-person negotiations with locals, and condemnation by religious leaders.

Conclusion

Bacha bazi is an under-reported human rights problem that is causing huge, and increasing, suffering to the most vulnerable children in Afghanistan. The lack of action by the US and Afghan governments constitutes a dark stain on their record as they attempt to create a more free and safe society after the war. Whilst the rhetoric of both governments signifies an increased engagement with the problem, swift action must now follow to protect the young boys of Afghanistan from further abuse.

Jesutofunmi E. Somade is on work experience at Bright Blue, organised by the Social Mobility Foundation

Britain should be championing rights not repression in Egypt

In his Preface to the annual FCO report on Human Rights and Democracy this year, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that “promoting the values that Britain holds dear is not an optional extra, still less a vainglorious addition to our diplomacy: it is keeping with centuries of tradition. This is part of who we are”. 

Fine sentiments. But ones that the UK too often ignores or marginalises in its relations with key countries around the world. This was demonstrated with disturbing clarity this month in the case of Egypt.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the Egyptian military’s forcible removal of Mohamed Morsy, the freely elected president, in 2013, heads a country gripped by an unprecedented human rights crisis – the worst for decades. In the months following him seizing power, Egyptian security forces killed huge numbers of people. Human Rights Watch documented the killing of at least 817 and likely more than a thousand protestors in Cairo’s Rab’a al-Adawiya Square on a single day - August 14, 2013 – more than were killed at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and a potential crime against humanity. Nearly four years on, no government official or security officer has been held to account for this crime and the man effectively in charge of the security forces at the time is now the country’s elected President.

In the last four years under Sisi, upwards of 60,000 people have been imprisoned, protests are effectively banned, and the country’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is outlawed and those alleged to be members hunted down. Egypt’s courts have sentenced hundreds to death -  including former president Morsy –  and thousands of civilians have been sent to military courts. The government has severely restricted freedom of expression and emasculated the work of international and civil society groups.

If all this wasn’t awful enough, new research we published just this week confirms that the country’s security forces are responsible for widespread and systematic torture in police stations and national security offices. We interviewed several former detainees, and their testimony is chilling.   They told us that torture sessions began with security forces using electric shocks on a blindfolded, stripped and handcuffed suspect, while slapping and punching him, or beating him with sticks and metal bars. If the suspect fails to give the officers the answers they want, interrogators increased the power and duration of the electric shocks, often to the suspect’s genitals. Detainees were also forced into stress positions for long periods of time so as to inflict excruciating pain.

In the northern Sinai Peninsula, fighting between Egyptian government forces and an affiliate of the armed extremist group Islamic State has dramatically escalated, with large-scale rights violations by both sides.  Egyptian forces are involved in the disappearance of hundreds of civilians, mass arbitrary arrests, torture, deaths in secret military detention and extrajudicial killings.

In the face of this unprecedented crisis, and inspired by Boris Johnson’s emphatic assertion that “promoting human rights is an essential aim of the foreign policy of a global Britain”, one would expect a strong and principled UK government response to the grave and worsening rights situation in Egypt.

But far from it. In an article in the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram two weeks ago, the FCO Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, laid out actual UK government policy towards Egypt.  Burt is gushing in his support for the Egyptian government’s counter-terrorism efforts and makes no criticism whatsoever of the brutality of its operations in Sinai, although terrorism and how best to address it is the major theme of his article. And there is no acknowledgement that the Egyptian government’s approach - what Burt chillingly describes as striking “with a fist of iron” - is fuelling not weakening radicalisation. It is as if the UK has learned nothing from the last two decades of counterterrorism operations.

Nor does Burt make any mention of the multiple other human rights crimes engulfing the country. Nothing on torture. No mention of mass death sentences. No reference to the ferocious crackdown on free expression.  He also strongly attacks the Muslim Brotherhood – an international Islamic political movement -  and links it to extremism, even though the UK government’s own review of the group found no evidence of links to terrorism.  As the Conservative commentator, Peter Oborne, points out: “Burt’s comments have given Sisi carte blanche to continue his brutal suppression of the Brotherhood”, in a way that will delight the Al-Sisi regime and other autocrats in the region, including in Saudi Arabia. 

UK policy towards Egypt, as set out this month by Alistair Burt, bears no relationship to the sort of values-driven foreign policy articulated by Boris Johnson just three months ago and championed by Bright Blue. If the UK is serious about human rights – as it should be – it needs to urgently clarify its policy towards Egypt and elsewhere. It needs to affirm beyond any doubt that Britain stands for certain fundamental values in the world – and not merely for cold and cynical realpolitik, which diminishes the UK’s global standing and will deliver yet further misery, conflict and repression to the people of Egypt.

David Mepham is the UK Director of Human Rights Watch.

You can follow him on Twitter @mephamd

The new ‘war on drugs’ in the Philippines

During his campaign for the presidency of the Philippines last year, Rodrigo Duterte made the chilling promise that if elected he would kill 100,000 drug dealers as part of his plan to end the supply of illegal drugs. At the time, these statements were dismissed by many commentators as populist sloganeering against a hated criminal class. However, since taking office in May last year, Duterte has gone about implementing his election pledge, instigating a campaign of police and extra-judicial killings of those associated with the drug trade that has left over 7,000 Filipinos dead. But there is strong evidence that the justification for this crackdown is much weaker than Duterte suggests, and that he is using it as a pretext for consolidating his own political position.

Duterte’s ‘law and order’ campaign

Duterte describes himself as a radical socialist, however his electoral appeal came in a large part from his vociferous defence of traditional law and order values in a country that remains staunchly socially conservative. During his tenure as the mayor of Davao, a city on the southern island of Mindanao, he claimed to have created “one of the safest cities in the world” through his violent policies, which included the use of ‘death squads’ to kill those suspected of involvement in the illegal drug trade.

An important element of Duterte’s presidential campaign was his pledge to apply these policies to the entire country, insisting that they were required to combat the country’s apparent drug crisis. “In three to six months,” he said, “I will stop drugs and criminality”. This narrative proved extremely popular with the electorate, and in the June 2016 presidential elections Duterte received almost twice as many votes as his nearest rival.

Despite this popular endorsement, the narrative created by Duterte bears little resemblance to reality. Firstly, Duterte’s claim to have created “one of the safest cities in the world” in Davao is a fabrication. Duterte first became mayor in 1988, and was in charge for the majority of the next 30 years. According to official data released by the Philippines National Police, Davao had the highest rates of murder, and the second highest rates of rape, of any city in the country between 2010 to 2015. High crime rates are likely a result of Duterte’s decision to tolerate, and often encourage, vigilante attacks on criminals, with human rights groups estimating that 1,400 extra-judicial killings of street children and alleged criminals have taken place since 1998.

Secondly, Duterte’s justification of his policies as a means of saving a country riddled by addiction and drug-related violence is also questionable. He claims that there are currently 4 million drug users in the Philippines, and projects that there could be as many as 10 million by 2020. However, the country’s own drug authorities put the figure much lower. Furthermore, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates the prevalence rate for drug use by Filipinos at 2.3%, which is roughly half the global average. Duterte’s policies therefore appear to be an extreme response to an exaggerated problem.

Duterte’s presidency

Since becoming President last May, Duterte has fulfilled his campaign promises by expanding his ‘war on drugs’ from Davao to the rest of the Philippines. It is estimated that between 7,000 and 10,000 Filipinos have been killed by police or vigilantes so far. The government argue that police only kill in self-defence during anti-drugs operations, and claim that they do not condone extra-judicial killings by vigilantes. However human rights groups claim that the majority of police killings are executions, which the police justify by planting drugs or weapons on the victims, and that the vigilante killings are incited by the authorities. During speeches, Duterte has regularly encouraged Filipinos to carry out extra-judicial killings. His disavowal of any association with the vigilantes is, therefore, unconvincing.

Amnesty International investigated 33 incidents of drug-related killings in 20 cities across the country. They found that the vast majority of the killings were “unlawful and deliberate killings carried out by government order or with its complicity or acquiescence”. They also found that police officers routinely “kill in cold blood unarmed people suspected of using or selling drugs”, and then plant evidence to suggest they acted in self-defence. Amnesty concludes that the government is guilty of widespread breaches of human rights, such as the right to life and the right to a fair trial.

As part of his ‘war on drugs’, Duterte has also reinstated the death penalty for drug offences, lowered the age of criminal responsibility to ten, and introduced mandatory drug tests at schools and workplaces.

Finally, the drug war has provided a pretext for Duterte to crush political opposition. The opposition mayors of three cities have been killed during anti-drug operations, and Duterte moved last week to abolish the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, an independent government agency that has been the harshest critic of Duterte’s policies.

Despite the chaos and growing authoritarianism Duterte’s drug policies have led to, they remain popular with the public. According to an April 2017 poll, 78% of Filipinos are satisfied by the government’s crackdown on illegal drugs, only slightly down from 85% last December.

International reaction

Condemnation from human rights groups has been immediate and sustained, with much of the information we have only becoming available thanks to the work of NGOs that monitor the number of killings.

There has also been widespread international censure: for example, the EU delivered a resolution in March 2017 that condemned Duterte’s crackdown on political opponents and human rights groups.

However, criticism from the US and UK has been less forthcoming. President Trump praised Duterte for doing “an unbelievable job on the drug problem” in a leaked phone call, while Liam Fox recently referred to the “shared values and shared interests” of the UK and the Philippines during a trade visit to the country. Neither Trump nor Theresa May has officially condemned any aspect of Duterte’s policies, and the Philippines continue to be considered a key ally in the region.

The Philippines has a rapidly expanding economy and has recently discovered natural gas reserves. It is therefore considered a valuable future trade partner. These factors suggest that an increase in international pressure on Duterte to halt his bloody ‘war on drugs’ is unlikely.

Freddie Lloyd is a research assistant at Bright Blue

Conservatism and human rights - Episode 28

Laura Round discusses the vote in the Jordanian parliament to repeal a law that enabled rapists to avoid punishment by marrying their victim, and the refugee situation in Calais. Trump announced he was banning transgender people from serving in the American military. Mark Nevitt, US Navy Commander and Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, joins the show to discuss this in further detail.

The UK must reverse worrying press freedom trends

Earlier this week, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, drew a heated reaction from the media and the human rights community with her comments in a column for The Telegraph asserting that “real people” did not care about security, and arguing for restrictions on tools like WhatsApp that use end-to-end encryption, as part of the Government’s counter-extremism strategy.

Rudd’s comments were only the latest in a series of worrying moves against UK press freedom over the past year, which increasingly frequently is being trampled in the name of security. In recent months, Rudd has made prior comments suggesting that restrictions on encryption tools were on the horizon, backed up by Theresa May. Speaking about the London Bridge terror attack, the Prime Minister said the Internet must be further regulated to “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online” and said she would change human rights laws if they “get in the way” of the Government’s anti-terrorism efforts.

Other senior figures have contributed to a perception of disdain for free expression and hostility towards the press. Just two days before the general election, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, said: “People have had enough about this free speech stuff", referring to terrorist recruitment material. A few weeks later, in an appearance on BBC’s Newsnight, the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, called for broadcasters to be “a bit patriotic” in their Brexit coverage.

This series of comments from top officials is even more problematic when viewed against the backdrop of an overall trend of growing restrictions on press freedom in the UK. The Investigatory Powers Act, adopted in November 2016, is not only the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history, it is also incredibly menacing for press freedom. In particular, it lacks sufficient protection mechanisms for whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources.

The Law Commission’s proposal to replace the Official Secrets Acts with a so-called new ‘Espionage Act’ is even more alarming. As envisaged, such a bill would make it easy to label journalists, bloggers, and others as ‘spies’ and jail them for up to 14 years for simply obtaining leaked information.

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 also remains a potential threat to press freedom as it contains a cost-shifting provision that, if implemented, could hold publications that refuse to sign up to the state-approved regulator liable for all claims made against them, regardless of merit. RSF and other free speech groups have called on the Government to implement without delay the Conservative manifesto pledge to repeal Section 40 and not to proceed with phase two of the Leveson inquiry.

Many of these recent moves will have particularly serious implications for investigative journalists, who are finding it increasingly difficult to do their jobs in the UK. The impact will be a significant chilling effect that will limit investigations into sensitive topics – like corruption and human rights abuses – that are in the public’s interest, and that are vital to hold power to account. Self-censorship has become one of the biggest global threats to freedom of expression, and remains one of the hardest challenges to counter. We fear it is now on the rise in the UK.

Such moves have contributed to the UK dropping two places in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, launched at the end of April 2017. The Index currently ranks the UK as 40th out of 180 countries – a shocking placement for a country that has long been viewed as an international standard-setter.

RSF’s World Press Freedom Index is intended as an advocacy tool, and it is our hope that countries will examine the reasons for their scores and strive to improve their rankings. But the current state of affairs in the UK – bolstered by comments like the latest from Rudd – unfortunately leaves little hope for an improved UK ranking in the year to come.

This alarming trend must be reversed now, as a matter of priority. The Government should ensure that respect for press freedom and broader human rights is at the core of all practices and policies going forward. A balance must be found that protects those values most fundamental to our society. Sacrificing our right to freedom of expression does not make us safer, it simply makes us less free, and our government less accountable.

Rebecca is the UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders. Known internationally as Reporters sans frontières, RSF works to promote and defend freedom of information and freedom of the press around the world.

For more information on RSF’s work, visit www.rsf.org/en or follow RSF on Twitter at @rsf_inter and @rsf_en.