A Conservative-DUP deal and human rights

The British public is paying unusual attention to Northern Ireland at the present time. Not thank goodness because of any new atrocity, nor because our peace process has hit another bump in the rocky road to a new society. There seems to be a kind of horrified fascination as elements of the media discover the rather unattractive answer to the question “Just who are the DUP?”

This interest arises of course because the minority Conservative government is seeking a “confidence and supply” agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party’s ten MPs which would enable it to get the Queen’s Speech and budgets through the House of Commons. So the spotlight is on the DUP’s extreme social conservatism and, in some of the liberal media at least, its dalliance with monied elements of the “alt-right” during the referendum campaign. 

From a human rights perspective these negotiations are problematic for a number of reasons. Chief amongst them is the perceived threat to the peace process. There is just a week left before the legal deadline for the formation of a new Executive at Stormont. Sinn Fein and the other parties complain that the DUP have, literally, not turned up to agreed negotiation meetings and have not taken a serious attitude to re-establishing the institutions. But there will be a more general effect on the process if a deal is done.

Nationalists will view the prospect of the dominant unionist party allying with, and having significant influence over, all the power of the UK state as a major de-stabilising factor. Many nationalists were already convinced that the pre-election May government were in close ideological alliance with the DUP and operated in tacit collaboration. On certain issues, key to the peace process, there can be no doubt that UK Ministers, as well as important Conservative politicians, were at one with the DUP. These include the national security veto on information to be given to victims’ families after legacy investigations, attacks on lawyers and law officers engaged in legacy work and the demand for amnesty for British soldiers who might be accused of murder. More generally, the explicit hostility to human rights demonstrated by elements of the previous UK Government was shared by the DUP. 

The DUP itself has never accepted the Belfast Good Friday Agreement as such, even though later agreements led it to participate in the institutions. This participation has, however, had the effect of blocking progress on a number of social issues, such as equal marriage and reproductive rights, a refusal to countenance the implementation of commitments in the agreements such as a Bill of Rights, a Single Equality Act and an Irish Language Act and a series of actions by individual DUP ministers that ignore equality regulations and seem designed to appeal only to elements of their own constituency. There is also the unresolved issue of the Renewable Heating Initiative (a botched scheme that could lead to the loss of up to £500m of public money), the role of the current DUP leader in it and whether she could be First Minister while the inquiry into the affair is going on. An alliance with a Conservative government would bolster the DUP position on all these matters and make the re-establishment of the institutions highly unlikely. 

If that means a period of Direct Rule, the position would be even worse. British ministers would be making decisions but heavily influenced by the DUP. It would be inevitable that any decision would be proofed by how attractive or not it would be to the DUP. Tory ministers, like the current Secretary of State, may protest that they would act independently but the political realities and the actual power relationships would mean that the DUP had a disproportionate influence. This partly fulfils the DUP dream of majority rule but exercised through the medium of a UK government dependent on their parliamentary support. This is in fundamental contradiction to the peace settlement and would cause a level of instability that would have unknown consequences.

If there is a Tory/DUP deal, those who wish to combat impunity, progress the peace process and uphold human rights principles will have to be particularly vigilant on these issues. In terms of combating impunity, we will reject any one-sided amnesty or “statute of limitations” for British soldiers only. For the past few years we have been working hard to get the Stormont House Agreement implemented. In spite of the UK Government’s ridiculous position on national security, it remains the only practical show in town for dealing with the past – the UK Government should publish and consult on a draft Bill as soon as possible. For the peace process, the optics of the situation will be bad enough; if there is evidence of collusion between the DUP and the UK Government on these matters, faith in the entire settlement as well as the rule of law will be undermined. In current circumstances equality is the underlying human rights principle which must be defended and promoted. Without the rigorous implementation of the equality duty on public authorities, public confidence in government here will rapidly leak away. 

Paradoxically, an open alliance between Conservatives and the DUP may mean that policy will be better scrutinised. Informal, under the counter arrangements are one thing and may be subject to differing interpretation; open, formal agreements can be better judged as to whether they contribute to equality and justice. That will be one of the tasks of CAJ moving forward. 

Brian Gormally is Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ). The CAJ is an independent human rights NGO with cross community membership in Northern Ireland and beyond. It was established in 1981 and campaigns on a broad range of human rights issues. CAJ seeks to secure the highest standards in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland by ensuring that the government complies with its international human rights obligations. 

Comrade wolf: Russia’s manipulation of Eastern European

In 2006, President Putin compared America’s apparent insatiable hunger for expanding its influence in the world to “comrade wolf”, an allusion to America dominating smaller nations in an apparently friendly way. Now however, as former Warsaw-Pact states face an incredible assault on their fundamental rights to a free media and fair elections, all under the guise of defending ethnic Russians, it is Putin who is accused as acting as the wolf in sheep’s clothing. While the West worries about its ability to defend its own democratic institutions from Russian interference, Eastern European countries are facing the real and present danger that Russian meddling could entirely destabilise their often fragile political order.

Origins

Vladimir Putin’s defining foreign policy objective can be described simply as restoring Russian prestige abroad, and for him this means consolidating the country’s influence in its former territories in Eastern Europe and the caucuses. In 2007, the Kremlin made early use of its foreign subversion infrastructure in a coordinated attack on Estonia. The cyber attack took down critical pieces of government infrastructure, including banking and media services, and was intended to spread misinformation and drive a policy change towards the relocation of a Soviet memorial.

However, a large, singular attack was not deemed effective, and the Kremlin honed its subversion infrastructure over the last decade, coming up against tests in Georgia and Ukraine. Georgia’s success in persuading key policymakers around the world of their victimhood was a sharp wake up call to Russia that they would need sustained subversion in order to establish influence and control over its neighbours, and there was subsequently a surge in funding for the programme and the number of people involved.

Actions in Europe

Leaked documents from Russia’s security services allege that the Kremlin has - since at least 2008 - had a strategic goal of undermining former Warsaw-Pact nations through media manipulation and political interference, with a focus on the nations of former Yugoslavia.

In Macedonia and Montenegro, two nations seeking to join NATO (the latter of whom was admitted last week), Russia’s presence has been particularly pronounced, as it attempts to keep the two countries neutral. While the post-Cold War consensus allowed the establishment of functional political systems in these countries, less attention was paid to the structure of the media, a loophole Russia has been able to exploit.

In Macedonia, following the collapse of the Russian-backed Government, a centre-left coalition with two Albanian parties has been sworn in, and Russia is beginning to step up its interference in the country. Following the investment in cultural ‘friendship’ centres in the country, leaked papers show Russian spies in the Embassy bribing media officials, and attacking the new Government for allegedly wanting to create a ‘Greater Albania’. This has stoked deep ethnic tensions in Macedonia, which boiled over in April 2017 when the then opposition leader, now Prime Minister, was beaten up by a mob of nationalists in the Parliament. Russia has also used its influence to peddle stories of EU and US meddling in the election of the new Government, helping to delegitimise an already unstable coalition.

Scandinavia has seen extensive media subversion too, with the Russian press in Finland perpetuating entirely fictitious stories of ethnic-Russian mothers having their children seized by Finnish authorities. As Sweden mulled joining NATO, Russia spread stories online in the country about the potential negative ramifications of such an action, an indirect way of lobbying the government, by stoking public fear.

All of these tactics have been used to their full destructive force in Ukraine, where a joint military and subversion strategy has successfully destabilised the entire country. State-run news in Russia invented a story about Ukrainian people crucifying a young child, helping commit the wavering Russian public to the state’s actions in Ukraine. Russian TV channels were in overdrive in the country spreading absurd fake stories of NATO mobilising in the country, the barbarism of ethnic Ukrainians, all to legitimise Russian intervention and undermine the Ukrainian Government.

The European response

Eastern European countries are faced with an enormous task in attempting to respond to and defend themselves from Russian subversion of their media and politics. However, they have already made some early attempts.

Following Putin’s crippling attack on Estonia, the country introduced a national education programme to counter Russian subversion, and in partnership with NATO allies, they are distributing their national strategy to similarly affected countries. These nations stress the importance of a unified, national message to counter Russian propaganda – however this comes at the cost of a free, impartial and critical press to hold government to account.

The European level response has thus far been quite weak. While the EU has launched Russian-language media channel East Stratcom to counter propaganda, it is already coming under pressure from a lack of funding and a lack of cohesive messaging from all European nations, who disagree about the exact measures and strategy that should be used.

With Emmanuel Macron’s ascendancy to the French Presidency, and the hard line he has taken on Russia, it is hoped that further actions will be taken to counter Russian media and political subversion in Eastern Europe. In the aftermath of Russia expanding its subversion apparatus to Western countries in the last couple of years, it is imperative that all European countries realise the implications of allowing such subversion to continue: an empowered Russia, at the cost of stability, prosperity, and human rights in Eastern Europe.

Neil Reilly is a research assistant a Bright Blue

The Pacific solution: Australia’s cruel refugee policy

On the small, poverty-stricken Pacific island nation of Nauru, an immigration detention centre houses hundreds of so-called ‘boat people’, the name given to refugees that try to enter Australia on shipping vessels. This centre, and its partnered centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, form part of the Australian Government’s ‘Pacific Solution’ – a radical, and frequently condemned, policy aimed at curbing the tide of refugees from the Middle East and South Asia fleeing on boats to the nation. More than simply being a radical policy, these detention centres have become a hotbed for human rights violations, often operating outside the rule of law, and shielding systemic abuse from international watchdogs and journalists.

Origins

In August 2001, the Liberal-National Government led by John Howard forced a decisive shift in Australia’s refugee policy. In the previous year, Australia had seen over 5,000 people arrive by unauthorised boat. Under intense political pressure, and the threat of a large Norwegian freighter called the Tampa docking in Australian territory with 433 additional asylum applicants, Howard ordered the Australian special forces to seize the boat and divert its course. In the immediate aftermath of the so-called Tampa affair, the Pacific Solution was established.

Under Australian law, once refugees land in Australia they are entitled to apply for asylum – so the Howard Government revised what comprised Australia’s migrant zone to take peripheral islands out of the territory migrants could legally land on to claim asylum. Australian Defence Forces were then tasked to intercept vessels carrying asylum applicants and divert them to the newly-founded immigration detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

The following year, just one person arrived in Australia by unauthorised boat. While the policy was a success in terms of curbing asylum applicants, it has been condemned as an assault on human rights by international organisations, including the United Nations. Shortly after the policy was enacted, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative to Australia stated that it was, in their view, the “the most severe asylum system to be found in the Western democratic world."

Conditions in the detention centres  

In the subsequent year after the policy was enacted, Howard’s Government faced numerous accusations of abuse in the detention centres. Following a hunger strike in one of the facilities, a member of the Government’s own immigration advisory group stated that "dispossession, separation, isolation, trauma, complete lack of power over your lives and a lack of judicial redress” all exist inside the detention centres. Since then, an uneasy political consensus has built around the issue, with the Australian Labor Party - which was in power from 2007 to 2013 - initially reviewing the practice, only to reinstitute it when there was a significant increase in the number of asylum applicants travelling to Australia.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that the detention centres in its territory are illegal since they breach the right to personal liberty allowed in the country’s constitution. Despite this ruling, Australia has continued to use Manus Island as a ‘processing site’. However, the Australian Government has allowed just 18 asylum applicants to be processed and admitted into Australia in 2016. This follows Kevin Rudd’s - the former Labor Prime Minister of Australia - announcement that the asylum applicants would be granted no way of attaining Australian residency, which has led to hundreds of asylum applicants languishing in these detention centres.

The conditions in the centres, which are operated by security firm G4S, have been condemned by a number of human rights groups. In a leaked cache of incident reports from the detention centres, it was revealed that of the 2116 reports filed, just over half of incidents related to children. These included alleged incidents of private security guards granting small favours such as an extra two minutes in the shower in return for sexual acts, child sexual abuse, enabling of self-harm, and beatings. Detainees have reported suspicious deaths in the camps, including one man whose body was found at the bottom of a cliff, and guards have been accused of causing such intense mental trauma that many detainees take their own lives. Last year, an Iranian asylum seeker set himself on fire in one of the camps.

Conclusion

In 2016, the Australian Government completed a one-off refugee resettlement deal with the US. Under the deal, the migrants held on Manus and Nauru islands will be assessed and the most vulnerable will be resettled in the US. This is expected to free up considerable space in Australia’s detention centres, and therefore allow the Pacific solution to continue. Abuses have generally been put down to overcrowding and ethnic tensions between refugees yet to be settled or deemed eligible. While the Labor Party, the current opposition, have made promises to speed up processing, take in more refugees, and allow independent oversight of the facilities, they have stopped short of calling for a radical overhaul of the current policy, which human rights groups claim is needed.

Neil Reilly is a research assistant at Bright Blue

The right to freedom of religion and belief should matter for the religious and non-religious alike

Bright Blue’s campaign and petition for the UK to remain party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) after we leave the European Union is in the best tradition. The ECHR was the masterpiece of post-war British politicians who, looking out over a continent drenched in innocent blood and counting the cost in lives and treasure of human rights abuses, grasped the need for permanent legal protections against state tyranny. Indeed, it is easy for us to overlook the fact that human rights, enshrined in treaties like the EHCR, embody the lifeblood of modern prosperity. But here we take a closer look at the value, for both the religious and non-religious, of one particular ECHR-secured human right: freedom of religion and belief, often referred to as FORB. In a continent where one state had routinely targeted individuals of a certain religion through the Holocaust, this right remains one of our most precious assets today – for all of us.

It is necessary to explain exactly what this right entails, for it is often the victim of obfuscation. The right is expressed fully in the ECHR’s Article 9. It secures the freedom to hold and change one’s own religion or belief and to manifest it in private and public. This right extends to a range of non-religious as well as religious beliefs. For a belief to be protected it must be serious, sincerely held, worthy of respect in a democratic society and concern important aspects of human life or behaviour. This includes Humanism. If the state can prove a threat to public safety/order, health, morals or the rights and freedoms of other people, it can interfere with one’s right to put their religion or belief into action, but otherwise it cannot. Finally, this freedom belongs to individuals, and not to the religion or belief itself, which means that it does not attempt to shelter religions or religious figures from criticism.

So, why is Article 9 universally valuable? Firstly, because it is indispensable to the stimulation of harmony between the different communities comprising modern, pluralistic societies. History reveals that when the state does not provide equal freedoms to people of different religions and beliefs, the potential for violence is inflamed. The community with the religion or belief that is discriminated against naturally feels resentful towards the privileged faction and the Government of the day. This causes sectarian strife, which often escalates as the competing communities try to wrestle from each other control of the state. Far from being an intellectual abstraction, the FORB principle emerged from the ashes of these conflicts, as states realised that it represented the only path to sustainable peace. Indeed, countries that persist in avoiding enshrining this right continue to find themselves marred by violence. A strong case can also be made that the freedom to criticise religions and beliefs also, paradoxically, cultivates harmony. After all, if the state was to ban the criticism of beliefs, out of a sense that those holding them are likely to respond with violence, certain groups might be encouraged to resort to aggression when, inevitably, their religions and beliefs are subjected to scrutiny.

It may be objected that many countries party to Article 9 do find themselves creaking under the pressures of religious violence, in the form of terrorism. Some may even claim that freedom of religion and belief actually empowers terrorism, as it allows extremists to inflict their values on the susceptible. The latter claim is misguided. As we have already seen, the state does have the authority to intervene given a provable threat to public safety/order or the rights and freedoms of others. There is, furthermore, a strong case to be made that Article 9 throws water on the flames of home-grown terrorism more vigorously than it stokes them. It does, after all, foster the loyalty of all groups to the state, since it lessens fears of state-endorsed infringements upon their religious or non-religious autonomy.

FORB also generates loyalty to the state by facilitating economic prosperity. A climate of peace and stability is crucial to the economic success of any country, as serious turbulence obviously impedes investment and development. Countries ravaged by sectarian violence also often find themselves haemorrhaging talent, as the highly-skilled emigrate. Moreover, FORB helps to keep at bay certain types of religious regulation that harm economic activity. Some Muslim-majority countries, for instance, place certain industries in theologically-inspired strangleholds and impede the flow of women into the workforce. Indeed, it seems that religious/non-religious, economic and political freedoms are deeply intertwined. Unthread one, and all the others will threaten to fall apart.

Some non-religious people complain that FORB is valuable but, in practice, in public discourse it is often manipulated and weaponised by religious agents. We sympathise with this view. The full category of ‘Freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ is sometimes shortened to ‘freedom of belief’, but is often shortened to ‘religious freedom’. This can amount to an insidious verbal sleight of hand, which allows some lobby groups to turn the right to ‘religious freedom’ into a right to privilege over others. Sometimes, the term ‘religious freedom’ becomes nothing but a code-word for intolerance. This hurricane of insincerity throws us through the looking-glass, where we find that a right designed to impede discriminators, is wielded as a key weapon in their armoury. Obviously, we encourage governments to disown these hollow forms of ‘religious freedom’, which find no sanction in the wording of Article 9 or subsequent European Court rulings.

Despite some distortions on the ground, the utility of the principle is clear. We all tend to take rights such as these for granted. In reality, European history is bathed in the blood of the people who were not protected by such freedoms. It is also soaked in the sweat of people who struggled to see them worked into the political vocabulary of their states. To discard the ECHR would serve only to sap the power of these hard-won freedoms and insult the memory of their standard-bearers.

Andrew Copson is Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association

Human rights abuses by the Ugandan People's Defence Force

Introduction

The Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF), the government armed forces of Uganda, face accusations of significant human rights violations. As one of the larger militaries in its region, the UPDF plays an important role in conflict resolution and peacekeeping in both Uganda, and the wider East African region. In recent years, the UPDF has been engaged in operations in Uganda, Somalia, and the Central African Republic.

Operations in Uganda

The UPDF has a long history of alleged human rights violations in its own country.

Since 1987, the UPDF has been engaged in active warfare with rebel political organisation, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who, the UN reports, have been responsible for more than 100,000 deaths across East Africa since 1987. This war has left many Ugandan citizens displaced and has forced them into displaced person camps.

In 2003 a report from Human Rights Watch detailed human rights abuses committed against the civilian population during the conflict against the LRA. These included child soldiers being recruited into the army against their will and sometimes subjected to torture. Samuel Tindifa, the then director of Human Rights Watch, reported that girls as young as 12 had been raped and had subsequently tested positive for HIV, most likely as a result of the sexual abuse.

In 2005, Human Rights Watch reported that the Ugandan military were continuing to kill, rape, and uproot citizens in Northern Uganda. They have also alleged that a particular battalion committed numerous deliberate killings and beatings of civilians during early 2005 when it was assigned to the displaced person camps.

In 2007, Save The Children reported further abuses committed by the UPDF: they stated that the UPDF was responsible for the deaths of 66 children in an incident in the Karamoja region. These allegations were confirmed by a report from the UN which urged the Ugandan government to curb human rights abuses against civilians and condemned “indiscriminate and excessive use of force” by the Ugandan military.

African Union Mission in Somalia

In 2007, UPDF soldiers were sent to nearby Somalia to participate in the UN-supported African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), whose purpose was  to provide peacekeeping services during the Somali Civil War. But in 2014, soldiers from AMISOM, including soldiers from the UPDF, reportedly sexually abused and exploited vulnerable Somali women and children at their bases in Mogadishu.

Further to this, a Human Rights Watch report found soldiers raped or assaulted women who came to the army bases and paid vulnerable women for sex. This directly contravenes the UN Secretary-General’s rules which prohibit peacekeepers from exchanging any money, goods, or services for sex. Some women were found to have contracted sexually transmitted infections after the assaults, with several also describing being slapped and beaten by the soldiers.

An investigation also uncovered evidence of sexual exploitation of women seeking medicine for sick babies at AMISOM military bases and reports that soldiers gave some women food or money after they had been raped in an apparent attempt to frame the assault as transactional sex.

Only one rape case was ever brought to Ugandan military court, although a number of soldiers were suspended for misconduct. In an official response, AMISOM said that the alleged rapes were ‘isolated incidents’.

Operations in the Central African Republic

In 2009, members of the UPDF were sent to the Central African Republic to suppress the LRA’s activity in the Republic. The UPDF presence was further increased in 2011 and 2012 in an attempt by the African Union to eliminate the LRA.

In 2016, the UN reported 14 cases of rape by the UPDF in the Central African Republic including cases involving children. The UN High Commissioner stated that he was deeply concerned by these “credible” and “deeply worrying” allegations of human rights violations.  Most recently, Human Rights Watch - in findings released this week - found accounts of rape and sexual exploitation by the UPDF in interviews that they conducted with women in the country. Similar accounts were revealed in a BBC report which detailed how a 12 year old girl was raped by a UPDF soldier on the way to the market.

There have been a number of accounts of women being left pregnant by Ugandan soldiers. Reports suggest that women have had sex with UPDF soldiers in military bases despite strict rules from the African Union explicitly prohibiting this practice. In each incident the soldier who had fathered the child subsequently left the country and provided no support to the mother. Ugandan military investigators have claimed to have engaged with some of those affected, but this has been widely denied by survivors. One young woman told Human Rights Watch that she was warned not to speak with Ugandan investigators. A military spokesperson quashed the allegations stating “our soldiers did not get involved in such unprofessional behaviour”, and that the investigations were completed.

Conclusion

Uganda is now withdrawing its troops from the Central African Republic and many soldiers have already returned home. However, the Ugandan government has still failed to address the serious, credible, and consistent accounts of sexual abuse and violence committed by Ugandan soldiers in Uganda, Somalia and the Central African Republic. Critics argue that investigations by the Ugandan military have been wholly inadequate and have not held alleged perpetrators to account. Some human rights organisations have now called on the African Union and the UN to undertake independent inquiries into the actions of the soldiers and to require the Ugandan government to take action if the allegations are corroborated.

Michael Hough is a research assistant at Bright Blue