Why survivors of torture must defend the Human Rights Act

Often when survivors of torture are involved in discussions about human rights issues, it’s for their testimony and not for their expertise on an issue based on their lived experience. But, on Wednesday, I was offered the chance to speak to staff from Bright Blue, an influential think tank set up to influence public debate and government policies as a member of Survivors Speak OUT, a survivor-led activist network.

I was given this opportunity because I am a survivor of torture and I have had to defend my human rights. For me, and others in Survivors Speak OUT, without the Human Rights Act we may not have been able to claim asylum would have faced return to torture and perhaps death.  We want Bright Blue to use their influence to protect this Act and to do that, we need to help them understand how the Human Rights Act has supported many vulnerable people - most of these people are British but some are people like me.

I come from a country in east Africa. I was politically active and opposed the government which imprisoned and tortured me. I was able to escape to the UK, which I regarded as a fair and just country. However, I was shocked when I applied for asylum and my story of persecution and torture was rejected.

I spent eleven years trying to secure protection in the UK. It was a very difficult and long time living with such uncertainty. During this period, I’ve been detained, made homeless, not allowed to work or study, and I’ve been trapped in the nightmare of the asylum system. But it is also when I met my wife and we had our first child together. It was Article 8 (right to a family life) of the Human Rights Act that eventually gave me the right to live and work in the UK and afforded me protection from torture. It was a vital safety net.  

Early into our meeting with the team from Bright Blue, we found common ground in our mutual support for the UK to remain a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights. But we know that the last Conservative Party manifesto committed the party to replacing the Human Rights Act and introducing a new British Bill of Rights. We cannot allow this to happen if it means that the torture ban is weakened and survivors, like us, could face being returned to countries which torture.  

A British Bill of Rights implies that it is only for British people and would make many people who contribute to the UK in one way or another, feel pushed to the margins and create divide in an already difficult post Brexit climate. The universality of human rights is an important principle that the UK has championed. It must continue to uphold its reputation and show its leadership in this area.

Our current Government has acted to support human rights overseas, especially though its pioneering work documenting and campaigning on sexual violence through its Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI). But there is a real problem when that same Government will not believe torture survivors who have suffered from sexual violence when they apply for asylum in the UK. The UK must not support double standards in their foreign and domestic policies.

In Survivors Speak OUT, we are calling for opinion formers and decision makers to celebrate the benefits of the Human Rights Act and the good it does to support some of the most vulnerable in society including torture survivors.

Now there is an election on 8 June. We must not allow this election to be made to be about Brexit only. It is more than that and we must all put our efforts behind defending human rights for all. We have to get the message across to all the candidates, whatever party they belong to, that the Human Rights Act is an important part of our justice and protection system and must be retained.  

The Survivors Speak OUT (SSO) is a UK based network of men and women who have survived torture and now collectively speak out against the use of torture and its impact. The network is supported by the charity Freedom from Torture.

This article was written by Yonas from Survivors Speak OUT. Follow SSO on twitter @SSOonline

 

Turkey’s referendum heightens human rights concerns

Last Sunday, the Turkish public voted by a narrow margin to approve changes to the Turkish constitution and to extend President Erdogan’s powers. The referendum occurred nine months after an attempted coup by elements of the Turkish army. Following that attempted coup, international human rights organisations warned of a clampdown on human rights in the country. The referendum campaign and result has only heightened these concerns. Critics allege that the referendum campaign was held on an “unlevel playing field”, while human rights organisations and experts have expressed their belief that the new powers will allow for a further reduction in human rights in Turkey.

Human rights after the attempted coup

Sunday’s referendum occurred amidst a backdrop of a state of emergency in Turkey. Initially imposed for 90 days following the attempted coup in July 2016, it has been extended three times and is still in place now. The state of emergency allowed for human rights to be restricted, including allowing the executive to dismiss civil servants and officials without an investigation and to confiscate property without any judicial review.

Turkey’s response to the coup has provoked widespread criticism on human rights grounds. In a statement issued shortly after the 90-day state of emergency was first imposed, the EU criticised Turkey for its decisions around the education system, judiciary and the media, and urged Turkey to respect the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right of all individuals to a fair trial. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed serious alarm at the developments and urged Turkish authorities to respect the rule of law. Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Baroness Anelay said the UK Government had emphasised the need for Turkey to respect human rights in the aftermath of the coup.

Human rights NGOs have collected very compelling evidence that justify these concerns. For example, Human Rights Watch have reported an increase in accusations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees in police detention, including the stripping and beating of citizens. Amnesty International have found that more than 10,000 people have been detained since the state of emergency was introduced with many of these people subjected to rape, torture and sexual abuse. Open Doors, a charity which serves persecuted Christians, have reported that Christians and other minority faith groups have endured ill-treatment such as graffiti being deliberately placed near church buildings, anonymous threats sent by text and email to church pastors, physical attacks and the restriction of work permits for Christian foreign nationals.

The referendum process

The changes to the constitution which led to the referendum were introduced by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The 18 changes to the constitution will significantly increase the power of the President, by giving him the power to directly appoint top officials, assign one of several vice-Presidents, intervene in the judiciary, and decide whether to impose a state of emergency. The AKP justified awarding more powerful presidential powers on the grounds of three threats: ongoing coup plots; Kurdish separatists; and bombings by the Islamic State.

There have been a number of criticisms of the procedure surrounding the referendum. First, after it was called, the AKP issued a decree suspending the normal rule during an election that requires all candidates to be given equal airtime. As a result, election monitors reported that the campaign in favour of the constitutional changes dominated the media coverage. They found that this - along with restrictions on the media, the arrests of journalists and the closure of media outlets - reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views. Second, members of opposition political parties were also arrested in the build-up to the referendum. While there were reports of opponents of the constitutional changes facing police harassment.

Third, a last-minute decision to allow unstamped ballots in the referendum was considered to clearly breach electoral law. The Union of Turkish Bar Associations, an organisation for Turkish lawyers, found that these changes could have impacted the result. During the counting of the votes, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party claimed there was a vote manipulation of 3-4% in favour of expanding presidential powers. This manipulation included allowing ballot papers without an official stamp to be used which had not gone through the same levels of authentication.

On Sunday, Turkish authorities announced that 51.4% of people had voted in favour of extending President Erdogan’s powers. Following the announcement of the result, international actors criticised the referendum. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an intergovernmental organisation who monitored the referendum, said that “the legal framework remained inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic referendum” and that the referendum campaign was conducted on an “unlevel playing field”. This opinion was shared by observers from the Council of Europe. The US State Department added that it was concerned about observed irregularities on voting day and unequal treatment of the two sides during the campaign.

Opposition politicians have called for the results to be annulled and said it would take its challenge to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. Despite these criticisms, President Erdogan warned in his victory speech that the opposition parties should not challenge the result.

New powers, new concerns

Many are now concerned about what President Erdogan will do with his new powers. Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University said he had weakened the free press and free speech with these changes and should be considered a semi-authoritarian leader. The Venice Commission, an advisory body of constitutional law experts which advises the Council of Europe, has expressed its belief that the changes to the constitution place the country on the road to an autocracy and a one-person regime.

Pelin Ayan Musil, an expert on Turkey at the Anglo-American University in Prague, expressed deep concern about the effect of the constitutional changes: “if we look at the constitutional changes, the way it is designed, it really kills the checks and balances. The checks and balances were already damaged to a high degree. Now it makes it much worse.” David Phillips at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University believed that the changes showed Turkey’s western orientation was now over and that it was unlikely that President Erdogan would be more conciliatory in his leadership approach.

Conclusion

For almost a year, there have been strong concerns about Turkey’s approach to human rights. The campaign, result and outcome of the recent referendum on changes to Turkey’s constitution has heightened these concerns. President Erdogan now has extensive new powers with limited democratic accountability. The increased authority handed to President Erdogan by this referendum looks set to allow the human rights clampdown which has occurred since the attempted coup to continue.


Michael Hough is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue

Is Restorative Justice a solution to the growing problem of hate crime?

Some 15 years ago I had the pleasure of helping to establish a Restorative Justice system in Slovakia while working for the UK Department for International Development. In Slovakia, the victims of hate crimes were mostly Roma ethnic minority people, who comprised about 10% of the population. It seemed an ideal way of resolving racist and discriminatory conflicts, as well as other crimes and disputes. That was the first time I understood what Restorative Justice could achieve.

But first, what is this Restorative Justice? The Restorative Justice Council says “Restorative justice brings those harmed by crime or conflict and those responsible for the harm into communication, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward”. Face-to-face communication that is mediated in a controlled environment by a trained professional. A typical criminal justice approach has a trial with a winner and a loser. Parties to the process even talk about having “their day in court”. Of course for very serious or complex crimes a trial is still appropriate. But what about someone shouting racist abuse at a Muslim woman on the street? Will that incident actually come before a magistrate or judge? Possibly not if the perpetrator did not threaten or use violence. The tests that the Crown Prosecution Service apply to decide whether to prosecute someone are outlined in my ebook guide to helping victims of hate crime. Could the cheaper and, in my view, often more effective solution of Restorative Justice be a better process in such cases? One in which both the victim and the offender come together in a mediated environment to discuss what has happened, why it has happened and how it can be repaired. Restorative Justice empowers the victim and gives that person a voice, something that isn’t so clear in the long process of a typical court case. Of course it depends on both the victim and perpetrator agreeing to participate in Restorative Justice, and the criminal justice system allowing for this to happen. But communication between the two that explores the hurt caused and looks for solutions, is surely worth trying.

There is another important reason why Restorative Justice should be an option in hate incidents. Many people do not report hate crimes to the police because they do not want to go to court. They feel intimidated by the criminal justice system. Some evidence. Six months ago Herts GATE set up, in collaborationwith other Gypsy, Traveller and Roma organisations, an excellent reporting website for Gypsy, Traveller and Roma victims of race hate www.reportracismGRT.com. The site has had over 100 reports. Of these 80% did not report the incident to the police. The reasons why will vary, but a fear of the whole criminal justice process is a key reason.

An example. A Roma woman in East London has been repeatedly subjected to hate, verbal and physical, while selling The Big Issue magazine on the streets. Local businesses have supported her and often called the police when they have seen an incident occurring. The police, after admittedly being slow to recognise that it was a hate crime, have now given her protection. But she doesn’t want to go to court, feeling that the questioning and environment in a court room will be deeply embarrassing and stressful for her. She just wants the hate incidents to stop.

The previous government’s hate crime plan in 2012 ‘Challenge it, report it, stop it: The government’s plan to tackle hate crime’ explicitly recognised the importance of Restorative Justice with an action point to ‘Assess scope for alternative disposals, including Restorative Justice to offer an alternative response to less serious hate crimes’. Admittedly Restorative Justice was not mentioned in the 2016 plan ‘Action against hate: the UK government’s plan for tackling hate crime’.

Statistics from 2015-16 show that there were 62,518 hate incidents recorded by the police in England and Wales, an increase of 19% over the previous year. With significant non-reporting, the true figure is much higher. What is clear is that hate crime is a social problem that requires an appropriate response.

However there have been few trials in the UK of using Restorative Justice for hate crime/hate speech incidents, a two year study by Dr Mark Austin Walters, a lecturer in law at the University of Sussex, found. Dr Walters cites research by Alyssa Shenk that ‘Victim-offender mediation fills many of the gaps in hate crime legislation. By placing emphasis on the victim’s needs, victim-offender mediation will likely encourage victims to report future incidents not hate crime’. Dr Walters own research found a strong case for Restorative Justice using well-trained mediators.

Although it is of the upmost importance that the mediators of Restorative Justice are trained, they do not have to be legal professionals. Non Governmental Organisation workers, police and community support officers, amongst others, could all undertake this role, and in fact the Restorative Justice Council has many of these as accredited practitioners. So what really is stopping us from testing and trialling Restorative Justice for victims and perpetrators of hate crime? The political will is probably there (in that it was mentioned in a government policy document), a professional body exists to advise and oversee the practice, and there is an existing body of trained practitioners.

It probably needs someone with influence to champion the cause. Any readers up for it?

Alan Anstead is Coordinator of the UK Race and Europe Network

The Rights of Women in Saudi Arabia

The Prime Minister in a visit to Saudi Arabia last week said the ties between the UK and Saudia Arabia were important for security and prosperity. She said that a positive relationship was in the “British national interest” and she hoped her visit would herald a further intensification in relations between the two countries.

The UK has committed to becoming a leading partner for Saudi Arabia in delivering their ‘Vision 2030’ programme. The programme is a government road map for economic and developmental growth. In particular, the UK will share best practice on healthcare and education.

However, the UK Government has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, notably the rights of women in the Kingdom. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office voiced concern about the inability of women to participate equally in society in a recent report. And the Prime Minister has said publicly that she has raised women’s rights issues with the Saudis on a number of occasions and that she hoped that her visit to the Kingdom would show what women could achieve.

In its most recent Global Gender Gap report, the World Economic Forum places Saudi Arabia 141 out of 144 countries and says little progress has been made in the country with women still facing discrimination in a number of areas such as economic and political participation, health, and education.

Political inequality

When Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections in 2005, the Government justified the exclusion of women by saying that election workers could not verify women's identity since many did not have an identity card. Human Rights Watch described this as a preposterous excuse. Women were only granted to run for office in municipal elections in 2011 by King Abdullah, with women first being able to cast their ballot in the 2015 elections.

Despite the 2015 municipal elections resulting in the election or appointment of 38 women to councils, women still face significant discrimination within the political system.  Female candidates, for example, were forced to use social media to contact voters because of the restrictions on women meeting with men. Furthermore, authorities have ordered that the councils must be segregated by sex, with women members sitting in separate rooms away from their male colleagues and participating only by video link.

Legal inequality

Historically, women in Saudi Arabia have experienced a greatly diminished legal status. Women were only granted voluntary identity cards in 2001, necessary for example to open a bank account. Prior to this, a woman in Saudi Arabia were reliant on a male relative to confirm their identity before they could open a bank account.

Today, male guardianship laws place great restrictions on women. Adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel, study at higher education or to marry, and are required to provide guardian consent in order to work or to access healthcare.. Women remain legally subordinate and inferior in status to men in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.

Human Rights Watch believe that, in maintaining this male guardianship system, Saudi Arabia is undermining women’s most basic rights and will be unable to satisfy their commitments in the ‘Vision 2030’ report which declares women to be a “great asset” whose talents will be developed for the good of the country’s society and economy.

Restrictions on freedom

Authorities continue to restrict women's freedom: for example, preventing women from driving and limiting what women are allowed to wear. Women’s dress code in Saudi Arabia is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law with all women having to wear a headscarf and an abaya, a long cloak.

The Shoura Council, the consultative assembly of Saudi Arabia responsible for proposing laws as well as the King’s Advisory body, recently ruled that women TV anchors working in Saudi Arabia should have to wear modest dress and not show off their beauty.

Violence against women

Sexual and domestic violence against women remains a persistent issue in Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development in Saudi Arabia reported that it encountered 8,016 cases of physical and psychological abuse between 2004 and 2005, most involving violence between spouses.

Amnesty International report that women are inadequately protected against sexual or other forms of violence. Legal guardianship rules have made it difficult for women to report incidents to the police or to seek protection. .

Conclusion

Saudi Arabia remains a key economic and security ally of the United Kingdom. However, women’s rights are still not respected in Saudi Arabia. With ongoing concerns about a lack of progress on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, the UK Government is likely to come under increased pressure to take a tougher approach with its ally.

Michael Hough is Research Assistant at Bright Blue

Trading places: human rights and trade agreements after Brexit

Last Wednesday the Prime Minister triggered Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (EU) to notify the EU of Britain’s intention to leave the union. This week she visited Saudi Arabia while the Secretary of State for International Trade travelled to the Philippines. These meetings will be used by the British Government to initiate the possibility of future trade agreements, to be signed after Brexit. However, critics have argued that the UK may seek to dilute human rights provisions in order to expedite these new trade deals.

History of human rights and trade

Including human rights provisions within trade deals is often considered a contemporary idea. However, as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) explains, there is nothing new about the connection between human rights and trade. Indeed, trade has always required human rights rules. For example, in the ancient world, trade was important to propagating new goods and ideas. But rules to prevent looting and slavery were also required.

Human rights clauses as we know them today began to emerge and formalise during the late nineteenth century. During this period, the US, UK, Australia, and Canada banned trade in goods made by forced labour. Britain also put anti-slavery requirements in some of its trade agreements. In the Treaty of Versailles, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) was created to increase labour standards across the world.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the EU, the USA, and other developed countries began to incorporate loose and non-binding human rights language in their preferential trade agreements (PTAs). PTAs are trading blocs that gives preferential access to certain products from the participating countries. These provisions would often appear in the introductory text of the PTA, or in non-binding chapters.

Canada, Mexico, and the USA were the first countries to include explicit and binding human rights provisions in a trade agreement. The North American Free Trade Agreement includes binding provisions concerning labour rights, transparency agreements and public participation obligations in policymaking. This had a particularly positive impact on human rights in Mexico.   

Human rights clauses have had a number of positive effects. For instance, following the signing of a trade agreement between the EU and Chile which included human rights clauses, the Chilean Government introduced a number of policies to improve human rights. These include new laws to protect domestic workers, and the ratification of a number ILO conventions which have improved working conditions.

The current situation

Today, many of the world’s most important trading nations include human rights provisions in their PTAs. The WTO estimates that over three quarters of governments now participate in PTAs with human rights provisions. Some of these provisions are binding; others are non-binding.

As a member of the EU’s Customs Union, the United Kingdom does not currently negotiate its own international trade deals. Instead, the European Union negotiates as a single entity with external countries. The Government has indicated that the UK will leave the EU’s Customs Union following the completion of withdrawal negotiations.

Currently, the EU insists that all trade, cooperation, dialogue, partnership and association agreements with third parties contain a human rights clause. The EU also includes clauses to allow the trade deal to be suspended following a human rights violation in a partner country. This clause has previously been used against Zimbabwe. The EU’s human rights provisions are considered to be among the most stringent in the world.

Post-Brexit trade

Post-Brexit, if Britain does leave the EU’s Customs Union, then the responsibility for arranging new international trade deals will fall to the Department for International Trade. When the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, served as Shadow Foreign Secretary, he strongly promoted human rights. However, to date, he has made few comments regarding human rights clauses in trade agreements. Late last year, in a letter to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Secretary of State wrote that

“Britain's exit from the EU provides us with an opportunity to explore how we can best use free trade agreements to uphold [human rights] values whilst recognising the need for a balanced and proportionate response”

The Secretary of State’s comments have been interpreted by some to suggest that the UK may not be as stringent as the EU when implementing human rights provisions. They argue that his engagements to date show he is relaxed about human rights. For instance, in a recent article, the Guardian’s assistant editor, Simon Tisdall, argued that the Prime Minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia demonstrated that the UK's need for post-Brexit trade deals will trump human rights concerns.

Similarly, Liam Fox has been criticised for proclaiming the UK’s “shared values” with Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines leader whose war on drugs has killed 7,000 people, and who is nicknamed “The Punisher”.

Conclusion

Leaving the EU’s Customs Union offers the UK a new opportunity to sign trade deals with economies around the world. Previously, the EU has been criticised for being too slow and too inflexible in negotiating such deals. However, the UK Government should not de-prioritise human rights in order to sign such deals. This is why Bright Blue is advocating a new Human Rights Advisory Committee, similar to the Migration Advisory Committee, to advise the Government on human rights matters. For decades, Britain has been a world leader in the advancement of human rights. This should continue after Brexit.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue

Human rights, religion and belief – dialogue holds the key

I was born into a churchgoing, Anglican Christian family. The community I was brought up in was generally law abiding (though as a child I did pinch apples from my neighbour’s tree and ride my bike with no lights on more than one occasion). Laws abided to were both those enforced by state law, and those enforced by my parents, relations and friends. The latter were often unwritten, and referred to such things as treating adults with respect, being kind to my sister, and applying myself at school. These were my responsibilities. I tried my best to meet them, not always with success.

As I grew older I was also keen to let people know that I didn’t agree with everything I was told. I discovered Thomas the Apostle who doubted the resurrection of Christ. ’Doubting’ Thomas became somewhat of a lightening-rod for my search for independent thought. Thomas was a believer in the end of course, my journey somewhat less worthy of print. But I was discovering the language of rights, particularly the right to freedom of thought and speech. It was a language that would become more important to me as the years went by.

For years now I have kept a pocket size version of the Human Rights Act in my day pack. It reminds me that, in addition to freedom of thought and speech, we are entitled to civil and political rights, the right to life and liberty, the right to food, to work, to education (Human Rights Act 1998).  The language of rights also encompasses an expanded number of protected characteristics. We all have the same fundamental rights no matter our age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, or sex (Equality Act 2010).

So, when it comes to the expression of religion or belief, we are protected by the law. We have the right to express our faiths and beliefs, whether religious or not. But how should we think about the impact of such expression on others? Adhering to a broad human rights framework that gives room for the expression of multiple, different faiths, beliefs and identities requires us to open our minds to diversity; to not let our attachment to our own beliefs shut down the need to respect those of others.

I would like to think our human rights and equalities legislation provides a decent framework in which we can can encourage the expression of our whole selves. In so doing, we must also hold responsibility for the impact of what we say on others. In this sense, how we express our right to freedom of thought and speech is as important as the basic right itself.

There are echoes here of the popularly held belief that we should treat others as we would expect others to treat us. Considering how our words might be received by others not only avoids causing needless offence, it can also help us get our ideas across. It is important for us to speak for ourselves and not for others, to take in what someone else is saying instead of focussing on formulating the response in our own head.  In doing so we can open up ideas rather than close them down. We can avoid playing a zero-sum game that pits one view against another until one is deemed ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong.’

I am not suggesting here that we need to agree with everyone. What is important is to demonstrate respect for faiths and beliefs different to our own. We can do this by choosing our words carefully and by remaining open to difference. How else can our broad human rights framework function? Can we at once say everyone is entitled to express their faith, belief and identity and act in such a way as to delegitimise those we chose to have issue with?

Implicit then in our approach to human rights is the need for understanding of and empathy with those who have faiths and beliefs different to ours. This, I would argue, can only be facilitated through dialogue. The philosopher and physicist David Bohm defined dialogue as ‘the ability to hold many points of view in suspension, along with a primary interest in the creation of common meaning.’ (David Bohm, Science, Order and Creativity). The task of generating common meaning maybe beyond most of us, but the importance of holding points of view in suspension is something we can teach and encourage. It helps us empathise with others. It lies at the heart of 3FF’s approach. A key task of 3FF facilitators working in schools, for example, is to establish a group commitment to an ‘ethical dialogue’ that all can invest in and share joint responsibility for, before the class starts, to help manage sensitivities that may arise.

We would do well to commit to such ethical dialogue day to day. For whilst the need for legislation and the importance of protection from hate speech must be recognised, we must do more to build the skills and confidence we need to handle controversy and disagreement in our day to day lives. Such skills and confidence will help us work through an arguably increasingly complex world. It will help us understand those different to ourselves; help us understand our own assumptions and biases, and how to responsibly challenge those of others. How else can we uphold both our rights and responsibilities when it comes to handing differences between faiths and beliefs? While legislators do their bit, it is down to us as daughters, sons, parents, relations, colleagues and friends, to demonstrate and teach the ability to express our own faiths and beliefs whilst remaining respectful of those of others.

Phil Champain is the Director of 3FF, the UK’s leading interfaith organisation.