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

It’s time to protect British citizens at risk abroad

Every year, over 5,000 British and dual nationals are arrested or detained abroad. Many are at risk of or actually suffer torture and other prohibited ill-treatment while in detention. At REDRESS, we provide ongoing support to a number of these individuals and their families. For them, receiving consular assistance from the UK government is crucial to prevent such abuse or put an end to it where it has already occurred.

But what does the UK government actually do to protect its nationals at risk abroad?

Current UK policy and practice

The right of a state to intervene in matters concerning its nationals is a customary right in international law codified in the 1963 Vienna Convention, which has 179 state parties including the UK. Under its internal guidelines for consular officials, the UK government may intervene when there are legitimate concerns for the health, welfare and human rights of a national, or dual national, abroad, or concerns that they are being held unlawfully or being discriminated against.

However, there can often be a gap between what you would expect the UK government will do to protect its nationals at risk abroad, and what it actually does. This has been the criticism of both the families of Andy Tsege and Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe two prominent cases of UK nationals arbitrarily detained in Ethiopia and Iran respectively.

The UN has judged them both to be arbitrarily detained and at risk of abuse, and has called for them to be released immediately. However, in both cases the UK government has neither publicly called for their release nor otherwise endorsed the UN’s decisions.

In an open letter to Andy’s supporters last month, the UK government maintained that it would not directly call for his release and that the current strategy is to pursue legal representation. For his partner Yemi, this has no hope of ending Andy’s ordeal, as the Ethiopian government has confirmed on several occasions that there is no legal process available to him.

Yemi can see little progress in the three years since he was abducted by Ethiopian authorities. Andy remains on death row in Ethiopia’s notorious Kality prison, unable to call his children or write a letter. While the British Ambassador is occasionally permitted to see him, these visits are conducted in the presence of Ethiopian security officials, preventing Andy from speaking freely.

For Nazanin’s family, it has now been over a year since she was taken by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard while visiting her parents in Iran with her baby daughter Gabriella. She is one of several dual nationals arrested and being held on secret charges and accused in the media of spying on behalf of foreign governments. Last month, her final appeal against her five-year sentence was rejected by Iran’s Supreme Court, marking the end of the legal process. She has still not been given the charge sheet against her.

Her husband, Richard, has requested the UK government to stand up for her by publicly proclaiming her innocence, rejecting the spy allegations against her and insisting that the British ambassador in Tehran be allowed to visit her in prison.

These are not unrealistic expectations. For example, Germany has been very vocal in its demands for regular consular access to journalist Deniz Yücel, as well as other German-Turkish dual nationals detained by Turkey, and has stated that the entire German government is working towards his release.

The UK government currently operates on a policy of discretion on whether it will provide assistance and the strength of the action it takes. This means that even if there are grounds to intervene, there is no guarantee that it will do so. While the Government argues that this provides for greater flexibility to provide tailored assistance, it is a process that lacks transparency and cannot be held accountable, exacerbated by the fact that the UK’s consular assistance guidelines have yet to be made public.

The Government has therefore faced criticism that foreign policy considerations, such as the fight against terrorism, the provision of aid and opportunities for trade, may impact on the degree of assistance provided in each case. In the post-Brexit era of trade negotiations, how can we ensure greater protections for those in need of it?

The way forward

One simple way to strengthen protections for British nationals at risk abroad is for the UK to declare a “default positon.” The government should make it known that any risk of torture and mistreatment of British nationals will not be tolerated, and will always have consequences. In addition, where human rights monitoring mechanisms, such as the UN, have found the detention to be arbitrary and called for the individual’s release, the government should work pro-actively towards the implementation of these decisions.

REDRESS believes it should be clear that the UK will always vigorously follow up allegations until they are fully resolved. A strategy of increasingly intensified representations should be implemented in each case, which should be clearly communicated to the families.

Consular assistance should be brought into the heart of UK human rights foreign policy, including being considered as part of existing risk assessment practices when negotiating new trade deals or aid packages.

The election brings with it an opportunity to ensure greater protection for all UK nationals arbitrarily detained, and at risk of torture and mistreatment abroad as part of the post-Brexit negotiations. At the end of the day, if consular and diplomatic action enhances the possibility to prevent and end the abuse of someone at risk, then the government should make sure to have robust and principled policies and laws in place to ensure to get its nationals home, safe and sound.

Josie is an Advocacy Officer at REDRESS working to increase support and assistance to British nationals detained abroad who are at risk of torture and ill-treatment. REDRESS is a human rights organisation that works with torture survivors to obtain justice and make torturers accountable.

For more information on the work of REDRESS or for consular assistance contact josie@redress.org or follow REDRESS on Twitter @REDRESSTrust

Conservatism and human rights - Episode 17

In the seventeenth episode of the Conservatism and human rights podcast Laura Round talks to Dr Phil Clark, a political scientist specialising in conflict and post-conflict issues in Africa from SOAS about allegations that the Ugandan People's Defence Force have committed human right atrocities in the Central African Republic and Mike Hough, Research Assistant at Bright Blue about police brutality and the conditions of prisons in Brazil.

 

 

Punitive Drug Policies Fuel Human Rights Abuses

In December 2016 five year old Francis Mañosca was shot dead by masked gunmen in Manila. His death is a result of the Philippines ‘war on drugs’; a war that was escalated by President Rodrigo Duterte in June 2016 when he came to power and called on citizens and the police to kill those who use drugs and those involved in the drug trade. Since then, it is estimated that nearly 9,000 Filipinos have been massacred. These practices are not limited to the Philippines.

In 2003, Thailand launched its own war on drugs which saw nearly 2,800 people killed. Between 2010 and 2013, Brazilian police killed over 1,200 people in the favelas of Rio De Janeiro. In one favela, Amnesty International estimated that 90 per cent of the deaths should be classed as extrajudicial killings.

There are 33 countries which retain the death penalty for drug offences, leading to the execution of several hundred people every year. This is a flagrant violation of international law, as The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that the death penalty should only be used for the “most serious crimes”.

The escalation of law enforcement approaches has also led to significant loss of life in Mexico where, in the last ten years, there have been 175,000 homicides. The majority of these deaths have been linked to the drug war, particularly a 2006 government decision to militarise drug law enforcement. 

These are some of the more egregious examples of the human rights abuses that are directly linked to the ‘war on drugs’, but government drug policies are fuelling human rights abuses around the world. When the primary tool for tackling drug use is criminalisation, people’s fundamental human rights are undermined.

In South East Asia and China, the use of compulsory detention centres for people who use drugs is promoted under the guise of “treatment” - but in reality, reports of torture, rape, and forced labour are common in these facilities, where both adults and children are detained.

The right to health is also undermined significantly by punitive drug policies. Nowhere is this more evident than in Russia, where, as a result of tough drug laws and a lack of sufficient healthcare, one in 100 adults is HIV positive. This has been directly attributed to the prohibition of opiate substitute prescribing, and a lack of government support for effective interventions such as needle exchange programmes.

In Colombia, where the coca plant is cultivated, the state deploys aerial eradication using glyphosate, a possibly carcinogenic herbicide. This chemical has been linked to a number of health harms including skin conditions, miscarriages, and respiratory problems. It has also led to the destruction of food crops, resulting in the displacement of thousands of Colombian farmers.

Prohibitionist drug policies are also driving mass incarceration across the globe. The United States has five per cent of the world’s population but 25 per cent of the world’s prison population, and more than 50 per cent of US federal prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offences. One of the most heinous aspects of the US criminal justice system is the racist nature of how drugs laws are implemented. Black people are far more likely to be targeted for drug offences, and drugs which are wrongly associated with the black community attract harsher penalties.

Until 2010, someone caught in possession of crack cocaine would receive a sentence that was 100 times more punitive compared to someone caught in possession of the same amount of powder cocaine. This was despite there being no pharmacological difference between the two, except the removal of hydrochloride from powder cocaine to allow crack to be smoked. This ratio has now been reduced to 18 times, which is still a shocking disparity. Whilst crack cocaine prevalence rates are about the same among white and black populations, law enforcement continue to focus their efforts on poor, black neighbourhoods. This has led to a situation where an estimated one in four black men in America will end up in jail.

These discriminatory practices are not limited to the US; drug policing in the UK disproportionately impacts black communities.  In England and wales, black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people, despite the fact that drug use is higher amongst the white population. Racial disparity for drug offences is evident at all stages of the criminal justice system, with black people caught in possession of drugs receiving harsher penalties compared to white people. A recent review by David Lammy MP found that black women in England and Wales were 2.3 times more likely to be imprisoned for a drug offence than white women. This undermines the principle of equal treatment under the law and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The violation of people’s rights in the UK is also apparent in health and social policies. Legislation introduced in 2014 allows for the mandatory eviction of a tenant if they, a member of their household, or a guest, commits a drug offence (excluding possession). This can include a supply offence, and it is important to remember that UK drug laws do not distinguish between supply for profit and supply between friends.  

In the UK, those who use drugs problematically also face significant hurdles when accessing treatment due to a postcode lottery, whereby the quality of treatment varies significantly by region. People who receive methadone as a substitute for street heroin are experiencing an increasingly punitive treatment environment, including drug testing, daily supervised consumption of their medication, and forced reductions of their dose. This is resultant of policies that focus on abstinence as the primary goal of treatment, rather than improving the individual’s quality of life; where policy, rather than clinical need, is the driver for reducing medication. This type of approach would simply not be accepted for any other health condition.

The core of the issue for those who use problematically is that they are defined by their drug use which is identified as a criminal act, and this does not apply equally across socio-economic groups; it is those who live in poverty who are the focus of police. The war on drugs is a war on people, particularly poor people.

In my experience the vast majority of people who use drugs problematically have suffered trauma during their lives and are self-medicating to deal with memories of abuse, abandonment, or bereavement, or to aid mental health issues. Yet they are one of the most stigmatised and marginalised groups in society.

Importantly, not all those who use drugs do so problematically. It is estimated that 90 per cent of people who use drugs do so recreationally for pleasure; the biggest risk they face is criminalisation.   

Other parts of the world though are doing it differently. Over 25 countries have ended criminal sanctions for drug possession and use – in some jurisdictions, like many US states, this is just for cannabis but countries like Portugal have decriminalised the possession of all drugs. None of these countries have seen increased levels of drug use nationally, and many have experienced positive health, socials and economic benefits.

Ultimately, drug use in and of itself causes little to no harm to society. The wider policy environment causes harm, but, as demonstrated above, this is largely due to governments actively choosing to criminalise their citizens and implement repressive policies that drive human rights violations. This is all being done with the sole aim of trying to stop people from consuming certain drugs. We have two choices: continue on a path that causes so much destruction, or choose an approach that recognises the principles of human dignity, harm reduction, and public health – an approach that has human rights at its core, and is evidenced-based.  

Niamh Eastwood is Executive Director of Release. Niamh has co-authored Release's two most recent policy papers 'The Numbers in Black And White: Ethnic Disparities In The Policing And Prosecution Of Drug Offences In England And Wales' and ‘A Quiet Revolution: Drug Decriminalisation Policies Across the Globe’. Niamh is also responsible for drafting many of Release's briefings for parliamentarians and policy makers. She has presented at international and national conferences and is regularly invited to comment in the media.

Niamh is also an Associate of The London School of Economics IDEAS International Drug Policy Project, a technical advisor to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and a member of the Expert Steering Group for the Global Drug Survey.

 

Human rights and the Brazilian justice system

Introduction

In 2012 and 2014, Brazil enjoyed being under the international spotlight as it hosted both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games. However, more recently, Brazil has attracted more unfavourable attention from human rights organisations, who have frequently accused Brazil of violating basic human rights laws, particularly in relation to its justice system. Thousands of people have allegedly been killed by police since 2015 while conditions in Brazil’s jails have been castigated for being inhumane and prison officers have been accused of conducting torture.

A history of police misconduct

Brutality and violence within the Brazilian police force has been evident for much of the last decade. The Brazilian Forum on Public Security - a body comprised of security officials, research centres and NGOs - counted over 11,000 citizen deaths perpetrated by the police in the country between 2009 and 2013. The Economist reported that since 2000, three on-duty police officers had been responsible for at least 69 killings as well.  

A number of human rights organisations have expressed concern regarding the Brazilian police force’s conduct. Human Rights Watch have found “clear evidence” of police cover-ups. One report found officers involved in these killings have taken the corpses of their victims to hospitals to destroy crime scene evidence under the false pretext of rescuing them, and, in some cases, police officers have planted evidence on their victims before forensic investigators arrive.

In response to these abuses, the Brazilian government introduced a number of measures in the early 2010s to curb the violence, including: higher levels of community police training; cameras installed in police cars; and a new law to prohibit police from taking victims to the hospital.

Ongoing problems

But continuing police killings in the country suggest these reforms have not been effective. Human Rights Watch report  ongoing misconduct by police: for example, in 2015, 3,345 people were killed by police forces in Brazil. Similarly Amnesty International found that, in 2015, police were responsible for one in every five deaths in São Paulo.  Human rights organisations have also raised concerns about a worrying culture of cover-ups among police officers. In 64 recent cases that Human Rights Watch have examined, the police officers’ accounts of the shootings appeared incompatible with the autopsies or other forensic reports and showed disregard to international standards, Brazilian law, and internal police regulations governing the use of lethal force.

Problems in prisons

Police misconduct is only one of the human rights issues affecting Brazil’s justice system. Reports suggest that Brazil prisoners are subjected to inhumane detention conditions and possible torture.

Prisons are significantly overcrowded in Brazil with the number of prisoners far exceeding total capacity. Official estimates in Brazil place the number of prisoners in detention close to 660,000 with official capacity closer to 394,000. In a landmark case, the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that inmates in the country’s heavily overcrowded prisons are entitled to compensation from the state.

Reports suggest that the poor conditions inside these jails are having a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of prisoners. The New York Times reports that incarcerated Brazilians are around 30 times more likely to contract tuberculosis and almost ten times more likely to be infected with HIV than the general population. Human Rights Watch have said that overcrowding and understaffing make it impossible for prison authorities to maintain control and that in many prisons the required ratio of one prison guard for every five detainees ratio is not being met, thereby breaking the National Council of Criminal and Prison Policy. An inmate at one of the prisons summarised the conditions by saying that “no one deserves to be here.”

Conditions for female prisoners have also been criticised. Brazilian law states that women should be held in prisons exclusively for women, but this does not appear to be the case in reality. Female prisoners have reported being harassed and groped by male prison guards who legally should not have been present at the prisons. Female prisoners are also forcibly separated from their babies after six months and pregnant women are reported to be given an inadequate diet, contravening human rights guidelines.

International human rights organisations have also reported that torture is widely used in Brazilian jails. In its January 2016 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment found that torture and ill-treatment by police and prison staff are “frighteningly regular occurrences” in Brazil. This is an account supported by an official report into Brazil from Amnesty International. In response to these allegations, the Brazilian government established the National Mechanism for the Prevention and Combating of Torture. This body visited six states in Brazil and found cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in “most, if not all” of the 17 jails and prisons it inspected.

Conclusion

Police brutality, killings and inhumane treatment of prisoners appear to be endemic across Brazil. Despite reforms aimed to alleviate the problem, the issue seems to have remained. Brazil is at present undergoing its third universal periodic review, a process which involves a peer review of human rights in every country within the United Nations by other member states, who  then make recommendations on the problems in that state. International human rights organisations are hopeful that the Brazilian government will act on and accept the recommendations which will come from this report. Without significant change and reform, there is a danger that the alleged human rights violations in the Brazilian justice system may continue or even worsen.
 

Michael Hough is a research assistant at Bright Blue

 

Conservatism and human rights - Episode 16

In the sixteenth episode of the Conservatism and human rights podcast Laura Round talks to Dr Eric Gordy, Senior Lecturer in Southeast European Politics from University College London about the growing influence of Russia in the Balkans and Dutch MP Dilan Yesilgov from the VVD Party about calls to boycott the website GeenStijl in the Netherlands after sexist comments from the blog's editor.

Human rights in Hungary

In 2010, Viktor Orbán was elected to the office of Prime Minister in Hungary. Orbán’s campaign has been viewed as one of the first ‘populist’ victories of the 2010s. He stood on a manifesto of social conservatism and what he called "illiberal democracy". Since his election, the Hungarian government has received significant criticism for its approach to human rights. In particular, the government has been criticised for limiting press freedom, attempting to silence political opponents, and for mistreating refugees who have arrived in the country as part of the European refugee crisis.

Freedom of the press

Reports suggest there has been a significant decline in press freedom over the past few years. These reports often focus on two laws which have been introduced by Orbán. First, in 2011, Orbán introduced legislation which created a new “media control body”. The body is staffed wholly by individuals appointed by the ruling party and all media outlets in Hungary are required to join it. It is alleged that this body is being used by the Hungarian government to control the press.  

Second, recent amendments to Hungary’s Freedom of Information Act have significantly increased the price charged for the fulfilment of freedom of information requests and have created greater restrictions on gaining copyrighted documents. Freedom House have reported that these changes have limited the scope and the power of the law.

In addition to these new laws, there has also been a newspaper closure. Last year, the largest independent newspaper in Hungary Nepszabadsag suddenly closed down. This was officially attributed to financial losses and plummeting circulation, but this has been questioned by former employees. They referred to the shutting of the newspaper as a “coup”. The co-chairman of the ruling party was reported to have said “it was high time Nepszabadsag shut down unexpectedly” before the closure which came just days after the newspaper had published a series of critiques of the Hungarian Government.

This current climate has resulted in significant public distrust. A poll last year found that nearly two-thirds of adults living in Hungary believe that the freedom of the press is limited.

Political opponents

In addition to these crackdowns on press freedoms, there have also been reports that the Government has attempted to silence political opponents. For instance, in 2017, the Hungarian Parliament passed a new law which requires foreign-based universities to have their operations approved by the Hungarian Government. This was widely viewed as an attack on the Central European University - one of the country’s top universities - which was founded by George Soros and which is registered in New York. Allies of Orbán have been extremely critical of Soros - a Hungarian-born liberal campaigner - in the past. For example, officials from the ruling political party and pro-Government media have accused Soros of representing an unelected, meddling, liberal elite whose time has passed.

Similarly, the Open Society Foundation (OSF) - an international NGO founded by Soros to advance justice, education, public health and independent media - has faced new crackdowns. Amendments to a law which are presently being debated require all foreign-funded NGOs with foreign donations of at least 7.2 million forints (just over £19,500) to register with authorities. This has been viewed as an attempt to impede the OSF in Hungary. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly has called on Hungary to suspend this debate. OSF has been criticised by government officials for funding civil rights organisations in the country and for allegedly promoting illegal migration and serving foreign interests. The Vice-Chairman of the ruling political party has stated that the OSF places “political correctness over national government” and that there is now a new opportunity to crackdown on it.

Refugee community

The Hungarian Government has also been criticised for its approach to the European refugee crisis. Due to its geographical position, Hungary has received some of the highest number of refugees per capita in Europe. In response, the Hungarian Government has introduced a number of laws and policies which critics have argued infringe on the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers.

The Government has repeatedly extended a nationwide state of emergency due to “mass immigration”, despite seeing a decrease in asylum applications in 2016.  The initial state of emergency which was called in two southern regions of Hungary in 2015 allowed the Government to shut down roads and speed up asylum court cases. This was then extended nationwide in 2016 where the state of emergency increased the number of border control officers, increased the number of army officers on the border and intensified border checks by allowing the army to assume control of registering asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch stated that “militarising its borders and denying access to protection is sadly consistent with Hungary’s repressive approach to asylum seekers and migrants.”

The Hungarian Parliament has also approved plans which require all asylum seekers over the age of 14 to be placed in detention camps. The United Nations Human Rights Council have argued that “this new law violates Hungary’s obligations under international and EU laws and will have a terrible physical and psychological impact on women, children and men who have already greatly suffered.” UNICEF have also expressed concern that unaccompanied minors older than 14 will detained in these camps. Orbán has stated that at any time the refugees are free to go if they choose to return back to Serbia and that his country is under siege from immigration.

The conditions within detention camps have also received significant censure. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture has reported that torture occurs within these camps. While, in 2016, the European Court on Human Rights ruled that the asylum detention of a gay asylum-seeker was in violation of his right to liberty and safety.

Conclusion

The deterioration of human rights in Hungary has caused concern across the world. To date, Orbán and the Hungarian Government have shown no intention of changing their policies. As a member of the European Union, the EU is able to exert some pressure on Hungary. The European Commission has threatened Hungary with legal action however organisations such as Human Rights Watch have called for it to be more vocal. Furthermore, the foreign minister of Luxembourg has called for Hungary to be thrown out of the European Union over its treatment of refugees and the state of its media. Other than pressure from the EU, there is little possibility of Hungary reversing its current policies. That is, until the next Hungarian general election is held, which will occur in or before the spring of 2018. Current polls, however, suggest that Orbán will secure an increased majority in that election.

Michael Hough is a research assistant at Bright Blue

 

Liberal internationalism and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

“Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”

So runs the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Drafted in the aftermath of the Second World War, the UDHR was not just a cry of revulsion at the acts of the Nazis, it was a statement of absolute determination that such horrors must never again be allowed to happen.

The doctrine of human rights epitomised the newly-formed United Nations’ vision of a liberal, internationalist and optimistic future for a world rising from the ruins of three decades of global conflict and economic decay.

How we need a dose of that vision and optimism now. A rising tide of narrow, divisive nationalism is sweeping the world – from the poisonous demagoguery of Marine le Pen in France to the simplistic populism of Donald Trump in the USA. Facts? Who needs them? Rational debate? Why bother when crude sloganising gets headlines and wins votes.

Here in the UK we’re not immune to this worrying trend. Some of the language used in the EU referendum debate has borne the same hallmarks – those of a fracturing distrustful society, turning its back to the world and its ire onto ‘outsiders’ and minorities.

Liberal internationalism – the founding faith of the UN, and its antidote to the evils it was formed to defeat – is in retreat. With the sickening disorientation of a driver whose car starts to skid, we sense a world beginning to slide out of control, away from the progressive path we’ve followed for the past seventy years.

But we still have hold of the wheel. That slide can be halted, that retreat can be reversed. How? Facts? Yes, they are vital – they are our raw material. Rational debate? Essential – but not in itself sufficient.

The outward and optimistic vision at the heart of the UN project was not predicated on the pragmatism of facts and rationality, important though these were and still are. At its darkest hour, the family of nations sought to establish the principles by which the world would be rebuilt.

Let’s look again at the preamble to the UDHR. It begins by asserting that the ‘… recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’.

Here we have a bold statement of values – not a fact or debate in sight. So, how does this help us now? To reverse the retrograde trend towards closed, inward-looking nationalism, we need to assert the values of its opposite. To paraphrase the UDHR, we need to say, repeat, shout if necessary ‘Freedom, justice and peace are built on human rights’.

What does all this say to a liberal conservative in a UK heading towards the EU exit-door and on the eve of a general election? If the UN and UDHR seem remote and abstract, let’s bring the focus closer to home.

The debate on human rights in the UK has descended from one of high principle to low factional bickering. It wasn’t always so. No lesser figure than Winston Churchill recognised the importance and power of the UN and UDHR. He called for a parallel ‘European movement’ centred on ‘… a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law.’ For Churchill, this latter point was important. As his Conservative colleague, the former Nuremberg prosecutor and drafter of Churchill’s ‘charter’, David Maxwell-Fyfe said ‘We cannot let the matter rest at a declaration of moral principles and pious aspirations, excellent though the latter may be. There must be a binding convention’.

Churchill’s ‘European movement’ became the Council of Europe, his ‘charter’ the European Convention on Human Rights, its law ‘sustained’ by the European Court of Human Rights.

Today Churchill’s ‘charter’ binds together every European nation except Belarus. It should be cited and celebrated as a shining example of liberal internationalism in principle and in practice.

Mia Hasenson-Gross is Director of René Cassin - The Jewish Voice for Human Rights

Monsieur René Cassin lived a life from darkness into light. This French Jewish lawyer was badly injured in the First World War, an experience that led him to work for disarmament and peace during the 1920s and 1930s. When the world once again slid towards war in 1939, he sought refuge in London. But he was far from idle – turning his efforts towards shaping the world that would emerge from the defeat of fascism.

He was hugely influential in that process – Cassin was one of the co-authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His contribution to building a better, brighter world was recognised when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968.

Today, as the charity that bears his name, we at René Cassin strive to bring a perspective and authority born of Jewish experience to the crucial debate on the future of human rights in the UK and beyond.