Hong Kong since handover

This summer will mark 20 years since the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China. The handover marked the end of 156 years of British rule. In that time, Hong Kong was transformed from a small town into one of the most prosperous cities in the world. Under British rule, Hong Kongers also enjoyed significantly greater human rights protections than their counterparts in mainland China.

Earlier this week, as part of its Conservatism and human rights project, Bright Blue met a delegation from Demosisto, a political party in Hong Kong, which has one MP in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong and includes Joshua Wong, a high-profile activist who has been detained in Thailand at the request of the Chinese Government. They talked at length about their views and experiences of human rights abuses in Hong Kong, which includes disqualifying pro-democracy MPs from the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, and restrictions on press, academic and religious freedom.

British officials were deeply concerned that the Chinese government, after the handover in 1997, would seek to erode many of the protections that Hong Kongers enjoyed. In an attempt to mitigate this risk, the UK and China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The declaration established the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle, which required the Chinese government not to practise the socialism which existed on the mainland. Instead, Hong Kong would continue its capitalist system and way of life for 50 years after 1997. To ensure this was the case, the Chinese Government created the Hong Kong Basic Law - a series of constitutional protections.

However, in the past three years there have been two significant accusations that the Chinese Government is failing to abide by the conditions held in the Sino-British Joint Declaration: rendition, where Hong Kong citizens have been taken from the city and other locations without the permission of the Hong Kong government; and a Chinese Government white paper which seems to suggest reneging on the One Country, Two Systems principle.

Rendition

Between October and December 2015, five staff members of a bookstore in Hong Kong disappeared. The bookstore in question sells a number of political books that banned in mainland China. The store’s right to sell these books in Hong Kong is protected under Basic Law Article 27. The store is one of 100 independent bookstores in Hong Kong which cater predominantly for people interested in the political issues of Chinese mainland politics.

At the time of their disappearances, one of the staff members, Gui Minhai - a Swedish national - was believed to be writing a book about the personal history of Xi Jinping, the current General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. The book was named Xi and His Six Women. One of the bookstore workers disappeared while in Hong Kong. Minhai was taken from his home in Thailand, and the other three workers disappeared while in mainland China.

There was initially no information on the location of the workers. Chinese Government involvement was suspected since disappearances are commonplace in mainland China. Following significant international focus on the missing bookstore workers, two of the missing men appeared through letters and in a confessional video broadcast on national television. During the broadcast, they insisted that their return to mainland China was voluntary. These confessions were widely considered to be carefully stage-managed.

Chinese officials later confirmed that the five workers had been arrested in relation illegal book trading.. Article 22 states of Hong Kong Basic Law states that no department of the central, provincial, or municipal governments in mainland China can interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong government is responsible for administering.  So this case was considered a significant violation of Hong Kong basic law. Hong Kong's Chief Executive, CY Leung, stated in a press conference - prior to Chinese confirmation that they had detained the staff - that if mainland Chinese law officials were operating in Hong Kong, it would be "unacceptable" and a breach of the Basic Law.

Four of the Hong Kong bookstore workers have been released. However, Gui Minhai remains in custody. The Chinese government has faced no sanctions for its violation of Hong Kong Basic Law.

One Country, Two Systems?

Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Beijing is committed to permitting Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy except in foreign and defence affairs.” This has commonly been referred to as the One Country, Two Systems policy. However, in 2014, the Chinese Government published a white paper which appears to significantly compromise this principle.

The white paper asserts the Chinese Government’s "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong. The paper argues that Hong Kong legislators must “love their country” (China), and warns against possible threats to Chinese rule in the city.

The publication of the white paper caused what the New York Times described as a “firestorm of criticism from many people in Hong Kong”. Critics argued that the Chinese Government was reneging on its pledges to abide by the One Country, Two Systems policy. In response, there was a significant demonstration in Hong Kong to protest against the publication of the white paper.

While the media in mainland China was supportive of the white paper, Hong Kong newspapers struck a different tone. The South China Morning Post pointed out that the white paper was published only two weeks before pro-democracy Occupy Central activists were due to hold an unofficial referendum on who should be the Chief Executive in the upcoming elections. The organiser of Occupy Central argued that the Chinese government was using the paper to "try to scare Hong Kongers into silence". The Ming Pao argued that the One Country, Two Systems concept has become an "empty shell" and Hong Kong is likely to turn into an "ordinary Chinese city".

Despite these criticisms, the Chinese government has not withdrawn any of the assertions held in the white paper.

Conclusion

Two cases over the last three years suggest that China is violating the Sino-British Joint Declaration and infringing on the Basic Law of Hong Kong. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s response to these accusations has been muted. Since the handover, the British Foreign Secretary has reported to Parliament at 6-monthly intervals on the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in Hong Kong. The latest report, in February this year, argued that Hong Kong’s rule of law remains “robust”. However, the report also did admit that there are some challenges to the One Country, Two Systems policy.

In truth, the British Government only has limited power with which to enforce the Joint Declaration. Prior to handover, it was able to exact compromises from the Chinese government by slowing the handover process. Now few levers remain. And, as described to us by the delegation from Hong Kong earlier this week, the human rights situation in the city seems to be deteriorating.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue

The value of human rights in ending violence against women and girls

Human rights are back in the spotlight this week, as a landmark case relating to serial rapist black cab driver, John Warboys, is heard in the Supreme Court.

End Violence Against Women Coalition, along with Southall Black Sisters, Rape Crisis England & Wales and Nia, intervened in this case, in opposition to the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police.

This case dates back to 2014, when the High Court found multiple failings by the Metropolitan Police effectively left cab driver Warboys free to attack women between 2002 and 2008. Its believed Warboys committed over one hundred rapes and sexual assaults on his female passengers.

The High Court found that the police failed to take reasonable steps to investigate when women reported crimes. The court heard that the police didn’t take the women seriously, failed to collect evidence or question witnesses and didn’t prioritise sexual violence because it was harder to clear up – instead they focused on other, easier to solve, crimes. The failures by the police, both structural and operational and meant Worboys was able to rape many more women, amounted to a breach of the women’s human rights.  The High Court awarded the two complainants damages of around £20k each. More importantly the court ruling led to an independent review into rape investigations at the Met conducted by Dame Angiolni and some improvements in police practice.

Now the Home Office and the Met are seeking to over-turn the finding in the Supreme Court, which would undermine the ability of victims to hold the police to account when they catastrophically fail in their duty.

Women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence and therefore also by police failures in this field. About 85,000 women (compared to 12,000 men) are raped in England and Wales every year and only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police. There are many reasons for women’s reluctance to report - but they include a perception that the police won’t take them seriously or would judge them or their actions instead of focusing on the perpetrator. This fear is understandable, still only 5.7% of reported rape cases end in a conviction.

The Warboys case is an example of how the Human Rights Act can be used to drive change in police practice.

If things go very badly wrong with other public services there is some form of redress. For example in cases of gross negligence by the NHS, the victim or the family of the victim can sue. There are no such mechanisms for dealing with the police in UK law. The Human Rights Act fills this gap.

The UK government has made much of its commitment to ending violence against women and girls (VAWG). The government’s VAWG strategy, launched by Theresa May in her role as Home Secretary, is ambitious. Subsequent recent announcements on issues such as sex and relationships education in schools show that with women in several key offices of state, the issue remains on the Government’s radar.

So it’s disappointing to see the Government on the wrong side of this case.

The public believe that the police exist to help keep them safe. This week’s legal action implies that the government and the Met, by contrast, believe the police do not have a duty to prevent, by doing their job, the most serious crimes, even when they have the information and ability to do so.

There is much to do in the campaign to reduce levels of sexual violence in the UK and address stubbornly low reporting and poor conviction rates. The Human Rights Act is an important tool, which has already been useful in improving police practice. We must now hope that the Supreme Court agrees with us – and with the High Court – that when rapists like Warboys are left for years to perpetrate their crimes and obvious opportunities are missed, the police need to be held to account.

Veronica Oakeshott writes in her capacity as Public Affairs Manager for the End Violence Against Women Coalition

Egypt: Human rights and its relationship with the UK

In 2011, Egypt was the second country, after Tunisia, to be affected by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ - a wave of both violent and nonviolent demonstrations against numerous dictators and autocrats in North Africa and the Middle-East. The demonstrations led to the overthrow of the then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the instillation of a new government. Mubarak had been frequently criticised for violating human rights in Egypt.

Immediately after the ‘Arab Spring’, it was hoped that the protests would lead to greater human rights protections in Egypt. However, sadly, this does not appear to be the case. The UK was heavily criticised for its alliance with Mubarak, which was in place throughout the 2000s. Similarly, the UK Government is increasingly being criticised for its support for the current President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The UK and Egypt

Egypt is a longstanding ally of the United Kingdom, and UK ministers have continued to express support for the Egyptian Government. In 2015 President Sisi visited the UK on an official visit and was hosted by the then Prime Minister David Cameron. Last month, the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson expressed public support for Egypt in a visit to the country when he said:

The UK is a longstanding friend of Egypt. We are Egypt’s top economic partner and strong allies against terrorism and extremist ideas. The UK is a champion of a renewed Egypt, because stability, peace and growth in this region are the bedrock of opportunity and security for British people and people in the region.

The UK’s relationship with Egypt is contentious. Egyptian author and activist Ahdaf Soueif has said that President Sisi’s visit to the United Kingdom in 2015 gave legitimacy to the Egyptian Government and allowed it to ignore its human rights violations. The human rights charity Reprieve has called upon the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to publicly voice its concern about human rights abuses in the country. British historian Mark Curtis has argued that the UK’s close relationship with Egypt is tied to its close commercial and military ties. He has stated that “nothing has been allowed to upset military and commercial relations.”

The UK Government has, in some cases, been publicly critical of the Egyptian regime. In 2015, UK Ambassador to Egypt John Casson criticised the sentencing of three al-Jazeera journalists and in 2016 it was reported that FCO concerns about Egypt’s human rights record had led to a step change in relations with their government.

Human Rights Abuses in Egypt

Various Egyptian governments in recent decades have been accused of violating human rights. For example, Neil Hicks, a leading expert on Egyptian human rights, highlights autocratic practices under President Sadat, who ruled Egypt from 1970 until 1981, such as the imprisonment of opposition figures from across the political spectrum including Coptic priests, Muslim Brothers, Liberals and Nationalists. In addition to this, under President Mubarak, Human Rights Watch reported that human rights violations such as torture, arbitrary detention and unfair trials before state security and military courts were widespread and routine.

In 2013, the US NGO Freedom House reported that human rights violations had continued under his immediate successor President Morsi of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, such as a constitutional declaration that removed the authority of the judiciary to contest his decisions.

The new Egyptian constitution, agreed after the military overthrow of Morsi in 2013, and based on the previous Egyptian Constitution of 1971, emphasises freedom of expression and equality between the sexes. However, a recent FCO report found that the rights enshrined in this new constitution are not being adhered to and that the human rights situation in Egypt under the military rule of President Sisi is deteriorating.

There are three human rights in particular that are said to be being undermined in present-day Egypt: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and protection from violence for women in particular.

Freedom of speech

Freedom House found that Egyptian authorities clamp down on journalists that stray from narratives officially sanctioned by the Egyptian Government. A new law, passed by President Sisi in 2015, introduced faster court proceedings, increased pre-trial detention, and imposed hefty fines for "false" media reports. Dozens of journalists were physically assaulted during 2015 by both security agents and civilians.

At the end of 2016, a court in Cairo ordered a freeze on the assets of five leading human rights activists and three human rights organisations. A new law was then drafted a few months later banning independent Non-Government Organisations from undertaking human rights work.

A 2013 decree by interim President Mansour, which effectively bans all anti-government protests, remains in place. It has been called deeply restrictive by Human Rights Watch.

Freedom of religion

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that there has been a continued increase of Egyptian courts prosecuting, convicting and imprisoning Egyptian citizens for blasphemy, which includes practices that deviate from mainstream Islamic beliefs or whose activities are alleged to jeopardize “communal harmony” or insult Judaism, Christianity or Islam.  

Christian Solidarity Worldwide report that freedom of religion is suppressed, especially in specific areas of Egypt. A Freedom House report in 2015 found that there had been abuses against Coptic Christians such as forced displacement, physical assaults, bomb and arson attacks, and blocking of church construction. Human Rights Watch also report that authorities impose “reconciliation sessions” that allow Muslim perpetrators of violence, sometimes fatal, against Christians to escape prosecution.

Similar allegations of trying to convert citizens were made against Shiite Muslims, leading to the closure of a charity and the arrest of an activist. Egypt is a majority Sunni Muslim country. An Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights report highlighted the persecution that Shiite Muslims face, with examples including the incitement of violence and the use of torture against them.

In mid-2016, the Egyptian Parliament passed a law that imposed restrictions over the construction and renovation of churches: specifically, granting powers to officials to deny church-building permits with no appeals process, and requiring churches to be built “commensurate with” the number of Christians in the area.

Violence against women

A report by the Worldwide Movement for Human Rights found that since President Sisi led a military coup in 2013 against President Morsi and then won a democratic election in 2014 there has been a surge in sexual violence by the security forces. Victims include members of NGOs, students, women and those perceived as endangering the moral order.

According to the 2015 Egyptian Health Issues survey, around nine out of ten women between the ages of 15 and 49 had undergone female circumcision. In 2016, the Egyptian Government passed a law prohibiting FGM but to date there has only been one successful conviction.

Brigadier General Nahed Salah was appointed to a new position in 2015 to combat violence against women, which Human Rights Watch has described an endemic in Egypt. But Salah publicly urged women to avoid talking or laughing loudly in public and to be cautious about how they dress to avoid street harassment.

Conclusion

Evidence from a wide range of sources suggests that the Egyptian Government is continuing to violate human rights. Egypt is a key economic and security, but the UK Government is increasingly being criticised for failing to lambast Egypt’s human rights violations, which seemed to be focussed on undermining freedom of expression, freedom of religion and protection against violence.

Michael Hough is a research assistant at Bright Blue

How the Budget can deliver for disabled people

Disability benefits have been high up the news agenda recently with the announcement that the Government plans to restrict access to Personal Independence Payments (PIP), affecting 160,000 disabled people.

The Budget provides an opportunity for Philip Hammond to look again at these changes to disability benefits as well as set out long-term reforms to employment support for disabled people and provide social care with the extra funding it so urgently needs. At Scope, we believe these changes would help enable disabled people to live financially secure and independent lives, just as the Prime Minister envisioned in her ‘country that works for everyone.’

Disability benefits

Disabled people spend an average of £550 a month on costs related to their disability. In addition to needing expensive specialised equipment, disabled people often face higher bills for energy or insurance. More than half a million disabled households spend over £3,000 a year on energy, over twice the UK average. PIP helps disabled people cover some of these extra costs which is why it is such a vital benefit.

The Government are introducing regulations to reverse a recent court judgement which widened access to PIP. We are really concerned about the tightening up of access to PIP which could lead to disabled claimants missing out on the financial support they rely on to live independently.

Currently, 65 per cent of PIP decisions which go to appeal are overturned. We think instead of reducing access to PIP the Government should use the Budget as a moment to pause the regulations and focus on reviewing on the assessment process to ensure it accurately captures the extra costs disabled people actually face.

Employment support

Government has made a welcome commitment to halve the disability employment gap and the Green Paper consultation into work, health and disability has recently closed. In order to make halving the gap a reality, the Government should follow up on this consultation with the swift publication of a White Paper.

Alongside the Government publishing a White Paper setting out real reforms to in and out of work support later this year, the Chancellor should use the Budget to halt the financial reduction for those in the Employment Support Allowance Work Related Activity Group (ESA WRAG).

From next month new claimants will receive £30 a week less in financial support. We don’t think that this will help disabled people find work but it will make life harder. Disabled people are already less financially resilient than non-disabled people, with an average of £108,000 fewer savings and assets. A reduction in financial support could end up creating an additional barrier to work undermining the Government’s ambition. With under a month until the reduction kicks in, this is the Chancellor’s last chance to protect ESA payments.  

Social care

There have been rumours this weekend that the Government will provide the social care system with £1.3 billion emergency funding. With the social care system crumbling, this injection of cash would be welcome. Over 400,000 working age disabled people rely on social care for everyday tasks such as getting up, getting washed and getting dressed. Yet over half of disabled care users say their care never supports their independence.

£4.6 billion has been removed from the adult social care budget since 2010 and this has resulted in fewer disabled people getting social care and fewer disabled people receiving adequate care. We’ve been calling for urgent funding for social care so that disabled people can get the support they need to prevent them slipping into crisis.

£1.3 billion could stabilise the system for the next twelve months and prevent a system already on its knees falling over. The Government has committed to a review of social care through the Cabinet Office and it is vital this review sets out a long-term solution for the funding of social care. We are urging the Cabinet Office to consult with and listen to disabled people as part of the review. The social care system must be properly and sustainably funded so that disabled adults are able to access social care which supports them live independently and achieve their ambitions. A cash injection in the Budget is desperately needed but only the start of a solution.

We hope the Chancellor will consider the needs of the UK’s 12.9 million disabled people and ensure this is a Budget that includes them.

Anna Bird is executive director of policy and research at disability charity Scope

Human Rights Under Attack

Around the world today, human rights and freedom of expression is under attack and we are witnessing a global trend of restricting civil society freedoms, often in the name of national security. Individuals and groups who are defending these rights are being targeted. They face growing restrictions on funding, status and freedom to operate - all designed to limit or even prevent their activity. 

Right now, people across the world are risking everything to speak out against injustice.  These are Journalists, student leaders, political opponents, teachers, lawyers, women’s rights & environmental activists and many others. But they’re being harassed, tortured, jailed and even killed – just for daring to stand up for what’s right. 

What we see is human rights activists and organisations being targeted through restrictive national laws, policy and practice. This include restrictions on receiving foreign funding; activists having their assets frozen; bans on people being able to travel & restrictive visa requirements to prevent them taking part in international forums.  

We have seen an increase in targeted surveillance of specific Human Rights Defenders. These are an attack, not only on these individuals, but also on the space for civil society more widely. It can create a climate of fear and can frighten others from defending human rights.

There are also groups that are particularly at risk. In all regions of the world, women human rights defenders frequently face particular violence, intimidation and harassment. They can even face losing their lives.  Just because they challenge gender stereotypes and social norms, work on issues such as sexual and reproductive health and rights or defend the rights of women and girls facing discrimination and abuse.

There are no regions of the world that have not been effected by restrictions on dissent over the past year. Some of these obvious and violent -  others are more subtle and veiled in respectability. We have witnessed crackdown of dissent and the press in countries such as Turkey and Bahrain; and we have also seen the rise of hate speech across large parts of Europe and the USA. 

Journalists are frequently on the frontline of these human rights violations. They are instrumental in exposing human rights abuse. This means that in many places, being a journalist comes with great personal risk. 

In Turkey, for example, we have seen freedom of expression aggressively restricted. In the wake of a coup last July, Turkey escalated its crackdown on dissent.  This included more than 100,000 public sector employees being dismissed on grounds of alleged “links to a terrorist organization or threat to national security”; It meant some 118 journalists were held in pre-trial detention and 184 media outlets were permanently closed down. Internet censorship was also increased and 375 NGOs, including women’s rights groups, lawyers’ associations and humanitarian organisations were shut by executive order in November. 

Erin Keskin, a human rights lawyer and editor is one of the many people in Turkey targeted. She has been subjected to death threats, physical attacks and sustained judicial harassment. She has been facing charges more than a hundred times and been convicted on numerous occasions-  largely because of her work defending Kurdish rights.

After last year’s coup Eren was accused of offences linked to her work with Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem, including ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’.  If convicted, she could receive a life sentence.

In Egypt we have seen the continued deterioration of human rights and freedom of expression since the start of the uprising. The authorities have severely restricted the rights to freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Journalists and activists have faced arrest, prosecution and imprisonment for reporting on protests or taking part in them. 

Photo Journalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawkan, and more than 730 other people, continues to face hearings in a mass, unfair trial that began in December 2015, where many have been trialled in their absence. 

Shawkan who faced trumped-up charges that included “joining a criminal gang” and murder for documenting a sit-in protest in the capital, Cairo, on 14 August 2013 has now been detained for 3 years and could even face the death penalty -  just for doing his job. 

Amnesty is campaigning for Erin and Shawkan’s charges to be dropped and for Shawkan to be released immediately and unconditionally. 

But in other parts of the world where being a journalist doesn’t mean life or death the media and reporters can find it hard to do their job. Hostile rhetoric against the media is widespread and for example President Trump is using his twitter account to attack certain news outlets with reporters including CNN and the BBC being banned from White House press briefings recently.

Freedom of expression is at the heart of protecting human rights. Amnesty believes in the protection of human rights defenders and their right to act against human rights violations and were delighted when the international community officially adopted the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998, something our members had campaigned for because we strongly believe that those who stand up for human rights are crucial agents of change.

However, despite these positive developments we still see the space in which Human Rights Defenders carry out their activities – and the defenders themselves – being targeted and attacked instead of being supported and protected.

This is why Amnesty is stepping up our efforts as a global movement - this year launching a global campaign to push for the recognition and further protection of Human Rights Defenders. 

We need these defenders more than ever. They are speaking up for free speech. Challenging racism and sexism. Condemning torture. And ultimately holding our leaders to account. Without them, the world would be less fair, less just and less equal.

While 2016 saw some of the worst forms of human behaviour, it was also a year in which the very best of human conduct shone through. Countless individuals stood up in defence of human rights and victims of oppression, often putting their own lives or freedom in jeopardy to do so.

They included journalists, media workers, lawyers, women’s and minority rights campaigners, and many others. 

It is their courage and determination in the face of dire abuses and threats that offer hope for a better future for the people everywhere. 

We should celebrate and bear witness to the determination of those who stand up and demand human rights and free speech around the world.

Kerry Moscogiuri is Director of Campaigns at Amnesty International UK

Female genital mutilation in the UK

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the ritual removal of some or all of the external female genitalia. The abhorrent practice is mostly found in North-West and North-East Africa and parts of the Middle East (such as Yemen and Iraq), and within migrant communities from those countries. In the UK, the practise largely appeared during the 1970s and 1980s following increased immigration from countries in North Africa, in particular. FGM has become a significant policy priority for government in the last seven years. However, despite that focus, there have still been no successful convictions relating to FGM.

A history of FGM in the UK

Prior to the 1970s, FGM was relatively unknown in the UK. During the nineteenth century, FGM was performed in the UK to treat a wide range of conditions including “hysteria” and mental illness. It was also used as a treatment for behaviour considered “unfeminine” and as a threat to marriage. These included a “distaste for marital intercourse”, “a great distaste for her husband”, and violent behaviour. However, the practise largely came to an end when the Obstetrical Society of London concluded that there was little evidence of its efficacy and that it was unethical.

FGM began to be performed again in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s. The practise was highlighted by a Minority Rights Group report entitled Female circumcision, excision and inbulation: the facts and proposals for change. This report, and apparent increase in FGM cases, led to a subsequent debate in the House of Lords. Following the debate, Wayland Young, 2nd Baron Kennet, introduced the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Bill, which passed into law in 1985. The law made conducting the practice of FGM an explicit criminal offence in the UK for the first time.

While there are no statistics on the prevalence of FGM during the 1970s and 1980s (the first estimates were not produced until the 2000s), anecdotal evidence presented in the Minority Rights Group report and during the subsequent Parliamentary debate suggest that the practise increased from being almost unknown to become a significant problem affecting certain communities.

This increase is thought to have been driven by immigrants from North West and North East Africa and parts of the Middle-East (such as Yemen and Iraq) where FGM is performed frequently. During the 1980s and 1990s, the civil war in Somalia lead to a large number of Somali immigrants moving to the UK. In Somalia, according to Unicef, 98% of women have undergone female genital mutilation.

The current situation

In 2003, the 1985 FGM Act was superseded by the Female Genital Mutilation Act. According to the Act, it is prohibited to carry out, aid or abet any form of FGM, including excision, inbulation or mutilation in relation to the whole or any part of the major lip, minor lip, prepuce of the clitoris, the clitoris, or vagina. This 2003 Act modernised the offence of FGM and the offence of assisting a girl to carry out FGM on herself while also creating extra-territorial offences to deter people from taking girls abroad for mutilation.  

In the past seven years, the first research studies attempting to estimate the prevalence of FGM in this country have been conducted. In 2011, using evidence from the Census, researchers from City University estimated that there were 137,000 women and girls affected by FGM in England and Wales. The Health and Social Care Information Centre estimated that there were around 5,700 new cases of FGM in England in 2015-16. Both these figures have been used by the Government.

FGM has also experienced significant policy attention since the election of the Coalition Government. Under William Hague’s leadership, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) attempted a number of initiatives to prevent the practise of FGM abroad. William Hague and the FCO were central to organising the Girl Summit held in London in 2014. The summit made ending FGM one of its core ambitions. At the same time, the Home Office, under Theresa May’s leadership, also made tackling FGM a key priority. It introduced a number of measures to increase prosecutions during 2015 (as described below).

Prosecuting FGM

While the performance of FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, there has, to date, been no successful convictions for its practise. Indeed, there has only been one attempt to prosecute someone for performing FGM. Considering the prevalence of FGM in estimates used by the Government, this is a policy failure.

Subsequent governments have announced a number of measures to increase the prosecution of FGM. From October 2015, nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals have had a legal duty to report cases of FGM to the police. Healthcare professionals who observe evidence of FGM during their professional duties but do not report it could face action from their professional standards body (such as the General Medical Council).

The Serious Crimes Act (2015) introduced a number of measures aimed to increase prosecutions. It gives lifetime anonymity for victims of FGM and makes failing to protect a girl from the risk of FGM a criminal offense. In addition, it extends the 2003 FGM Act to also cover victims who are habitually resident in the UK. The 2003 Act was only concerned with acts committed by UK nationals or permanent UK residents on girls or women who are UK nationals or permanent UK residents.

Since these reforms are relatively recent it is difficult to measure their effectiveness. However, it remains the case that there have still been no successful convictions for FGM. Some other countries have been more successful at prosecuting FGM. In France, for instance, there have been more than 100 successful prosecutions since 1983. This has partly been attributed to the French practise of routine medical check-ups.

In France, children up to the age of six generally undergo regular medical check-ups by doctors which include examination of the genitals. These check-ups ensure that the child is growing as expected, is not being subjected to physical abuse, and is not ill. Check-ups are not mandatory, though they are routine and receipt of social security is dependent on participation. Girls identified to be at risk of FGM are usually examined every year and when they return from abroad. Medical practitioners are expected to set aside patient confidentiality and to report cases of physical abuse against children.

Conclusion

FGM in the UK has been an increasing policy concern since the 1970s. The UK made the performance of FGM an explicit offense in 1985, following large amounts of immigration from countries which practise it such as Somalia. Despite this legislation, and further updates to it in 2003, there have been no successful prosecutions for FGM. In the last two years, the Government has introduced a number of new measures to increase the number of prosecutions relating to FGM. It is too early to determine how effective these measures have been, but the Government may need to look at international examples of successful prosecutions if the prosecution rate remains zero.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue

International aid and human rights in North Korea

Following a period of strong distrust, largely because of the Korean War and the Cold War, diplomatic relations between the UK and North Korea were only established in 2000. Embassies have opened in both Pyongyang and London. There is a UK ambassador to North Korea in Pyongyang and, in 2014, there was a visit to North Korea from an official British delegation to promote English language classes. The UK Government also gives aid to North Korea, estimated to be hundreds of thousands of pounds in total.

Nonetheless, the UK Government has been critical stance of the regime’s brutality. In the House of Lords last year, Baroness Anelay - the Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN - expressed dismay at the country’s appalling human rights record. Late last year, at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, she urged North Korea to respect the rights of its citizens, end widespread human rights violations and engage substantively with the international community.

Human rights abuses

The North Korean Government has ratified four international human rights treaties as well as including rights protection in its constitution.

But the closed nature of North Korea has made gaining evidence on the exact nature and scale of human rights abuses difficult to attain. The media is state-controlled and internet access is restricted to a small selection of people who have state approval. Authorities allow very few foreign journalists to report in the country and curtail their ability to gather information by preventing them from freely talking to people on the street and constantly monitoring their movements.

However, in 2014, a report from the Commission of Inquiry on human rights established by the United Nations Human Rights Council found systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations committed by the North Korean Government. These included: murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortion and other sexual violence. The purpose of these acts against political prisoners, according to the report, is to create a climate of fear that prevents any challenge to the current regime.

This year, a Human Rights Watch report suggested North Korea remained one of the most repressive states in the world, curtailing all basic human rights including freedom of expression, assembly, association and freedom to practice religion.

Political opposition is prohibited. Those accused of serious political offences are usually sent to political prisoner camps, characterised by systematic abuse on inmates including torture and abuse, starvation rations and forced labour. United States and South Korean officials estimated that in 2015 between 80,000 and 120,000 people were imprisoned in the political camps.

Kang Chol-Hwan, who spent ten years at a political prison in North Korea and now lives in South Korea and works for a charity smuggling USB sticks across the border so people are able to access alternative information to what the government disseminates, described the conditions in these camps: prisoners are forced to watch public executions, and they are physically abused, hit and tortured. He described the camps ”as another form of Auschwitz.”

Workers in North Korea are systematically denied the right to organise and bargain collectively, and are often forced into hard manual labour.

Aid to North Korea

UK aid payments to North Korea have been spent on a range of projects, including: teaching training programmes, helping North Korean journalists connect to the web, and training officials in UK values.

Furthermore, figures released by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2016 show the the UK Government has been funding a number of humanitarian programmes such as orphanages and relief items and English language classes. Baroness Anelay, the Minister for the Commonwealth and UN, stated  that the aim of the humanitarian projects in North Korea was to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in North Korean society, and that the purpose of the English language projects was to make North Korean participants aware of other ideas and cultures.

In addition to this UK aid, North Korea receives aid funding from the UN. North Korean Economy Watch report that in 2016 the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon released $8 million from the UN Central Emergency Fund to help severely underfunded aid operations, especially for life-saving assistance for more than 2.2 million people who were at risk of malnutrition. NGOs such as the Eugene Bell Foundation also donated aid for specific purposes with the aim of ending unnecessary deaths from tuberculosis in North Korea.

Conclusion

The debate about whether we should be giving aid to North Korea is contentious. Former North Korean citizen Jang Jin-sung argues that aid funding for food in North Korea has hindered economic reform, prolonging the current regime's human rights abuses. On the other hand, Dr James E Hoare, Britain’s first diplomatic representative in North Korea, has argued that it would be morally unjust to penalise those already suffering by denying them food aid. He argues that 10% of the country’s two-year-olds are afflicted with severe stunting - a condition which will confer a lifetime of health problems to them. Not to attempt to help these two-year-olds would be morally wrong.

North Korea is a clear example of the ethical dilemma at the heart of international aid: whether it is right and effective for the West, specifically the UK, to apply conditions to the granting of aid to recipient countries, even stopping it to countries that undermine human rights. In a recent Bright Blue essay collection, Sir Paul Collier - a Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Oxford - seemed to reject this approach: “It would be an abuse of power over the desperate to insist that recipients confirm to our standards of behaviour if this is not material to the escape from poverty”. Grant Shapps MP, recently a Minister in DFID, recently complained that there is a culture in that department of allowing aid without proper consideration of human rights abuses in recipient countries. But, in some cases, the UK Government has made the granting of aid conditional on human rights: in November 2012, for example, it halted aid of £21 million being given to Rwanda over human rights abuses. This year, this debate will be very high-profile in public and political discourse.

Michael Hough is a research assistant at Bright Blue

Human rights and public services

We often hears stories of our public services failing to protect people’s basic human rights; from Stafford Hospital where patients’ right to life was put in jeopardy through lack of basic care, to the police service failing to investigate reports of rape leading to many more victims having their rights infringed. What we often don’t hear are the positive stories of how our public officials are using human rights on the frontline of service delivery to ensure better decision-making.

One example is council worker, ‘Monica’. When she was trying to secure emergency accommodation for a woman and her children fleeing her violent ex-partner, it was using human rights that got things moving. After initially being told by the housing department that there was nothing available, Monica used the council’s positive duty to protect the woman and her children from inhuman or degrading treatment (protected by Article 3 in the Human Rights Act) to secure the accommodation.

We also don’t often hear about the quiet ways our services are being transformed by public officials embedding human rights into their day-to-day work, leading to better outcomes for us all. Like the hospital that re-wrote its policy on relationships to ensure it takes into account the right to private and family life of patients. Or the mental health ward for children and young people that lifted its blanket ban on mobile phone use, ensuring families can keep in touch with their loved ones, whilst taking into account any individual risk such as cyber bullying.

“Using a human rights approach has revolutionised decision-making. It needs to be rights based, not just risk based.” Practitioner, North Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust

At the British Institute of Human Rights we work with organisations across the sectors, from those delivering our public services, to those supporting people using services. We’ve seen from our work that the Human Rights Act can be a practical tool for frontline practitioners, providing them with a framework to help them make the (often) difficult decisions they have to make in day-to-day practice, sometimes in fast-paced, stressful environments. As public services get more stretched by the effects of austerity, we are seeing how human rights can play a crucial role to help ensure no-one falls below the minimum standards of rights set out in our law.  

“Human rights have provided us a different focus which helps support our service users live independently with dignity, respect and pride.” Practitioner on BIHR’s project

We also often hear that human rights are all about individual claims and can be combative. At BIHR we see from our work that human rights can actually take the heat of discussions, and help practitioners across the sectors to work together to resolve issues. By focussing on internationally agreed legal standards, rather than ‘charity’, human rights can help create a level-playing field, ensuring discussions don’t become about a practitioner’s ‘moral compass’:

“Using the human rights framework has helped us express our concerns as being relevant as a matter of law, something concrete.” Practitioner on BIHR’s project

This can allow advocacy/support workers and practitioners to work together to try and find solutions. Take the story of ‘Erin’ who is in her late 70s and living in a care home so that she can get support for her dementia. A social worker and her advocate used Erin’s right to family life to ensure her partner ‘Patrick’ could continue to visit her in the care home. Erin’s friend was pushing the local authority to restrict Patrick’s visits after a concern about sexual touching. Following a safeguarding inquiry, where Erin was supported by her advocate, the social worker concluded that the local authority would not intervene to prevent Patrick’s visits, to uphold their family life and also Erin’s autonomy to decide for herself about the relationship (both protected by Article 8 in the Human Rights Act).

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, it’s in these “small places, close to home” that universal human rights begin. “Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” By bringing these universal human rights standards to life here at home, the Human Rights Act ensures they have real resonance and the chance to make an enormous difference to people’s everyday lives.

Helen Wildbore is Senior Human Rights Officer, the British Institute of Human Rights