Why survivors of torture must defend the Human Rights Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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