Essay

Britain has a duty to stand up for Hong Kong

Twenty years ago, Hong Kong was handed over to China, on the understanding that its way of life, rule of law and basic freedoms would be protected. ‘One country, two systems’ was the concept designed to describe the unique combination of China’s sovereignty and Hong Kong’s autonomy. The Sino-British Joint Declaration gave Britain a responsibility to monitor the situation in Hong Kong for the first fifty years after the handover. And the prime minister at the time, Sir John Major, told Hong Kongers a year before the handover that “if there were any suggestion of a breach of the Joint Declaration, we would have a duty to pursue every legal and other avenue available to us.” Hong Kong, he promised, “will never have to walk alone”. 

Twenty years on, it is time to make good that promise. In the past few years, ‘one country, two systems’ has been increasingly eroded, Hong Kong’s freedoms threatened and the rule of law undermined. China says the Joint Declaration is an historical document of no relevance. So far, Britain’s response has been tepid. The Foreign Office’s six-monthly reports, which it is required to present to Parliament, have until recently been extraordinarily weak – described by the Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten as “fairly neutral and … rather anodyne”. The most recent report was somewhat more robust, but that was starting from a rather low bar. The UK, argues Chris Patten, “risks selling its honour” over Hong Kong.

From the imprisonment of peaceful pro-democracy student leaders to the abduction by Chinese security agents of booksellers publishing critiques of China’s leaders, from threats to journalists to attacks on academic freedom, from the disqualification of elected pro-democracy legislators simply for failing to take their oaths properly to censorship of education curricula to remove references to politically sensitive episodes in Chinese history such as the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, all the signs are that Hong Kong’s freedoms are being strangled. A new report by the Henry Jackson Society details the rollback of civil, human and legal rights.

Just under a month ago, I experienced this first-hand when I was denied entry to Hong Kong, on the direct orders of the Chinese government, simply because I had been outspoken on human rights. To my astonishment, I was described as a serious threat to the “sovereignty, safety and interests of the nation”. The next day, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam refused to rule out the possibility that Chris Patten could be banned. On this occasion, the Foreign Secretary’s response was strong and the issue received attention in Parliament, drawing a much-needed spotlight on the threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Two months after the handover, I moved to Hong Kong. I worked for the first five years of Chinese sovereignty as a journalist in the territory, and although I could see some subtle warnings of threats to come – particularly in terms of self-censorship by the media – by and large when I left in 2002 I was confident that 'one country, two systems' was intact. As a journalist, I didn’t expect Hong Kong to fall from 18th in the world in 2002 to 73rd in 2015 in Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom index. And I certainly never anticipated that fifteen years after I left Hong Kong I would be denied entry to the place I had once called home.

In 2016, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission held an inquiry into human rights in China, and published a report called The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016, in which we included a section on Hong Kong. We received submissions from various activists, academics and politicians in Hong Kong. They all had the same message. “Precious rights and freedoms guaranteed under ‘one country, two systems’, such as freedom of the press, of publication and of academic thought, are being chipped away,” Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary Anson Chan and the founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party Martin Lee argued in their joint submission. Professor Victoria Tin-bor Hui, Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, agreed, concluding that “most pillars of freedom have been made increasingly hollowed.”

Increasing concerns about the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary have been highlighted. Last month twelve international lawyers, including the former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, Lord Carlile QC and the chair of the human rights committee of the Bar Council of England and Wales, Kirsty Brimelow QC, issued a public letter expressing their concerns about the imprisonment of pro-democracy student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow. They noted that the law under which they were charged, the Public Order Ordinance, has been criticized by the United Nations for “facilitat[ing] excessive restrictions” to basic rights, and argued that it “is incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which applies to Hong Kong”. They noted that Hong Kong’s retired Court of Final Appeal judge Kemal Bokhary warned of “storm clouds” over the judiciary five years ago and that in 2014, China issued a White Paper declaring that Beijing has “comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong” – instead of “the high degree of autonomy” provided for in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution. China also announced that Hong Kong’s judges are merely “administrators” who must love the country and be "subject to oversight by the central government”. In the conclusion of twelve eminent international lawyers, “the independence of the judiciary, a pillar of Hong Kong, risks becoming a charade, at the beck and call of the Chinese Communist Party. Hong Kong’s rule of law and basic freedoms, at the heart of the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, now face grave threats.”

Creeping erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms began slowly some years ago, but it is in the past three years that the situation has deteriorated dramatically. In 2014 China reneged on its promise to allow genuine multi-party democracy and universal suffrage in elections for Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2017, a decision that sparked the ‘Umbrella Movement’ bringing thousands of protesters on the streets for 79 days. The police responded with teargas, beatings and arrests. Martin Lee described in The New York Times his own experience: “At 76 years old, I never expected to be tear-gassed in Hong Kong, my once peaceful home. Like many of the other tens of thousands of calm and non-violent protestors in the Hong Kong streets …, I was shocked when the pro-democracy crowd was met by throngs of police officers in full riot gear, carrying weapons and wantonly firing canisters of tear gas. After urging the crowd to remain calm under provocation, I got hit by a cloud of the burning fumes. The protesters persevered. They ran away when gassed, washed their faces and returned with raised hands. But the police continued to escalate the crisis. Their aggressive actions hardened the resolve of Hong Kongers, many of them too young to vote, to defend our freedoms. These include the long-promised right to elect our leader.”

The imprisonment of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow brought the threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms to the world’s attention. Prior to the twelve international lawyers, a group of 25 eminent international politicians, diplomats, activists and religious figures issued an open letter in protest, calling the sentence “a death knell for the rule of law and human rights” in Hong Kong. The three activists’ release on bail earlier this month is a welcome move, and perhaps a sign that international advocacy works and that Hong Kong’s judicial independence is not completely lost. Nevertheless, when they were jailed their colleague Derek Lam said starkly: “In the past, when we chant ‘release political prisoners,’ we’re referring to [those in China] … but now it’s Hong Kong.” As Anson Chan and Martin Lee argue, the Joint Declaration and 'one country, two systems' was meant to guarantee that “no Hong Kong resident would have to fear a midnight knock on the door”. With the abductions and arrests that have happened, they now conclude that “none of us is safe”.

For all these reasons, a new organisation is being launched in London next month to be a voice for Hong Kong and to conduct research, provide briefings and carry out advocacy. With a cross-party group of Patrons including the former Conservative Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown, the former Labour Shadow Foreign Minister Catherine West MP, the cross-bencher Lord Alton and the former chief prosecutor of Slobodan Milosevic Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the new organisation – to be called Hong Kong Watch – will work to better inform Parliamentarians, the media and the general public about the challenges Hong Kong faces. We believe it is time that Britain lived up to Sir John Major’s promise and to our responsibilities under the Joint Declaration. It is time for Britain to stand up for Hong Kong.

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, and served as a member of Bright Blue’s Human Rights Commission.

This week, Yemenis look to the UK to help stop our suffering being ignored

Since the conflict began more than two years ago, my home country of Yemen has borne witness to the grave human suffering of millions of people – most of them women and children. It's often described as a 'forgotten' conflict, but Yemenis don't feel forgotten - we feel wilfully ignored by the international community, left to the mercy of a war which has seen all sides commit grave violations against innocent civilians. This war has left 80% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, 7 million not knowing where their next meal will come from, and almost three quarters of a million in the grip of the worst cholera epidemic in modern times.

These are the facts I tell every day as the Chairperson of Mwatana, an independent Yemeni organization working to defend and protect human rights. I haven't been able to return to my home country for many months now. My work to document and give voice to the victims of human rights abuses that happen daily by all parties to the conflict means I face threats from all sides, who would prefer their crimes to go unrecorded and unpunished.

The story of Yemen is presented as the world's largest humanitarian tragedy. But this crisis is man-made, fuelled by political choices. Political action could end it. So while I cannot return to my country, I am walking the corridors of power – from London to Paris, Brussels, Netherlands, Germany, Geneva and the US – to tell the stories gathered by Mwatana. Stories like that of Abdulhafeez, who cried as he gathered the bodies of his children and grandchildren from the rubble after his house was hit by a Houthi/Saleh shell. Or Fahmi, who heard the explosion of the coalition airstrike that killed his wife and three of his children, aged nine, three and just one and a half years old, in their home. Cluster bombs, Kalashnikovs, landmines, mortars, ballistic missiles, and F-16s: all have been used to attack civilians. My heart breaks for each Yemeni child, man or woman caught up in the conflict.

I continue to raise the voices of victims because I remain optimistic that the story of Yemen can ultimately be one of peace. To get there requires political will. Many Yemenis believe that UK can play a positive role in Yemen. When I met the Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt, I was glad to hear from him that addressing the crisis in Yemen is his personal priority. I hope that this week, he will seize the opportunity to show that our suffering will be ignored no longer.

To turn the page on this unimaginable suffering a peace process is desperately needed. Convincing parties back to the peace table starts with sending a clear message to parties to the conflict that they will be held to account for their abuses and violations against civilians.

At the UN Human Rights Council this week, the UK can send this signal by backing a resolution to establish an independent, international investigation into violations and abuses of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. Mwatana has been joined by over 100 leading international and Yemeni humanitarian and human rights organisations, as well as leading Parliamentarians, members of Congress, and key figures from across the UN, all united in calling for an independent inquiry. The Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights has stated that the existing Yemeni National Commission’s methodology falls short of international standards and that it has ‘yet to clarify how its work could facilitate viable mechanisms of accountability’ in order to provide independent and substantive reports on the human rights situation in Yemen.

UK support is critical to ensure that a new, truly independent mechanism is established to end the culture of impunity in Yemen and bring justice to victims and their families on all sides of this horrific conflict. Civilians continue to pay the price of the parties’ recklessness in Yemen. I believe that the international community can help turn the Yemeni tragedy into a success story. However, the window of opportunity for this is closing fast. Extremist militias are taking hold across the country. If allowed to gain the upper hand, the dream of a peace process can be all but forgotten. The Prime Minister spoke this week of the UK's commitment to the fundamental values of fairness, justice and human rights. This week the UK has a chance to help advance these values in Yemen. If the world fails us again this week, our nightmare will continue.

Radhya Almutawakel is the Chairperson of Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights

You can follow Mwatana on Twitter: @mwatanaen

Or visit their website: http://www.mwatana.org/en

Why the British Government should consider re-opening the Dubs amendment to protect unaccompanied children in Europe

In the face of unprecedented numbers of people in forced displacement world-wide, European states have been forced to consider their own policy responses with the arrival of significant numbers of people seeking sanctuary in Europe. In the UK, the so-called ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais, France, was a highly salient issue on the UK political agenda, not least because it appeared that most of the individuals in this makeshift camp were hoping to continue their journey onto the UK. However, since the camp’s demolition in 2016 many have now returned, and there are again approximately 700 displaced people living in the area, among them, hundreds of unaccompanied children. As is so often the case in large-scale humanitarian crises, the situation in Calais being no exception, children are amongst the most vulnerable individuals. They face an increased risk of exploitation and abuse, often at the hands of traffickers, where high levels of insecurity and precarity directly affect their rights to health, education and development at a crucial time in their lives.

As a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the British Government is committed to upholding the rights of the child regardless of nationality, race, colour, sex, language or religion. The unaccompanied children who currently reside in Calais are of direct relevance to the UK and its policy makers – many hope to reach the UK and are likely to have family and support networks there. Due to the lack of legal routes to seek asylum or apply for family reunification in the UK, these vulnerable children continue to risk their lives at the back of lorries each night, and their day-to-day existence is characterised by violence and ill-health. Despite its international commitments, in February 2017 the UK Government withdrew its support for a piece of legislation known as the Dubs amendment. First introduced in 2016, the legislation was intended to provide a safe, legal route for unaccompanied children to reach the UK from France, Greece and Italy.

Our findings clearly indicate that schemes like the Dubs amendment are still very much needed to protect the human rights of vulnerable children. After the aforementioned demolition of the ‘Jungle’ camp, 98.8% of the children we interviewed in April 2017 were unaccompanied. The living conditions for these vulnerable children are far below any internationally expected standards, with the majority finding themselves in destitution and without access to clean water or shelter. An alarming 85.9% of children said they don’t feel safe in and around the Calais area, and 96.5% of children had experienced police violence in the area, including tear gas, physical violence and verbal abuse. Alongside violence and detrimental living conditions, our research found that only 16.9% of children had access to information about their rights and how to break out of their current situation. Instead, they continue to endure inhumane conditions and abuse in the hope that they will eventually be able to cross the border and, for many of them, submit their asylum case or family reunification application to the British Home Office.

In order for the British Government to move towards effective policy action to resolve the situation in Calais, the rights of the child as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child need to be at the centre of policy making.  A key decision that would help the Government honour its tradition of human rights and child protection would be to re-open the Dubs scheme, allowing unaccompanied children safe, legal passage to reach the UK. Once re-opened, its criteria ought to be expanded to ensure that the most vulnerable children do not risk being excluded, and a revised cut-off date should be implemented to address additional concerns. Importantly, a multi-agency effort is required to ensure that those children who qualify under the Dublin lll regulation with relatives in the UK are identified and quickly transferred. Safe legal routes such as the Dubs scheme and Dublin lll are integral in combatting the growing power of traffickers who are known to exploit vulnerable children.  As well as this, the UK must continue to work with French counterparts to advocate for the safeguarding and rights of the child on French soil. The current approach of intense policing and heavy-handedness revealed by RRDP research needs to stop, as it does nothing to resolve the situation. Instead, resources should be dedicated to setting up a standard safeguarding framework, comprising monitoring mechanisms to minimise the risk of unaccompanied children going missing and falling into the hands of traffickers, along with an adequate team of social workers, medics and interpreters. The provision of water and shelter is also urgently required in the interim.

While much of the discussion in Britain on unaccompanied children in displacement has revolved around proof of age, nationality and the strength of family ties, the human rights situation faced by displaced children in Europe continues to deteriorate. Due to the serious nature of the child protection failure unfolding in Calais and beyond, it appears to be of utmost importance that the debate in the UK moves beyond such divisive matters and that the focus is shifted towards finding constructive solutions to the situation. Regardless of the motivation for the journey, unaccompanied children must be treated as children first and foremost and afforded adequate levels of protection under national and international law.

Alice Lucas is the Senior Programme Officer at Refugee Rights Data Project (RRDP)

RRDP envisions a world in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to all individuals, including refugees and people in displacement. To work towards their vision, they conduct first-hand field research, develop partners’ awareness of the situation on the ground, and actively engage in dialogue with all stakeholders to inform policies and practices that affect refugees and displaced people seeking sanctuary in Europe.

You can follow RRDP on Twitter: @RefugeeData

Britain should be championing rights not repression in Egypt

In his Preface to the annual FCO report on Human Rights and Democracy this year, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that “promoting the values that Britain holds dear is not an optional extra, still less a vainglorious addition to our diplomacy: it is keeping with centuries of tradition. This is part of who we are”. 

Fine sentiments. But ones that the UK too often ignores or marginalises in its relations with key countries around the world. This was demonstrated with disturbing clarity this month in the case of Egypt.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the Egyptian military’s forcible removal of Mohamed Morsy, the freely elected president, in 2013, heads a country gripped by an unprecedented human rights crisis – the worst for decades. In the months following him seizing power, Egyptian security forces killed huge numbers of people. Human Rights Watch documented the killing of at least 817 and likely more than a thousand protestors in Cairo’s Rab’a al-Adawiya Square on a single day - August 14, 2013 – more than were killed at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and a potential crime against humanity. Nearly four years on, no government official or security officer has been held to account for this crime and the man effectively in charge of the security forces at the time is now the country’s elected President.

In the last four years under Sisi, upwards of 60,000 people have been imprisoned, protests are effectively banned, and the country’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is outlawed and those alleged to be members hunted down. Egypt’s courts have sentenced hundreds to death -  including former president Morsy –  and thousands of civilians have been sent to military courts. The government has severely restricted freedom of expression and emasculated the work of international and civil society groups.

If all this wasn’t awful enough, new research we published just this week confirms that the country’s security forces are responsible for widespread and systematic torture in police stations and national security offices. We interviewed several former detainees, and their testimony is chilling.   They told us that torture sessions began with security forces using electric shocks on a blindfolded, stripped and handcuffed suspect, while slapping and punching him, or beating him with sticks and metal bars. If the suspect fails to give the officers the answers they want, interrogators increased the power and duration of the electric shocks, often to the suspect’s genitals. Detainees were also forced into stress positions for long periods of time so as to inflict excruciating pain.

In the northern Sinai Peninsula, fighting between Egyptian government forces and an affiliate of the armed extremist group Islamic State has dramatically escalated, with large-scale rights violations by both sides.  Egyptian forces are involved in the disappearance of hundreds of civilians, mass arbitrary arrests, torture, deaths in secret military detention and extrajudicial killings.

In the face of this unprecedented crisis, and inspired by Boris Johnson’s emphatic assertion that “promoting human rights is an essential aim of the foreign policy of a global Britain”, one would expect a strong and principled UK government response to the grave and worsening rights situation in Egypt.

But far from it. In an article in the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram two weeks ago, the FCO Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, laid out actual UK government policy towards Egypt.  Burt is gushing in his support for the Egyptian government’s counter-terrorism efforts and makes no criticism whatsoever of the brutality of its operations in Sinai, although terrorism and how best to address it is the major theme of his article. And there is no acknowledgement that the Egyptian government’s approach - what Burt chillingly describes as striking “with a fist of iron” - is fuelling not weakening radicalisation. It is as if the UK has learned nothing from the last two decades of counterterrorism operations.

Nor does Burt make any mention of the multiple other human rights crimes engulfing the country. Nothing on torture. No mention of mass death sentences. No reference to the ferocious crackdown on free expression.  He also strongly attacks the Muslim Brotherhood – an international Islamic political movement -  and links it to extremism, even though the UK government’s own review of the group found no evidence of links to terrorism.  As the Conservative commentator, Peter Oborne, points out: “Burt’s comments have given Sisi carte blanche to continue his brutal suppression of the Brotherhood”, in a way that will delight the Al-Sisi regime and other autocrats in the region, including in Saudi Arabia. 

UK policy towards Egypt, as set out this month by Alistair Burt, bears no relationship to the sort of values-driven foreign policy articulated by Boris Johnson just three months ago and championed by Bright Blue. If the UK is serious about human rights – as it should be – it needs to urgently clarify its policy towards Egypt and elsewhere. It needs to affirm beyond any doubt that Britain stands for certain fundamental values in the world – and not merely for cold and cynical realpolitik, which diminishes the UK’s global standing and will deliver yet further misery, conflict and repression to the people of Egypt.

David Mepham is the UK Director of Human Rights Watch.

You can follow him on Twitter @mephamd

The UK must reverse worrying press freedom trends

Earlier this week, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, drew a heated reaction from the media and the human rights community with her comments in a column for The Telegraph asserting that “real people” did not care about security, and arguing for restrictions on tools like WhatsApp that use end-to-end encryption, as part of the Government’s counter-extremism strategy.

Rudd’s comments were only the latest in a series of worrying moves against UK press freedom over the past year, which increasingly frequently is being trampled in the name of security. In recent months, Rudd has made prior comments suggesting that restrictions on encryption tools were on the horizon, backed up by Theresa May. Speaking about the London Bridge terror attack, the Prime Minister said the Internet must be further regulated to “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online” and said she would change human rights laws if they “get in the way” of the Government’s anti-terrorism efforts.

Other senior figures have contributed to a perception of disdain for free expression and hostility towards the press. Just two days before the general election, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, said: “People have had enough about this free speech stuff", referring to terrorist recruitment material. A few weeks later, in an appearance on BBC’s Newsnight, the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, called for broadcasters to be “a bit patriotic” in their Brexit coverage.

This series of comments from top officials is even more problematic when viewed against the backdrop of an overall trend of growing restrictions on press freedom in the UK. The Investigatory Powers Act, adopted in November 2016, is not only the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history, it is also incredibly menacing for press freedom. In particular, it lacks sufficient protection mechanisms for whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources.

The Law Commission’s proposal to replace the Official Secrets Acts with a so-called new ‘Espionage Act’ is even more alarming. As envisaged, such a bill would make it easy to label journalists, bloggers, and others as ‘spies’ and jail them for up to 14 years for simply obtaining leaked information.

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 also remains a potential threat to press freedom as it contains a cost-shifting provision that, if implemented, could hold publications that refuse to sign up to the state-approved regulator liable for all claims made against them, regardless of merit. RSF and other free speech groups have called on the Government to implement without delay the Conservative manifesto pledge to repeal Section 40 and not to proceed with phase two of the Leveson inquiry.

Many of these recent moves will have particularly serious implications for investigative journalists, who are finding it increasingly difficult to do their jobs in the UK. The impact will be a significant chilling effect that will limit investigations into sensitive topics – like corruption and human rights abuses – that are in the public’s interest, and that are vital to hold power to account. Self-censorship has become one of the biggest global threats to freedom of expression, and remains one of the hardest challenges to counter. We fear it is now on the rise in the UK.

Such moves have contributed to the UK dropping two places in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, launched at the end of April 2017. The Index currently ranks the UK as 40th out of 180 countries – a shocking placement for a country that has long been viewed as an international standard-setter.

RSF’s World Press Freedom Index is intended as an advocacy tool, and it is our hope that countries will examine the reasons for their scores and strive to improve their rankings. But the current state of affairs in the UK – bolstered by comments like the latest from Rudd – unfortunately leaves little hope for an improved UK ranking in the year to come.

This alarming trend must be reversed now, as a matter of priority. The Government should ensure that respect for press freedom and broader human rights is at the core of all practices and policies going forward. A balance must be found that protects those values most fundamental to our society. Sacrificing our right to freedom of expression does not make us safer, it simply makes us less free, and our government less accountable.

Rebecca is the UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders. Known internationally as Reporters sans frontières, RSF works to promote and defend freedom of information and freedom of the press around the world.

For more information on RSF’s work, visit www.rsf.org/en or follow RSF on Twitter at @rsf_inter and @rsf_en.

A legacy of broken promises on the legacy of “the troubles”

Northern Ireland is in the news just now because of the continuing negotiations between the minority Conservative government and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). From a human rights point of view that is problematic in a number of ways, ranging from the extreme social conservatism of the DUP to potential damage to the peace process through having the representatives of one side of the community here in alliance with the UK Government, a.k.a. “honest broker.” However, there is one area where the obstacle to a human rights based solution is the UK Government itself, albeit supported by the DUP.

This area is called “dealing with the past,” or, more commonly nowadays, “legacy” matters. Whatever you call it, this is a question of dealing with the fall-out from “the troubles,” which is the euphemism for a violent political conflict that, proportionate to Northern Ireland’s population, killed almost twice as many as the number of civilians who died in the UK during World War 2. Twenty years after the peace agreement, there is still no comprehensive way of dealing with the needs for justice and compensation for those bereaved or maimed as a result of the conflict.

Human rights activists see this as, firstly, a continuing breach of the UK Government’s obligation under the European Convention of Human Rights to properly investigate killings and torture and, secondly, as a violation of the victims’ right to truth. This is not, therefore, a matter of living in the past or rewriting history – it is question of applying the rule of law. Specifically, in the case of killings carried out by state agents, it is the pursuit of a major aim of human rights activists across the world – combating impunity.

There are up to 2,000 cases involving death during the conflict that have not been satisfactorily resolved. In the late nineties, CAJ and others took a sample of cases to the European Court of Human Rights. In the 2001 judgements on the McKerr group of cases the court found that the UK state had an obligation to carry out effective and independent investigations under Article 2 (Right to Life) of the European Convention. These cases are still unresolved, still under scrutiny by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and still the UK Government is making excuses for inaction. There has been a “package of measures” in place, including the police Historical Enquiry Team which was disbanded after Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary found it was biased in favour of British soldiers.

There were two attempts at devising a comprehensive mechanism for dealing with the past; the last Labour Government refused to implement the first, the Coalition government refused to implement the second. Finally, the parties and the two governments made the Stormont House Agreement at the end of 2014. In rather general terms, this Agreement suggested four interlocking institutions to investigate deaths, develop an oral history archive, provide a secure mechanism for truth recovery and provide a thematic history of the conflict. 

Over the last two and a half years, negotiations have continued on how to implement the Agreement. CAJ and a number of academics even produced a Model Bill that could implement it in a human rights compliant way. When the UK Government demanded an extraordinarily wide “national security” veto on what information could be given to families, we proposed formulations that would recognise the need to keep people safe and protect legitimate and contemporary security methods. It appears that these have been rejected and we expect a draft Bill to go out for consultation over the summer which will contain unacceptable power for Ministers to determine what information will enter the public domain.

Meanwhile, Government Ministers, prominent Tories and some of the press have conducted an extraordinary campaign of vilification against the current mechanisms, including police investigations and inquests, claiming imbalance against state actors and against both private lawyers and law officers. This campaign, reminiscent of a climate created before the murder of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane in 1989, in an act of collusion between security forces and loyalist gunmen, is documented in a Human Rights First report.

A recent report of the Defence Select Committee, hurriedly completed before the dissolution of Parliament, has gone so far as to call for a “statute of limitations” – effectively an amnesty – for all British soldiers. As well as being illegal under international law, such a provision would show contempt for the rule of law and put the UK in the unsavoury company of dictatorships round the world which have indulged in “self-amnesties” to cover up their crimes.

So, we await a consultation process on a draft Bill to implement the Stormont House Agreement over the summer, although reference to the subject in the Queen’s Speec was vague and watered down from previous commitments. Meanwhile the United Nations Human Rights Committee is pursuing the issue of “accountability for conflict-related violations in Northern Ireland” in its urgent “follow-up procedure” to the 7th Periodic Report on the UK under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In response to its request, CAJ has just written a submission detailing events since 2015 which will shortly be available.

The legacy of the troubles haunts the people of Northern Ireland. If this government is not to see its legacy sullied round the world in human rights terms, it needs to issue sensible draft legislation as a matter of urgency and move quickly to enact implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.

Brian Gormally is Director of the Northern Ireland based Committee on the Administration of Justice

 

No-one should be invisible to human rights

This new Conservative government takes office at a crucial time for UK leadership on the global stage. ‘Brexit’ may dominate the domestic agenda, but we cannot renegotiate our relationship to Europe without examining our role as a global leader. We are in the midst of a global displacement crisis and consequently, a challenge to international values of human rights, the likes of which we have not experienced since World War Two. In 1951 British lawyers led the drafting of the Refugee and Geneva Conventions, a heroic response to a world in ruins. Today the challenges are different, but the need for courage and vision from world leaders is just as pressing. The UK must build and maintain these values in the face of this crisis.

Over the last five years we have grown used to the images of refugees fleeing war and persecution seeking sanctuary in Europe, but these offer a wildly distorted picture of global displacement. Contrary to common perception, most refugees – 84 percent – are hosted in developing countries, often with little infrastructure to help, and never even consider travel to richer countries. Perhaps even more strikingly, the vast majority of people who are forced from their homes through conflict or disaster have not yet crossed international borders, to be officially classed as ‘a refugee’. The tens of millions of ‘internally displaced people’ (IDPs) outnumber refugees two to one, yet their stories are rarely heard. Those who, by choice or by necessity, stay behind in their war torn and politically unstable homelands, struggling every day to survive. For them, the situation is deteriorating, as health and education systems collapse, food supply chains are disrupted and basic infrastructure is destroyed by conflict.

There are 65.6 million people forcibly displaced around the globe; 40.3 million of those, or more than six out of ten, are IDPs. In Syria, there are 6.3 million internally displaced people; in Iraq 2.3m. Most of these people have been displaced for prolonged periods of time, and as the conflicts intensify this is only expected to rise. The decades-long conflict in Colombia has left over 7.4m displaced, and the devastating famines across East Africa make this a new epicentre of mass displacement whose consequences will be felt for many years.

We cannot limit who we help based on lines on a map or the status of individuals – whether they are IDPs or refugees has little impact on their humanitarian needs that must be addressed in a principled and needs-based manner. IDPs, by the very nature of remaining in fragile and conflict affected states, are often more vulnerable than refugees, who have fled to ‘safer’ places, but they are less visible and under-resourced. While research into the complexity of internal displacement is still emerging, we already know from long experience that many refugees were first internally displaced. Is today’s IDP tomorrow’s refugee?

In September 2018, a UN summit will agree two new Compacts on refugees and migrants. This is a major opportunity to demonstrate British leadership on the world stage and highlight the plight and needs of displaced populations. There must be four priorities.

Firstly, it must be ambitious. Many agencies are rightly insisting on no backsliding on existing protections, but that is not enough for 21st century challenges. The Refugee Convention ignores two thirds of those forced to flee; fails to recognise issues from persecution based on sexual orientation to environmental displacement; and leaves many behind. UNHCR’s mandate only covers cross-border refugees; there is no agency responsible for IDPs. The Compacts must not miss these opportunities to get ahead of the curve in the century of migration.

Secondly, there must be urgent attention to the in adequacy of the international humanitarian system. People are displaced for, on average, 17 years, many are displaced multiple times, and most live outside camps in poor host communities. Disasters displace three times as many people as conflicts, and most are not legally classified as refugees. Thus, we require a new approach to the design and delivery of humanitarian aid for those forced from their homes that recognizes the needs and rights of all those on the move, not just those that cross international borders. The UN bureaucracy – and the developing and middle-income countries who host the majority of refugees and IDPs – are failing to adapt to this new norm.

Thirdly, funding. The UN reports that displacement situations are consistently underfunded and too often donors do not follow through on the pledges they make. The UK’s response to the four famines across East Africa, and at the 2016 London-based Supporting Syria and the Region Conference, are models of leadership – but with the Trump administration’s withdrawal of aid funds and the recurring reality of ‘donor fatigue’, the UK must redouble its efforts to establish predictable, multi-year funding from all donors.

Finally, the Compacts must be rights-based. Northern states including the UK favour a ‘command and control’ approach to migrants and refugees, emphasising border controls, legal categorisation and statistics. This managerial approach not only rides roughshod over the highly complex reasons people move and the choices they make, but in too many cases allows governments to continue violating the rights of citizens and refugees with impunity. Human rights and humanitarian principles must come first.

The UN has set the table for world leaders to sign agreements that can enhance the rights and dignity of all people on the move and create a structure for true cooperation. Our history shows that in moments of crisis the world can come together and choose the right, if not the easiest, path. Time and again the UK has been at the forefront of these efforts. Will we rise to the challenge?

Tom Viita is Head of Advocacy at Christian Aid

A Conservative-DUP deal and human rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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