Repealing the eighth – The wider impact

Today, the Republic of Ireland votes on whether to repeal the country’s eighth amendment, and, in doing so, lift a thirty-five year ban on abortion. The referendum has provoked debate across the world, including in the UK.

Ireland’s eighth amendment provides an unborn infant with equal rights to life as a mother, effectively outlawing abortion in the country. The amendment was passed in 1983 amidst widespread support, with only five constituencies voting against it. Since then, over 170,000 women have been forced to travel outside of Ireland for an abortion, and the trauma and fear caused by these journeys has been well documented.

In 2012, the case of Salvita Halappanavar, who died after she was refused an emergency termination during a miscarriage, caused outrage in Ireland and signified the beginning of a campaign to amend the law. Subsequently, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed to allow the termination of pregnancy in cases where there is a “substantial risk” to the mother’s life. However, ‘Yes’ voters who wish to repeal the eighth amendment argue this is not enough, and that all women should be allowed to make a choice depending on their own personal circumstances.

The repeal campaign has a large lead in the polls, although this margin has narrowed in recent weeks. If the yes campaign is successful, abortion will be permitted for all pregnancies up to 12 weeks, and at any time in cases where the mother’s life is at risk, there is a medical emergency or a fatal foetal abnormality. Alternatively, if Ireland votes against the repeal, the eighth amendment will remain as it is.

The Situation in Britain

While Britain’s stance on abortion is significantly more liberal than Ireland’s, some observers have argued that there is more to do to increase access to abortion. Currently, abortion in this country is regulated by both the 1967 Abortion Act and the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Under the former, an abortion can legally be carried out by a registered doctor, providing that it has been authorised ‘in good faith’ by two medical practitioners and complies with at least one of the following terms; that the pregnancy has not exceeded 24 weeks, could cause serious harm or death to the woman, or that the child is likely to suffer from severe, debilitating disabilities.

In practise, these conditions are more lenient – in essence, an abortion is available to any woman in mainland Britain who has not passed 24 weeks of pregnancy. The Offences Against the Person Act means that home abortions, even when carried out with the same medication used in certified clinics, is punishable by life in prison, but these instances are rare as most women seeking abortions in Britain tend to visit certified clinics.

The law is very different in Northern Ireland. Here, abortion is only legal under the terms of the Infant Preservation Act, which permits termination only if the mother is at risk of serious mental or physical harm. In 2014, a 19-year old woman was given a suspended prison sentence after buying drugs on the internet to induce a miscarriage because she did not have enough money to travel to mainland Britain for a legal abortion. Cases like this have provoked criticism about Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. A recent inter-Departmental report from the Northern Irish government has called for changes to the law, which they believe prevents women from accessing proper standards of healthcare, and places doctors in situations which are ‘professionally untenable’.

Further reform?

Since the legalisation of abortion in mainland Britain fifty years ago, a debate has emerged over whether British abortion laws are still too stringent. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has launched a campaign which calls for the outright decriminalisation of abortion in all parts of the UK. This would include allowing women to use abortions pills in the home, rather than having to face the financial implications, physical distress and emotional strain of travelling to and from abortion clinics.

The home-use abortion pill has already been legalised in Scotland, a move which has received praise from medical organisations but has been condemned by pro-life campaigns; The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) are calling for a judicial review of the new legislation, describing the home-use pill as a form of “DIY abortion”. There are also fears that legalising the home-use abortion pill could lead to some women using it as a form of contraception which could lead to poorer sexual health.  

Further concerns that outright decriminalisation will eliminate the 24-week time limit for terminations have been raised. However, the British Medical Association (BMA), who voted in favour of decriminalisation, insists that regulations will still be in place – but these sanctions will be imposed by medical rather than criminal bodies. Nonetheless, in a public survey found that 72% of respondents opposed further changes to Britain’s abortion laws.

Conclusion

Whichever way Ireland votes in its referendum today, the highly charged debate around abortion is likely to continue in the UK and Ireland. Recent debates in the House of Commons suggest there is widespread sympathy for allowing women to access abortions at home to avoid the distress caused by visiting a medical practitioner. However, equally, there remain strong critics of this apparent liberalisation of abortion laws in Parliament. It therefore remains unclear how abortion laws will evolve in the UK in the years to come.

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We need to talk about human rights

When Theresa May pledged to correct the ‘burning injustices’ in modern society, she indicated that the Government would be happy to have difficult conversations to help address unfairness wherever it exists. The Prime Minister's commitment provides us with an opportunity to debate how we create a fair society.  For me, human rights must always be at the core of any vision of a ‘shared society’ – whether we are seeking to address unfair treatment, discrimination or improve social mobility. Indeed both the domestic and international human rights frameworks provide us with valuable tools to address and resolve all these issues. I would like to see a more open and honest conversation about the value of human rights and how they can be used to make Britain fairer.

More importantly, this isn’t a conversation that the Conservative Party should shy away from. Not just because they are the party of Government, but because they have a strong historical record in this area – whether it was Disraeli’s extension of the franchise or Churchill’s pivotal role in advocating for the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), a document drafted by Conservative MP, David Maxwell-Fyfe.

It is well known that the human rights debate amongst Conservatives has not always been straightforward.  Uncertainty in many quarters has resulted in calls for the UK to leave the ECHR and to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. These debates have been postponed until after Brexit but they are definitely not going to go away and we must ensure that everyone is properly equipped to participate in this debate.

As Great Britain’s national equality and human rights body, the Commission is the guardian of human rights and equalities. These areas of our parliamentary mandate have rarely felt more relevant. Yet, as the Prime Minister’s ‘burning injustices’ speech showed, Conservatives are far more at home addressing inequality than human rights. Equality is an easier concept to understand and to promote; it's essentially about fairness. Who wouldn’t support the desire to create a level playing field whether its focus is tackling the gender pay gap or improving employment prospects for ethnic minority communities and disabled people?

Human rights on the other hand are altogether more nuanced. Fairness doesn’t transpose quite as straightforwardly to human rights. For example, some people feel it isn't fair for prisoners to have the right to vote. For many, human rights feel like a zero-sum game. The fact that human rights apply to everyone and are universal is also a tricky concept for some. Indeed recent research by Bright Blue has shown universality is a divisive issue for many Conservatives.  As such, many people prefer a ‘pick and mix’ approach to human rights and are happier supporting the right to a fair trial for suspected criminals than ensuring convicted criminals have the right to a private and family life.

To look more closely at public attitudes towards human rights the Commission has recently worked with ComRes. Our survey has thrown up some encouraging findings. For example, we found that 90% of people surveyed support human rights as a concept. This is valuable evidence for Conservatives who want to change the nature of the debate and show that people aren't quite as opposed to the concept of human rights as some media reports might lead us to believe. We also tested views about the continued protection of rights after Brexit. Tellingly, there was strong agreement with 79% of people in favour of maintaining current protections. This is valuable information about where we need to focus our attention.

My anxiety, however, is that the polarising political environment of Brexit means that the Government’s attention is narrowly focused on economic matters at the expense of human rights. Clearly economic and trade issues are vital to the future of our country – but so too are our values.  How we treat others will define us as a nation and for this reason we have argued passionately that rights must be protected in British law once we leave the EU.

I'm certain that people didn’t vote for Brexit in order to have their rights at work weakened or to lose protection of their personal data – both elements of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights that the Government currently plans to remove from UK law.  Although the House of Lords recently voted to secure amendments to maintain these protections we must wait to see how these amendments fare in the House of Commons.

The Commission will continue its important work to understand how people perceive human rights and how we can build wider support for their role. I am keen that the Commission facilitates a wider debate beyond those who are supportive and those who are opposed to human rights. We need to move beyond these echo chambers by providing real life examples of how human rights help all of us.  Human rights are a force for good and we should not be afraid to say so - not just to people who agree with us but to the wider public too.

David Isaac is the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

In whose best interests?

Best interest cases, where life-sustaining treatment “can lawfully be withheld or withdrawn from a patient who lacks capacity in circumstances where commencing or continuing such treatment is deemed not to be in their best interests”, tend to garner widespread attention. Most recently, the plight of the parents of Alfie Evans, who died following a tumultuous legal battle with the doctors of Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, has attracted global interest.

The legal grounding

Medical cases concerning terminally-ill children are usually resolved by parents and doctors behind closed doors. However, a spike in the number of high-profile legal battles in recent years has raised questions about the need for clearer legislation.

Currently, the legal foundation for the withdrawal of parental rights relies on the 1989 Children’s Act, which permits state intervention if a child is “at risk of harm”. The Act, whilst broadly providing parents with the right to choose what happens to their child, can be challenged if doctors believe their decision could lead the child to suffer from significant harm (defined as ill-treatment or the impairment of development). Parental rights may only be overturned by a ruling from the Royal Courts of Justice, which depends heavily on complex medical opinion to determine what lies in the child’s best interests.

Legal disputes of this nature have become increasingly prevalent as advances in paediatric medicine provide new opportunities for successful treatment. The case of Charlie Gard, who died from a rare genetic condition in 2017 following a five-month legal battle, draws many parallels to that of Alfie Evans. Charlie’s parents believed that their son could receive life-saving treatment in the US, but his transfer was prevented when a decision by the Royal Courts of Justice found that they had been misled on the treatment’s success rates by a doctor from Great Ormond Street Hospital. The decision, which generated public outrage, has raised questions about the ethical implications of judicial involvement in such cases. 

Alfie’s case

Alfie Evans was seven-months old when he began to suffer seizures and was admitted to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool in December 2016. A year later, in December 2017, disputes over Alfie’s treatment between staff at Alder Hey and Alfie’s father Tom Evans resulted in the involvement of the Family Division of the High Court, overseen by the Hon. Mr Justice Hayden. Legal representatives for the doctors at Alder Hey believed that Alfie’s condition was untreatable, and any further medical intervention would be futile. Alfie’s parents argued that they should be allowed to fly Alfie to Rome’s Bambino Gesu Paediatric Hospital to pursue further treatments.

Following an extensive review of evidence from medical professionals at Alder Hey, doctors from Bambino Gesu and paediatric specialists from around the globe, Mr Justice Hayden ruled against the wishes of Alfie’s parents, stating that the child should not be removed from Alder Hey. Further appeals by Alfie’s parents were rejected by Supreme Court justices and judges from the European Court of Human Rights, and Alfie died on the 28th April, five days after the removal of life-support.

State vs. individual rights

At the centre of the dispute over Alfie’s case lies a deeply philosophical and politicised conflict regarding the role of the state versus the rights of the individual. The state, represented by the court and the doctors of Alder Hey, determined that transporting Alfie to Italy would not be in the child’s best interests. This was due to extensive medical evidence which indicated that Alfie could not be cured due to significant, irreversible brain damage. Indeed this was even accepted by the doctors at Bambino Gesu who were only able to offer Alfie an alternative form of palliative care. Furthermore, medical professionals believe that moving Alfie was likely to induce further seizures, and there was a very real chance of Alfie dying while being transported to Italy.

Nonetheless, some observers believed that parents should always have the final decision on the welfare of their children. The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson believes that “bad law” like this should not be allowed to stand in the way of a parent’s choice – especially when other sources of care are proffered from around the globe. When it comes to human rights, he argues, the removal of fundamental parental choice is markedly regressive. Simultaneously, a campaign led by MEP Stephen Woolf is calling for the introduction of ‘Alfie’s Law’, to allow parents to make the final decision regarding their children’s care. Similar to the legal initiative started by Charlie Gard’s parents, the campaign seeks to prevent prolonged legal disputes between hospitals and families and return full rights to the parents of sick children. 

However, there remains significant concern about this ‘parents know best’ approach. A good proportion of best interest cases, so far, have involved parents who are Jehovah's Witnesses. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that their religion requires them to refuse certain medical treatments, such as blood transfusions. Allowing parents to always have the final say on their child’s medical treatment could therefore lead to the unnecessary deaths of many children of Jehovah's Witnesses – even when they require relatively simple medical procedures.

Conclusion

High-profile quarrelling - especially that which inspires vitriol and abuse – should not overshadow the suffering of a vulnerable, grieving family, and the medical professionals who face a barrage of conflicting opinions as they make life-changing decisions on the welfare of very vulnerable children. In almost all cases, both doctors and parents obviously hold the child’s wellbeing in the highest regard. It is important that, when reviewing or challenging the legislation surrounding these cases, those with significant public profiles are more respectful of those most closely involved. 

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue

Britain can lead the way in protecting civilians in conflict

Even wars have rules. One of the rules, grounded in moral ideas about mercy, compassion and restraint, is that civilians should be protected – and protecting children from the worst excesses of armed conflicts they played no part in creating is surely a test of our shared humanity.

We are failing that test. Millions of children have had their lives torn apart by unimaginable acts of violence. In some cases, these children are the target of murderous attacks, rape, kidnapping and forced recruitment into armed groups. In others, they are viewed by warring groups as expendable collateral damage by military commanders who oversee indiscriminate bombardments in high-density urban areas, the obstruction of humanitarian aid, or the destruction of schools and hospitals.

Save the Children is dealing with the everyday realities of modern conflict – and with the culture of impunity surrounding attacks on children. In Yemen, the organisation’s staff are responding to the needs of children suffering extreme malnutrition as a consequence of war, the obstruction of humanitarian aid, and economic dislocation. In Syria, Save the Children’s partners have had schools and health clinics bombed. From South Sudan to Iraq, Yemen and the DRC, programmes are responding to the needs of children who have been traumatised or separated from their families.

The UK can play a leadership role in combating the impunity surrounding attacks on civilians. This is not about convening one-off summits. Leadership requires a carefully thought out strategy aimed at strengthening the three critical pillars of civilian protection: humanitarian law, human rights law and international criminal law. It is also about projecting the norms and values that underpin these instruments through the UK’s distinctive voice in international affairs.

This is not a theoretical debate. What you get with the erosion of universal values is chemical attacks in Syria, indiscriminate airstrikes in Yemen, and the use of civilians as human shields in Iraq. When combatants are unrestrained by rules, laws and norms, you get 400,000 children left on the brink of starvation in Yemen, schoolgirls being abducted in Nigeria, and young children raped by armed groups in South Sudan.

No one demonstrates the need for civilian protection better than 13-year-old Noran from Yemen. In 2015 the blast wave from four airstrikes nearby knocked her down, irreparably damaging her spine. Confined to a wheelchair, her life has never been the same. She loved going to school but now struggles to even hold a pen. Her future prospects are greatly diminished and her poignant words a reminder to us all that we must do more to protect civilians, especially children, just like her. 

In the past I used to go to school on foot,” she says. “My life was beautiful because I could walk and write. Now, I can’t walk to school. I can only go with the wheelchair. I was able to go out, play and go to school absolutely fine and normal. I was able to sit on a chair at my desk and write but now when I try to write, my hand hurts because of the injury in my back. And on top of all that, I am not able to play like I used to. I dream of finishing school and becoming a doctor.” 

That is the story of just one child – but millions of children are today at risk because of a failure to protect civilians in armed conflict. That is why RUSI and Save the Children have come together to address what we see as one of the defining challenges of our generation.

On Tuesday May 8th we launched Ensuring the Protection of Civilians in Modern Conflict’, which examines how a combination of British leadership in military expertise, soft power, and humanitarian response can drive responsible military practice and accountability measures that protect civilians in conflict.  

We know that it is possible to make a difference. Previous initiatives like British leadership on preventing sexual violence in conflict and global campaigns on landmines have demonstrated that changes in policy, practice and global norms can limit attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. They also strengthen the existing international frameworks and norms that are in critical need of protection – which is why last month’s announcement by the Foreign Secretary that the UK will endorse the Safe Schools Declaration was so welcome.

Through the UK’s membership of key multilateral groups and its world-class diplomatic service, high-quality overseas aid and some of the world’s best trained armed forces, it is uniquely placed to champion civilian protection. As the Government prepares to leave the European Union, it is presented with a unique opportunity to step forward on the global stage and play a leading role in protecting civilians in conflict based on its expertise, values and priorities.  

Tackling one of the most difficult challenges facing millions of children and their families is no easy task. But it is possible – and we owe it to children like Nora.

Kevin Watkins is Chief Executive at Save the Children UK

 

When will Britain step up on Burma?

Over the last nine months some 700,000 ethnic Rohingya in Burma have been driven from their homes across the border into Bangladesh by the Burmese military. The attacks have been described by the UN as “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing”, while Human Rights Watch and others found the atrocities amount to “crimes against humanity”. Yet the international response to this crisis has been woefully inadequate. Britain, which has traditionally led on Burma on the UN Security Council, carries a particular responsibility for this failure. In a sharp critique, the British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee said recently that the Government’s diplomatic leadership on Burma “has struggled to achieve a clear sense of direction and has so far had meagre results”.

Last week’s trip by the UN Security Council to Bangladesh and Burma, to see and hear for themselves the plight of the Rohingya, was supposed to produce a more concerted and effective international response. Britain should have led the way in promoting this.  But initial public statements by representatives to the UN Security Council, especially Britain, suggest that this critical opportunity was missed.

Although Bangladesh is hosting nearly a million refugees, and Britain and other donors are providing large amounts of humanitarian aid, overall international efforts are falling short, with some of the most vulnerable Rohingya still not receiving the support they need. Human Rights Watch documented dozens of Burmese soldiers raping Rohingya women and girls as part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing, including horrific gang rapes.  Yet their suffering and trauma continues. There are some 40,000 pregnant women and girls among the Rohingya refugee population, some of them raped by Burmese soldiers, and some are due to give birth in the coming weeks.  But Andrew Gilmour, a UN Assistant Secretary General, lamented recently that camps are not providing proper care or protection for them, and that survivors’ access to support - especially psychological and reproductive health services - is too limited.

It is commendable that a senior UN official should speak out in this way. But where is Britain’s voice? For nearly five years, the British government has said that combatting sexual violence in conflict is a high priority, and it created the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative to implement that commitment. But faced with widespread rape against the Rohingya and with survivors’ huge need for care and support, Britain has not showed the decisive global leadership on this issue that the PSVI promised.

Britain should be helping to lead a strengthened international response in respect of refugee returns. None of the Rohingya will have forgotten the death, destruction and terror that forced them to flee their homes, or the profound discrimination and persecution they have experienced for generations in Burma. They will only return voluntarily to Burma when there is a fundamental change in these conditions. At a minimum, that means security guarantees, freedom of movement, an end to discriminatory citizenship laws, livelihood opportunities, and the return of stolen homes or compensation for those destroyed.  The Burmese military and hostile elements of the Burmese government will not concede these changes easily. It will take sustained and increased international pressure, of the kind that has been sorely lacking to date. One very concrete step that Britain and other EU states should take is the early imposition of targeted sanctions on senior figures in the Burmese military.  Other states should be encouraged to adopt similar measures.

A clear and consistent international position on accountability and justice is also crucial. Astonishingly, Britain’s representative to the UN, Karen Pierce, suggested this week that the Burmese government might undertake another domestic inquiry into the crimes committed against the Rohingya and that it should be supported in doing so. This is absurd. Is Ms Pierce really unaware of the Burmese military’s long history of impunity for mass killings and sexual violence? In the midst of the current crisis, the Burmese military has released two reports denying all accusations of rape and killings by its own security forces, and last week Min Aung Hlaing, the army’s Commander-in-Chief, denied that the Burmese military has ever, in its entire history, committed rape. Pierce also repeated Suu Kyi’s cynical claim that her government is willing to “look” at any evidence provided, an offer belied by Burma’s refusal to allow access to the UN Fact-Finding Mission established by the Human Rights Council.

If it is serious about justice for the Rohingya, as its claims to be, the British government should work with other Security Council members to press for a Council resolution that refers Burma to the International Criminal Court.This will not be easy. But there is often no quick route to justice. It would be a shameful betrayal of the Rohingya not to vigorously pursue every opportunity to bring to account those responsible for the heinous crimes committed against them.

David Mepham is UK Director of Human Rights Watch. He tweets @mephamd

Is there space for political consensus on criminal justice reform?

“I was destined for failure the moment I left the prison gates. I came out with a raging habit”

Law and order, policing and prisons have long been exploited in political campaigns – understandably seen as a potential weakness of any governing party. But there may be growing consensus that offers a way forward for reform-minded politicians across the political spectrum.

Revolving Doors Agency advocates policies to address the ‘revolving door’ of personal crisis and crime. People in the ‘revolving door’ face a combination of problems at any one time, including substance abuse, poor mental health, housing problems and domestic violence or abuse. These problems compound each other and can lead to a negative cycle of persistent, petty offending and repeated contact with the criminal justice system. 

Currently 30,000 people each year go to prison on sentences of less than six months. This is a staggering number when we consider that it represents half of all people sent to prison to serve a sentence each year. Some common offences that receive a short time in custody are theft and drug offences, which are linked to underlying problems such as poverty, addiction, homelessness and poor mental health. For women, the figures are even starker – one in four women jailed in 2016 were imprisoned for under one month. 

These short prison sentences command some of the highest reoffending rates in the system. Ministry of Justice research is extremely clear; short-term custody of less than 12 months in prison have higher rates of proven re-offending than community orders when you compare matched ‘like for like’ offenders. People who served a short time in prison were also more likely to commit more offences and more serious offences. 

Our understanding is that the evidence and public opinion on ‘revolving doors’ petty offending are not as distant as one might assume. A recent independent poll commissioned by Revolving Doors and undertaken by Populus found that four out of five people oppose the use of prison for the theft of daily essentials. Yet the most common reason people are sent to prison is for stealing. Perhaps more surprising, the public strongly back reducing the prison population and investing the money in drug treatment and mental health programmes instead. This was not a partisan issue - each of the major parties had more people likely to support this policy than unlikely to do so.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog are the following:

  • Conservative voters were asked: ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: 'People with alcohol or drug addiction belong in drug/alcohol treatment programmes instead of prison'? 68% of Conservative voters agreed. Only 16% disagreed.  
  • More Conservative voters (39%) said they were likely to vote for an MP candidate that supported reducing prison populations and using the savings to reinvestment in drug treatment and mental health programmes than those who said they were unlikely to (21%). 
  • 77% of Conservative voters do not think someone should go to prison for stealing food. Only 14% said yes, and 9% don’t know. 

Short sentences are destructive because they disrupt family ties, housing, employment and treatment, yet cannot provide any meaningful rehabilitation. One of the things I have learnt from working alongside people who have been to prison, is that the experience is deeply damaging, and the stigma associated with having been to prison is hard to escape from. A woman in our forums said that “although I was in prison for a short time I felt traumatised by the whole experience”. On release she found herself back in the cycle of revolving doors, once again experiencing a violent relationship and the addiction that led to her criminal justice contact in the first place. 

We also see how destructive, chaotic and ineffective the system can be.  A member of our forum talked about serving 11 short prison sentences and how each time he was released with nowhere to live or to go. Another who has served 18 short prison sentences said “I was destined for failure the moment I left the prison gates. I came out with a raging [drug] habit.”  

Our neighbours to the north and south are leading the way in prison reform. The French government has announced that it will ban prison sentences of less than one month and take action to ensure sentences of less than six months are served in the community. At the end of last year the Scottish Government announced the extension of a presumption against short prison sentences from up to three months to up to 12 months. Our poll shows that if politicians here follow suit, the public will be likely to back them. Certainly in the US the ‘right on crime’ initiative has taken the heat out of the issue and made it less partisan. In some US states politicians of left and right persuasions have worked together to reduce prison numbers and tackle crime. 

We have long debated criminal justice reform in this country. The standard response has been that community sentences need to command greater public confidence before we can take any action. Yet the examples from Scotland and France show us that it is possible to do both at the same time. We are encouraged that the Minister for Prisons and Probation is considering this issue, on the 24th April he told the House of Commons that “we have a lot to learn from Scotland, specifically on community sentences, and indeed we will be looking at what more we can do to emphasise that a custodial sentence in the short term should be a final resort. In reoffending terms, it is often much better for somebody to be given a community sentence.” 

Vicki Cardwell is the director of policy and research at the Revolving Doors Agency. She tweets @vickihcardwell

To find out more and to support Revolving Dorr’s campaign, please visit their website.

For the birds – How Twitter is failing women who use the platform, and how it can change

Recently, movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have shown the power of social media to engage people in a global conversation about women’s rights. But as we see the rise of women standing together, we also see an increase in online violence and abuse against women. Online violence against women is an expression of entrenched gender inequality across society. It has found a particularly fertile home on social media, where people feel emboldened to target women in ways that are inconceivable in face-to-face interaction. The sheer volume of abuse has reached alarming levels and it’s clear not enough is being done to tackle it.

Over the past 16 months, Amnesty International has been researching online violence and abuse against women. Our research shows that this widespread abuse deeply affects women’s rights to freedom of expression and equal participation in society. The conclusion is that social media, where trolls can too easily get away with spouting abusive, violent and sexualised threats, has become a toxic place for women.

How abuse leads women to self-censor or quit

Twitter is one of the largest social media companies in the world and was repeatedly highlighted by the women we had been speaking with in the US and the UK as a particularly toxic site, due to the fast pace that content - including violent and abusive content - can spread.

Through in-depth interviews with journalists, politicians, activists, artists and public figures, as well as women without large Twitter followings, we were able to unpick the disturbing extent of online violence and abuse that exists against women on the platform. Threats of rape and death, homophobic, racist and transphobic slurs were all abuses that were repeatedly highlighted by the women we spoke with. And it’s clear that receiving such abuse can have a deep psychological impact, with many women feeling they had to self-censor or quit the platform altogether for fear of abuse.

Many women Amnesty spoke with described how they had reported multiple tweets to Twitter with very few receiving a response. One UK journalist told Amnesty that she reported 100 abusive tweets, of which Twitter removed just two. On numerous occasions, women told Amnesty how the content of abusive tweets they reported was said "not to be in breach of Twitter’s community standards".

It’s clear that Twitter is currently failing to do enough to tackle the issue and ensure all users can realise their right to freedom of expression whilst using the platform. The company is failing to let users know how it interprets and enforces its policies, or how it trains content moderators to respond to reports of violence and abuse, and its response to abuse is inconsistently enforced. Often, reports of abuse are not responded to at all.

 Beyond gender

Not everyone experiences violence and abuse in the same way – there isn’t a unified ‘woman’s’ experience of Twitter trolling. Women are targeted in different ways according to their gender, race, class, sexuality and other parts of their identity which intersect to create unique experiences of online violence. In practice, this means that some women experience abuse on multiple grounds because of their intersecting identities.

The intersectional nature of online violence against women emerged starkly in Amnesty’s monitoring of online violence and abuse against women MP candidates in the UK General Election last June. Using a mix of computer analysis and in-depth interviews with women MPs, we uncovered the extent of violence and abuse they face on Twitter. For example, Ruth Davidson told us about the homophobic abuse she receives and how she lost faith in the reporting process after failing to see action from Twitter. She also shared how the deluge of abuse makes it challenging to engage in genuine conversation on Twitter.

We also found that while many women from across all the political parties experienced online abuse, Diane Abbott MP received almost half (45.14%) of all abusive tweets in the six weeks leading up to the 8th June election. The abusive tweets she received targeted both her gender and race through misogynistic and racist language. Asian women MPs received 30% more abusive tweets per MP compared to white women MPs, even though they represent just 8.8% of all MPs. Reading through the tweets they received clearly illustrated how a woman’s intersecting identities are targeted by online trolls.  

What Twitter needs to do

Amnesty’s report concludes that Twitter should develop and implement a human rights due diligence process to identify, prevent and remedy human rights violations. It needs to assess - on an ongoing and proactive basis - whether its policies are fit for purpose. Given the nature of the violence and abuse taking place on Twitter, it is necessary for due diligence to be informed by gender analysis, as well as analysis of other identity based human rights violations.

Twitter also needs to be more transparent and share comprehensive and meaningful data about the nature and levels of violence and abuse against women - as well as other groups - on the platform, and how the company responds to it.

And Twitter should undertake far more proactive measures in educating users and raising awareness about security and privacy features on the platform that will help women create a safer and less toxic Twitter experience.

Government responsibilities

While our research concentrates on Twitter, states too have obligations to prevent online violence against women. We welcome the Law Commission’s review into trolling laws commissioned by the Government and recommend that it interrogates whether different groups of women at the receiving end of online violence and abuse because of their gender and other parts of their identity are protected by the law.

In addition to legislative reform education is critical to tackle violence against women: we welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce sex and relationship education in schools and recommend it includes the online environment.

The future of tackling violence against women must consider how it plays out online, and companies like Twitter have a key role to play in protecting human rights. Social media companies urgently need to improve their analysis of online violence, and they must put the necessary resources in place so that they can properly enforce their own rules to prevent the abuse. If they don’t, they risk further silencing women online.

Chiara Capraro is Women’s Human Rights Programme Manager at Amnesty International UK

Tackling the gender pay gap

April heralded the deadline for large organisations to publish their gender pay statistics. Appropriately, it closely follows the centenary of the first British women’s vote.  Hailed as an opportunity for Britain - which has one of the widest gender pay gaps in Europe - to comprehensively tackle issues surrounding gender equality in the workplace, participating companies have reported disparities in pay across the board. Hopes that this drive towards transparency will boost awareness and improve pay equality are justified, although some have concerns regarding the effectiveness of the measures used and the potential for statistical misinterpretation. There is a call to focus on encouraging women into higher-paid roles, as well as providing facilities to allow them to move from part-time to full-time work if they desire.

The data

The gender pay gap is defined as the difference in average earnings between men and women. Under the Government’s 2017 legislation, large companies with over 250 employees are annually required to report their salaries. Information provided by over 10,000 companies in the opening year indicates that men are paid more than women across all main occupation groups.  The median pay gap of 9.7% grows in synchrony with age, reaching its peak for those between 50 and 59. According to the Office for National Statistics, the difference in median pay can be accounted for by a number of factors. A greater percentage of men work in higher-paid occupation groups (e.g. chief executives and senior officials), and men are more likely to work full-time, therefore earning more on average.

Equal measures?

A huge volume of statistical data has been produced, and it can be easy to jump to false conclusions and misleading speculation. Previous data releases by government have suggested that the gender pay gap is not driven by discrimination as many suppose. Kate Andrews, from the Institute of Economic Affairs, has accused these latest figures of “failing to provide any meaningful insight into equal or fair pay for men and women in the workplace.” This is because the figures do not control for differentiating measures, such as job type, background and the number of years of experience.

There have, however, been calls for a recognition of the deeper issues exposed by the gender pay reveal. Lloyd Blankfein, Chief Executive of Goldman Sachs, argues that the statistics highlight the fundamental issue of the “under-representation of women” at the higher echelons of the wealthiest sectors. The fashion retailer Phase Eight has attracted attention on this score. In April of last year, it was revealed that thirty-nine of the company’s forty-four male employees worked in the corporate head office. Chief Executive Benjamin Barnett agrees that the retailer is in a difficult position – the vast majority of applicants for their lower-income jobs on the shop floor are female, and as such they face a struggle to redress the salary balance between male and female employees.

Why?

What causes women to put up with, consciously or unconsciously, lower-paid careers at the bottom rungs of the company ladder? Although direct discrimination may be an influence in in a small number of cases, equality pay legislation has been largely successful in preventing this.

Previous data releases have suggested that the gender pay gap is relatively stable until women have their first child. Women then are much more likely than men to leave the workforce to care for their child. When their child enters full-time education, women then frequently choose to return to part-time work to allow them to combine motherhood with work.

Research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that the gender pay gap jumps from 8% to 30% after women have children, and the percentage of women in part-time work is 44% compared to 13% of men. The unequal caring responsibilities between women and men, according to the Fawcett Society, subtly compel women away from pursuing better careers and higher salaries.

Conclusion

The British Government has been praised globally for its decision to legislate on mandatory pay gap reports. With gender equality at the forefront of discussion, it is a direct confrontation of one of the ‘burning injustices’ faced by modern society. However, the provision of data does not necessarily signify change, and only time will tell whether adequate steps have been taken to truly bridge the gap.

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue

 

Understanding conservatism and human rights

There is, of course, dispute about the meaning and scope of all political terms, but ‘human rights’ and ‘conservatism’ both seem particularly problematic. 

A serious problem with the former relates to overuse. It’s a truism to state that human rights are important, yet, contrary to increasingly popular opinion, this doesn’t mean that everything of importance is an issue of human rights. First, not all of our interests as humans are rights-related. Second, not all rights are human rights; human rights are a subset of rights we have by dint of being human, including — to follow the opening of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the rights to life, liberty, and security of person, and the rights not to be enslaved or tortured. And third, in that rights need realisation, while all rights have correlative obligations, not all obligations correlate with rights. 

So, although human rights are a particularly important set of rights, they aren’t exhaustive in terms of covering all the protections and opportunities we want, need, or deserve as humans in a good society. The modern obsession with diluting the language of human rights through its over-application is not only lazy, it’s dangerous. 

‘Conservatism’, on the other hand, seems an underused term. This is unsurprising, as it’s trickier to pin down than the other classic political ‘isms’, not least when considering what adhering to such a position entails. To my mind, this is because conservatism is inherently situational and non-ideological. It is responsive and reactive, rather than driven by a set of codified principles or positions. And it depends on time and place. (Just compare conservative ideas across the world today.) Sure, there are certain general things we tend to associate with such a standpoint in the UK, or even more widely — such as fiscal restraint, an appreciation of tradition, and support for long-standing institutions and the environment. But, again, those things usually relate to sustaining what has, over the long term, tended to work in a society (though, of course, that leads to arguments about what ‘tended to work’ can mean on a non-ideological point of view). 

Nonetheless, when people here think about conservatism, they tend to think about the Conservative Party. Much of the reason the term seems underused or under-applied is because it’s the party’s actions, rather than the theoretical notion, that are often actually referred to in discussions of ‘conservatism’. Not all conservatives are Conservatives, however, and not all Conservatives are conservative. Indeed, over the past century or so, alongside strands of ‘real’ conservatism, the Conservative Party has mostly been led either by those of a traditionally liberal outlook, or those of a more paternalistic bent. It’s a famously broad church, which is unsurprising for a party sharing a name with a responsive non-ideological philosophy. 

So how might these terms relate? What is the philosophical and historical relationship between conservatism and human rights? One might start by recognising that UK Conservatives have often been at the forefront of increasing rights provision: Disraeli and the franchise, Churchill and the founding of the UN, Cameron and equal marriage, and so on. Considering our nation’s proud habeas-corpus human-rights history, it’s unsurprising that a UK party based on situational traditionalism might show support for such an ideal. (Again, just compare with the positions of conservatives abroad, through time.) 

But, regardless of historical explanations, a list of Conservative achievements in the realm of human rights seems insufficient for proving any relationship between conservatism and human rights, even if all those Conservatives were driven by conservatism. This is not least because lasting changes to legislation, institutions, and norms tend to owe much more to long-fought battles by activists, than to the colour of any contemporary governing party. 

Moreover, it’s tempting to say that support for fundamental human-rights provision shouldn’t really be seen as ideological or party political, at all. Surely, in an advanced modern society, we’d expect any decent party or person to be in favour of ensuring such rights. Ok, that returns us to the nature and scope of human rights. And yes, it’s probably accurate to assume conservatives might be less likely to apply the term ‘human right’ as widely as those of a more ‘progressive’ persuasion. It’s probably also accurate to say that Conservatives have been more focused on rights under their phases of more (classically) liberal leadership. Nonetheless, for those who accept there are such things as fundamental human rights, rather than just legal or political constructs, then that acceptance largely transcends partisan allegiances — although it may well inform one’s overall understanding and views of the world. 

All that said, our rights are primarily afforded and protected by the country in which we live, led by the Government of the day. Believing in universal human rights is easier than envisaging a world in which they are universally respected; the nation state remains at the heart of human-rights provision. And questions about such provision pervade political discourse not only abroad, but also at home. Brexit will provoke inevitable debates about the UK’s continuing participation in the European Convention on Human Rights, and it will be essential to address this pragmatically and sensibly — both key conservative traits, which remain much in need. 

Rebecca Lowe is director of Freer and a columnist for Conservative Home

Intergrating Britain

Today marks one year until Brexit. This time last year the Government triggered Article 50 following a vote to leave the European Union that was overwhelmingly driven by scepticism among voters towards Britain’s current immigration system. While immigration is mostly beneficial to the UK economy, there is some concern that the social impact of immigration may be less beneficial, and this social impact may be causing the scepticism among voters. This concern led to the Government, two weeks ago, publishing its social integration green paper.

The problem

Britain has long been a multicultural country. However, since World War Two the number of immigrants choosing to settle in the UK has increased substantially. The passing of the 1948 British Nationality Act (since  repealed) gave individuals from across the Commonwealth the right to live and work in Britain. While the EU’s freedom of movement allowed all EU citizens the same rights. 

However, the increasing number of immigrants has led to concern that integration and cohesion in British communities is being eroded. Two weeks ago, on March 14, Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government announced the Government’s new Integrated Communities Strategy green paper.

The green paper drew upon Dame Louise Casey’s independent review into opportunity and integration. Casey’s review exposed the lack of integration, social and economic exclusion, and inequality in British society. Two key factors which contributed to these results were religion, and English proficiency.

Casey’s report found that 760,000 people aged 16+ in England (1.8% of the population) could not speak English well or at all. In addition, Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups are underrepresented as compared to other ethnic minorities within the professional workforce, and Muslims had the lowest median hourly income among religious groups.

The cause?

Casey connected the low levels of English speaking to lower levels of employment as well as inequality and harm within British society, the statistic is even worse for women than for men. The Equality Statement for Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper stated that, “English language proficiency is identified to be a diver of integration in the relevant literature - it is a fundamental to social mixing, trust, education and employment potential”.

It is the English factor which has captured the public’s attention. Although the green paper details numerous methods for integration, English has become centre-stage. Perhaps, this is because, as the paper states, “87% of people with English as their main language felt they belonged strongly Great Britain compared to 79% of people without”; therefore, knowledge of the English language both helps foster integration into British society and enables employment.

Criticism

The Sun newspaper was very critical of the Government following the release of the Green Paper, believing that Casey’s recommendations were ‘watered down’, and became largely ineffective. The Sun claimed that according to Casey, the problem of integration stems from the Government “failing to handle the downside of mass immigration. Instead, segregation along religious and race lines has spiralled and worsened the pull of extremism.” Therefore, the Sun and others from the Right would like to see the original policies proposed to mitigate these problems, such as swearing-in of British values for public office holders, English speaking targets, and a homeschooling council. Perhaps most importantly, the green paper slashed Casey’s recommended £200 million budget to a mere £50 m.

The slashing of the Budget has been denounced on all sides.  Opposition MPs were outraged by the proposal, claiming the Government to be perpetuating their old negative stereotype: “the party of the hostile environment and go home vans”. Specifically, the Opposition became outraged at the emphasis on English as an integration tool given the Coalition Government’s history of cutting funding for English programs by 60% since 2009-10. Claiming, if English is such an important part of British culture, why was the funding cut?

Other criticisms, echoed in a letter written to The Guardian, argued the Government could not ask people to learn English without offering free classes. Unfortunately, with cuts to local government, “funding for free English classes went up in flames.”

Praise

Martin Parsons praises the Green Paper’s divergence from Casey’s review on the issue of extremism. Particularly, respecting freedom of religion whilst denouncing extreme terrorist actions-- a line which Casey’s review blurs. This is important as both publications emphasise religious schools and religious practices, such as shari’a law, as obstacles in integration.

On this note of differentiating religion and religious extremism, Chuka Umunna MP, and chair of the Integration All Party Parliamentary Group, praised Sajid Javid for the understanding that “integration is a two way street, and he doesn’t fall into the trap of conflating integration with counter-terror”.

Conclusion

British society has a perceived integration problem, which the Government has identified and attempts to resolve. So far many of the policies suggested by the Government relate to English language courses. However, the Government faces criticism here since the Conservative Party previously presided over cuts to English course funding for migrants during the Coalition Government. The Government has stated that its integration program needs to have the ability to evolve. However, it still remains unclear how the Government will seek to integrate our communities outside of English lessons.

The Government launched an open consultation for the Integrated Communities Strategy green paper, responses to the Green Paper can be submitted here.

Sharon Sethna is a research assistant at Bright Blue