UK faces difficult questions over its Human Rights record during its third Universal Periodic Review

By Andrew Fagan and Munira Ali

Human rights have become deeply political in the UK, and have been persistently condemned by many opinion-formers (for examples, see here and here). Where once many considered human rights to be entirely secure, in the UK human rights are increasingly misrepresented as embodying the out-of-touch prejudices of that increasingly reviled class: the liberal elite. Human rightsphobia has become a powerful, if irresponsible, political weapon and we can expect more of the same during the UK’s general election campaign in which some politicians will seek political advantage by drawing upon fears and hostility which no healthy democracy should encourage.

In a piece of fortuitous timing, the UK’s recent and ongoing human rights track-record is presently under consideration by the UN. Most recently, on Thursday 4th May, the UK was reviewed by a group of UN Member States in Geneva as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process which all UN Member States are regularly subjected to.

The UPR requires each Member State to mark its own human rights scorecard through the presentation of a national report in which the government presents an assessment of their compliance with international human rights standards.

The UK Government’s self-assessment of its human rights performance over the past 4.5 years, and the subsequent UN review of that act of self-reflection, offers some very interesting insights into the state of human rights within the UK.

It is unlikely that the UK’s UPR report will figure prominently in the general election campaign, which may explain why the UK Government feels able to declare in the introduction that “the UK is committed to maintaining its strong global role in relation to human rights and continues to comply with its international human rights obligations.” Similarly, many other passages in the report belie the skeptical if not downright hostile impression which prominent members of the government have frequently conveyed when drawn on the issue of human rights. To this extent, one might be forgiven for concluding that human rights in the UK are not as fragile and vulnerable as some of us have come to fear. However, as one digs deeper into the content of the report and last week’s response by the UN, one’s fears and anxieties begin to resurface.

Given the breadth of the UPR scrutiny, many issues were considered. These included, the Government’s proposal to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a potentially weaker Bill of Rights; the need to further bolster measures to address violence against women and girls; a number of concerns over the rights of the child, such as the age of criminal responsibility and corporal punishment; the policy of immigration detention without a time limit (the UK is the only European country with this policy); prison conditions, particularly the alarming rates of suicides and assaults; and the need to review counter-terrorism legislation, among other issues. One issue which attracted particular attention was the rise of hate incidents and discrimination against racial, religious or ethnic minority groups within the UK. Given both the electoral significance of multiculturalism within the UK and the fact that minority rights have been highlighted as a matter of priority for States in 2017, the remainder of this post will focus upon the complex issue of minority rights within the UK. All too often, rising levels of discrimination and hostility towards minority communities has signaled a broader erosion of respect for human rights more generally.

Reported rise in hate incidents following Brexit

In the first three months after the EU referendum reported hate crimes reached record levels. While the numbers have decreased slightly since, there continue to be troubling incidents – and most recently, reports of a rise of abuse aimed at refugee children have come to light. Elsewhere, a UK Parliamentary Select Committee recommended that the government review its entire legislative framework on online hate speech, harassment and extremism, as it appears to be outdated.

During Thursday’s UPR discussions, States directly referenced the role of certain media outlets in inciting hate crimes. This is important, as while the actions of politicians have at times been deplorable (there have been a number of examples where politicians have fueled the flames of xenophobia), the role of the media also deserves particular mention, given their influence.  Indeed, a number of organizations have worked at correcting some of the misinformation spread by some outlets (for examples, see here and here).

In response to the rise in intolerance, the government introduced a new action plan on hate crime. The measures include improved victim services and reporting: from April 2017, the police must provide disaggregated religious hate crime data. While the feedback has been largely positive, this action is not without its critics- the lack of consideration of victims of disability hate crimes, for example, has been noted.

Government policies of particular concern

While the need to adequately respond to societal discrimination is of fundamental importance- and, crucially, creates a positive duty on the part of the government to take steps to reduce it- a number of the government’s own policies and actions have come under fire for how they adversely affect minorities and marginalized groups.

For example, last year, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued a scathing report on the UK Government’s social and economic policy, noting in particular the disproportionate adverse effect austerity measures have had on disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups. The discrimination of refugees, asylum seekers Roma, Gypsies and Travellers in accessing health-care services has been documented- for example, more recently, a medical charity placed a spotlight on the problem of certain government guidance that “makes border guards of doctors” by giving the Home Office access to information of undocumented migrants who use the NHS services. And Counterterrorism legislation has reportedly undermined trust between the police and the Muslim community.

What next?

An outcome report which offers a summary of the review will be prepared this month. The UK then has the opportunity to make preliminary comments regarding the recommendations, to either accept or note them (there is no possibility to formally reject a recommendation). The outcome report will be considered by a working group, and later this year there will be a plenary session back in Geneva to consider the report.

Whether the UK will implement the recommendations (partly, in full, or at all) is difficult to say, particularly in view of the forthcoming election. Although the failure to implement a recommendation will not result in any sanctions, the pressure applied by States has proved to be effective at times. In the last UPR cycle (2012), the government either partially or fully implemented 66 recommendations and noted 65, accepting more than two thirds of recommendations (see here). While there does appear to be effective pressure from the international community for the UK government to strengthen its efforts at improving the lives of minorities and marginalised groups- as well as improving its broader human rights commitments- one has reason to question how much domestic support there is for such a constructive engagement with human rights given how politicized human rights have become in the UK. Moreover, the pressure being exerted by the international community appears to neglect hate crimes perpetrated against persons with disabilities and the LGBTI community.

Finally, the Minister of State for Justice and the UK’s representative for the review session, Oliver Heald’s assertion that the proposal for a Bill of Rights will be further considered following the Brexit process adds to concerns that existing human rights standards will not be preserved, let alone strengthened.


Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.

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