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Eleanor Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 1948. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 70, T.J. Coles documents recent examples of the UK falling short

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is 70 this year. The celebrations, such as they are, got off to a bad start in the UK, with the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, E. Tendayi Achiume, highlighting what she called “structural racism” at the heart of British society. As I document in Human Wrongs (iff Books), this is not the first time that the UK has been criticised by UN representatives and agencies. With the anniversary of the UDHR, now is a good time to reflect on how far we’ve come since the last anniversary. The hierarchical, bureaucratic UN has plenty of serious flaws. But I cite its authority here as a way of highlighting just how far to the right our political system really is, that successive governments so flagrantly violate international protocol.

Libel

Journalists can empower citizens, but what if journalists find themselves gagged? In 2008, the UN committee on human rights said that British libel laws “discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work.” The Defamation Act 2013 was introduced to rectify this, but ironically it made stating an opinion a defence and stating a fact a possible offense!

Sexism

Also in 2008, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women found that “British women are under-represented in Parliament, paid less than men at work and [are] increasingly being sent to prison for committing minor offences.” The report concluded that women’s pay was on average 17% lower than men’s. That was under Tony Blair. Did David Cameron fare any better?

In 2014, Dr Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council, criticised Britain’s “boys’ club, sexist culture.” Dr Manjoo described a culture of impunity, in which women are sexualised and “marketis[ed].” Sexual bullying and harassment is “routine” and austerity has had a “disproportionate” effect on women. Dr Manjoo was denied a visit to the Yarl’s Wood facility, where women and girls facing deportation are held, many of them for indefinite periods.

Discrimination

Also in 2014, the UK became the first country to be investigated by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for what campaigners called “grave violations” of human rights, particularly relating to Department for Work and Pensions’ social security cuts. Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur for Housing, condemned the government’s under-occupancy charge, or “bedroom tax,” as breaching the human rights of disabled people by making their accommodation unaffordable due to their having extra rooms. As if to prove Dr Manjoo’s thesis about rampant sexism, Rolnik faced a torrent of personal abuse from men in the press and even from male politicians over her findings.

So, how can the poor defend themselves? In 2016 the UN Economic and Social Council criticised the Conservative government’s cuts to legal aid, which it said deprives vulnerable citizens of free legal representation. The report says: “The Committee is concerned that the reforms to the legal aid system and the introduction of employment tribunal fees have restricted access to justice in areas such as employment, housing, education and social welfare benefits.”

Torture

Britain has also been condemned for its role in torture. In 2009, Martin Scheinin, then-UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, named several countries including the UK as helping the US rendition program. “While this system was devised and put in place by the United States, it was only possible through collaboration from many other States,” including Britain. The cases of Diego Garcia and Northern Ireland show that Britain has, in the recent past, allowed torture to take place in its own territories. The UN Committee Against Torture’s report on the UK (2013) expressed concern about the Conservative government’s “position on the extraterritorial application of the Convention.”

Arbitrary imprisonment

Turning to detention, in December 2015, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention launched an investigation into the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s de facto imprisonment in the Ecuadorian embassy. In early-2016, three out of the five members of the Working Group said: “Assange was arbitrarily detained by the Governments of Sweden and the United Kingdom,” and thus detained unlawfully.

Watching you

Assange exposed, among other things, the extent of government spying. In 2014, the Conservative government adopted the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP). The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, condemned the Act as “de facto coercion of private sector companies to provide sweeping access to information and data relating to private individuals without the latter’s knowledge or consent.” But Pillay’s report for the UN Human Rights Council went further, condemning the UK’s mass data collection as contrary to international law. Pillay also criticised the Cameron government’s efforts to ram DRIP through Parliament.

Sticking with spying, in 2015 Joseph Cannataci, the UN Special Rapporteur on privacy, said of the UK: “your oversight mechanism’s a joke, and a rather bad joke at its citizens’ expense.” In January 2016, UN Human Rights experts “called for a comprehensive review of the [UK’s] draft Investigatory Powers bill, warning that if adopted ... could threaten the rights to freedom of  expression and association.” In March 2016, Cannataci  submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council on surveillance in the digital age. The report contained a section on the UK’s Investigatory Powers Bill and condemned its “disproportionate, privacy-intrusive measures.”

Right to protest

So, what can we do? There’s always protest, right? In 2013, at the invitation of the British government, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, Maina Kiai, visited the UK. Kiai condemned the UK’s “use of embedded undercover police officers in groups that are non-violent” and went on to talk about surveillance and kettling, the latter being “detrimental to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly due to its indiscriminate and disproportionate nature.” Kiai later criticised the government’s so-called Prevent strategy and, with others, another draft surveillance bill.

The long journey towards the realisation of fundamental rights continues. It must be bolstered by grassroots activism and solidarity. Momentum has been an example of a grassroots organisation that has found some success in using the system of parliamentary democracy to motivate change. But in addition, so much can be done and is being done outside of the parliamentary political system. If these and other actions can’t endure and strengthen, our isolation and torpor will only aid the powers seeking to eliminate our rights.

T.J. Coles is a postdoctoral researcher at Plymouth University’s Cognition Institute and the author of several books, including The Great Brexit Swindle (2016, Clairview Books). His latest is Human Wrongs: British Social Policy and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2018, iff Books).

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