Dear Prime Minister,
As the UK Director of Human Rights Watch, I urge you to make human rights a central focus of your government’s domestic and foreign policy over the coming Parliament. Below we have identified seven priority areas of human rights concern. Human Rights Watch seeks clarification of your policy and approach in some areas, especially when you lack an overall parliamentary majority and are dependent on the Democratic Unionists to sustain you in office. In each of the seven areas, we urge you to adopt policies fully consistent with the UK’s national and international human rights obligations.
1. Countering terrorism and violent extremism
Human Rights Watch believes that respect for human rights and the rule of law are vital if efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism are to be effective. Security and rights are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive. As an organisation that works on these issues in many different countries around the world, we have documented the counter-productive consequences of suspending established legal safeguards and eroding basic freedoms. Such blunt approaches are often associated with abusive practices. Overly broad counterterrorism powers can also alienate the very communities whose trust and cooperation is needed to identify those who might become violent and plan terrorist acts, thereby making it harder to thwart them. The UK has a raft of counterterrorism powers adopted in legislation since 2000, and Human Rights Watch has seen no evidence that those powers are insufficient to meet the serious threat the country faces today.
We were therefore extremely concerned by your statement in the last week of the election campaign that human rights laws are an obstacle to dealing with terrorism and your suggestion that these laws should be weakened after the attacks in London and Manchester. How does this sit with your manifesto commitment that the Human Rights Act will be retained during the Brexit negotiations and with the pledge to adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) for the lifetime of the Parliament? The manifesto did not commit to introduce wide-ranging derogations from these laws, of the kind you now appear to be proposing. As Home Secretary for seven years, you have had a major say in the policies and approaches that have been adopted over this period to address terrorism, including the legal and policy framework but also the question of police resources and capacity. What specifically are you proposing to change in terms of our human rights framework and where is the evidence that such changes would make us safer?
During the campaign, you made a specific suggestion that it should be easier for the UK to deport foreign nationals suspected of posing a threat to national security. Given your own experience negotiating deportation treaties with other states, you will know that the UK already deports foreigners on national security grounds, some following completion of sentences for terrorism-related offences and others where there are strong grounds for believing their presence is otherwise a threat to national security. Human rights law is only relevant, with the courts blocking deportation, in a very small number of instances. In cases involving an assertion that deportation would interfere with a suspect’s right to family life, the courts can appropriately take account of national security considerations. In cases where a suspect faces a risk of torture, the prohibition on return is an absolute one, enshrined not just in the Human Rights Act and the ECHR but also in the UN Convention on Torture, signed by Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1984. Are you suggesting that the UK should walk away from these clear legal obligations in respect of torture?
2. Defending the Human Rights Act (HRA) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)
Human Rights Watch supports the UK Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights and urges your government to commit fully to both. The HRA effectively incorporates into UK law the European Convention on Human Rights, and makes it easier for people living here to secure these rights using UK courts, as well as ensuring authorities respect people’s rights when delivering public services. The ECHR was largely drafted by British lawyers and was championed by Winston Churchill in the early 1950s, and the UK was one of the first states to ratify the ECHR, in 1951. The liberties it protects are ones long valued in the UK, including the prohibition of slavery and torture, freedom of speech and religion, the right to education, the presumption of innocence, and the right to a fair trial. I assume that these were the freedoms you had in mind when you said after the Manchester attack that human rights are amongst Britain’s “defining values”?
Although the manifesto commits not to “repeal or replace the Human Rights Act” while “the process of Brexit is underway”, this leaves open the possibility that you will scrap it once the UK withdraws from the EU. Is this your intention? And while the manifesto pledges that Britain will “remain signatories” to the European Convention on Human Rights for the duration of the next parliament, it states that British armed forces will not be subject to the European Court of Human Rights. How is this selective approach to the Court’s mandate consistent with UK support for the Convention and the Council of Europe, and for the international rule of law? And what is your assessment of the impact of such a move on countries within the Council of Europe which have often shown scant regard for the Convention, like Russia or Turkey? Our experience over many decades suggests that the citizens of these countries desperately need a strong European Court of Human Rights to counter the rights-abusing policies of their governments. Civil society groups in those countries, working on behalf of victims of human rights violations, are deeply worried about UK actions which would weaken the standing of the Convention and the authority of the Court.
3. Protecting human rights during and after Brexit
There are many human rights protections currently enjoyed by UK citizens that derive from EU law, for example those relating to employment rights, equality and privacy. Many of these rights are set out in the Charter on Fundamental Rights, and have been strengthened and brought into force by rulings by the European Court of Justice. Human Rights Watch urges you to commit to fully maintain these rights after Brexit. Your manifesto suggests that you will do so for workers’ rights, but the position is less clear in other areas. Your explicitly state that you would not bring the Charter on Fundamental Rights into UK law, but without saying how you would continue to guarantee those rights. The “Great Repeal Bill” is intended to convert EU law into UK law when the UK leaves the EU, but your manifesto also says that the Bill will create “the necessary powers” to amend these laws, post Brexit, if necessary. This raises a very serious concern that the government will use secondary legislation to shortcut parliamentary scrutiny of changes. Can you confirm that no protection of rights currently guaranteed under EU law will be weakened during and after Brexit, and that discussion of converting existing rights in EU law will be subject to full parliamentary debate and scrutiny? And what is your envisaged timetable for changes to existing rights protections?
The Brexit process also impacts very significantly on EU nationals living in the UK and UK nationals living in other EU countries. These people are understandably very anxious to know whether their current residence, employment and other rights will be maintained – as they exist currently under EU law – after Brexit. Human Rights Watch urges you to provide that assurance immediately.
4. The UK’s responsibility towards refugees
The UN refugee agency puts the number of people forcibly displaced globally at around 65 million--the largest number since World War II. Many have fled war and violence, persecution, human rights abuses and other life-threatening situations. A small proportion of this overall number have sought sanctuary in Europe – undertaking perilous journeys to escape violence and repression in places like Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea and Afghanistan.
Human Rights Watch calls on your government to play an active role in responding to the global and European refugee situation, by providing financial and other forms of support to refugees in third countries, including through refugee resettlement, and by agreeing to take a fair share of vulnerable asylum seekers in Europe. This should include taking in 3000 unaccompanied refugee children under the original eligibility criteria of the so-called Dubs amendment (named after the sponsoring parliamentarian, Lord Alf Dubs). As you know, this amendment was initially accepted by the Conservative Government, but was then abandoned in the final year before the election. We urge you to reverse this and provide sanctuary for these desperately vulnerable children.
Human Rights Watch is very concerned by the statement in the Conservative manifesto that you will “work with other countries…to review the international legal definitions of asylum and refugee status”. We assume that the intention of this review would be to narrow eligibility for refugee status. Can you confirm that this is your intention?
5. Countering modern slavery and exploitation and abuse of workers
Over recent years, you have taken a high-profile personal role on the issue of modern slavery, and the manifesto commits your government to build on the Modern Slavery Act and push for more UN action to combat slavery internationally. Human Rights Watch has worked on the issue of forced labour in many countries around the world and we would welcome the opportunity to share this analysis with your officials. In the UK, for example, we have documented serious abuses suffered by migrant workers and identified some weakness in the UK’s current law and enforcement policy that permit this to continue. We urge you to review again whether the safeguards against abuse in place for migrant domestic workers on tied visas are sufficient to allow abused workers to escape from abusive employers. Human Rights Watch also urges your government to support the ILO Convention on the Rights of Domestic Workers, a very vulnerable group that suffer large-scale abuse globally. Although many countries have supported this, the UK is not amongst them. We would welcome clarification on why the UK is not a signatory to this important international convention.
6. Promoting the rights of women and girls
The rights of millions of women and girls are routinely violated and abused worldwide. This includes sexual violence and assault, female genital mutilation (FGM), child and forced marriage, lack of access to education, and many other types of discrimination. Here in the UK, women and girls continue to suffer from domestic and sexual violence and other forms of abuse, as well as discrimination and disadvantage. The Conservative manifesto pledged to bring forward a Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, with a “new aggravated offence if behaviour is directed at a child,” and to establish a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Commissioner. We welcome these commitments and look forward to seeing more detail on what is being proposed. Your manifesto also says that you will “continue to lead” global efforts to tackle sexual violence in conflict and prioritize getting more girls into school in developing countries.
But the Conservative manifesto fails to commit to ratifying the Istanbul Convention – an important mechanism for better protecting women and girls from abuse. David Cameron signed the Convention in 2011 and announced the UK would ratify, but six years on there is no clear timetable for UK ratification. Can you clarify the UK’s position, and whether and when you plan to ratify?
While welcoming the manifesto’s focus on UK support for education globally, especially for girls, we were disappointed that it made no reference to supporting the Safe Schools Declaration. This is an important global initiative, now backed by 66 countries, that calls for armed forces not to attack schools and to refrain from using them for military purposes. Human Rights Watch research shows how attacks on schools have killed and injured thousands of children and their teachers in places like Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan and Afghanistan - many of them countries which receive UK development aid. Attacks on schools are a key reason why such an unacceptably large number of children worldwide are not getting an education. We believe that the UK’s backing for the Safe Schools Declaration would be a logical extension of your political commitment to give priority to education in poor and conflict-affected countries.
7. Rights in wider UK foreign policy
In your manifesto, you pledge to “champion British values around the globe: freedom, democracy, tolerance and the rule of law”. But during the last Parliament, there were many cases in which human rights concerns were subordinated to other interests in UK foreign policy. Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that human rights issues should not be marginalised by geo-political considerations in cases like Turkey, or by trade interests in UK relations with countries like China, the Gulf states or Central Asia. Given your focus on securing new trade deals after Brexit, the pressure to ignore or downplay human rights concerns is potentially likely to increase. Can you give an assurance that you and your Ministers will press human rights issues strongly and at the highest levels?
It is also essential that the UK government should play an active international role in addressing systematic and egregious human rights violations in countries like Syria, Iraq, Egypt, North Korea, Burma, CAR, Sudan and South Sudan, including backing for concerted international action to curb rights violations and support for accountability mechanisms – to bring to justice those responsible for grave crimes.
Of course, a commitment to human rights should also apply to your government’s relations with the Trump administration in the US. Across a whole range of policy areas – from counterterrorism to migration, from women’s rights to press freedom – the Trump administration is adopting policies and public positions gravely damaging to human rights. Human Rights Watch is very disappointed that you have not so far spoken out publicly against these policies, and we urge you to do so.
In addition, we believe it is essential that UK policy on arms exports should be consistent with the country’s national and international legal obligations. For over two years now, Human Rights Watch has documented serious violations of the laws of war, some of them potentially war crimes, committed by the Saudi-led Gulf coalition during its war in Yemen. We have identified 81 specific strikes by the coalition that we judge to have been illegal, including attacks on schools, hospitals, mosques, markets and homes. Despite this evidence and that provided by others like Amnesty and the UN, the UK government has consistently denied that such violations are taking place. Of course, the UK is also a major supplier of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch urges you to suspend such arms transfers while the Saudi-led coalition continues to commit these violations and pending a credible and independent investigation into these strikes.
These seven areas are not comprehensive. Human Rights Watch works on many countries and thematic issues and we will continue to share our research findings and analysis and to put forward policy recommendations to better address the violations and abuses we identify. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues further with you or your officials.
UK Director of Human Rights Watch