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UK Government Severely Eroded Human Rights in 2023

Stop Curtailing Rights at Home; End Foreign Policy Double Standards

Protesters hold placards outside the UK’s Supreme Court as it rules that the UK Government's Rwanda asylum plan is unlawful, London, United Kingdom, November 15, 2023. © 2023 Steve Taylor/SOPA Images/Sipa via AP Photo

(London, January 11, 2024) – The United Kingdom government’s policies and practices both severely eroded domestic human rights protections and undermined its efforts to promote human rights globally in 2023, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2024.

“The UK had another dismal year for human rights in 2023,” said Yasmine Ahmed, UK director at Human Rights Watch. “The government continued its assault on fundamental rights in the UK, including to protest and seek asylum, which alongside the application of double standards in its foreign policy, undermined its efforts to promote human rights globally.”

In the 740-page World Report 2024, its 34th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In her introductory essay, Executive Director Tirana Hassan says that 2023 was a consequential year not only for human rights suppression and wartime atrocities but also for selective government outrage and transactional diplomacy that carried profound costs for the rights of those not in on the deal. But she says there were also signs of hope, showing the possibility of a different path, and calls on governments to consistently uphold their human rights obligations.

In 2023, the UK government weakened basic freedoms, like people’s right to protest, with new legislation. The UK’s pursuit of its plan to transfer asylum seekers to Rwanda and the introduction of the Illegal Migration Act attacked the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and generally had a corrosive influence on international norms and standards.

In April, the government passed the Public Order Act, further criminalizing people’s right to peaceful protest; undermining freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association; and limiting workers’ strikes. The law came amid an ongoing crackdown on people protesting the government’s increasingly regressive climate change policies.

In July, the UK government adopted the widely condemned Illegal Migration Act, which bans access to asylum and undermines modern slavery and trafficking protections for anyone who arrives “irregularly” to the UK. The government continued to defend its controversial asylum deal with Rwanda before the Supreme Court, after the Court of Appeal ruled that Rwanda was not a safe third country to send asylums seekers to. In November, the Supreme Court confirmed that the UK-Rwanda scheme was unlawful because Rwanda was not deemed a safe third country. The government reacted to the judgment by vowing to adopt emergency legislation to confirm Rwanda as a safe country and agree to a treaty with Rwanda to replace the existing memorandum of understanding.

Despite an ongoing cost of living crisis, the UK government failed to adopt policies to ensure people’s rights to social security and an adequate standard of living, including food and adequate housing.

The UK authorities also fail to adequately address racial inequalities and discrimination. The UK government apologized in 2018 after thousands of Black Britons belonging to the Windrush generation were deported, detained, and denied their rights because of repeated policy failings by the Home Office. Yet the government continues to fail these people, who still face serious difficulties accessing a complex and inaccessible compensation program, and backed away in 2023 from some of the recommendations from an independent inquiry into the scandal. The United Nations Working Group on People of African Descent condemned these failings during its UK visit in January 2023.

The UK government continued to fail to remedy the forced eviction of the entire Chagossian people from their homeland in the Chagos Archipelago islands, who they forcibly displaced over 50 years ago, in complicity with the United States government, with many Chagossians now residing in the UK. There are current negotiations between the UK and Mauritius about the sovereignty of the islands, but the Chagossians have not been effectively consulted. The UK has refused to provide them with full reparations, including their right to return.

On the world stage, the government used its position and influence to call out abuses in Sudan, Ukraine, Iran, Belarus, and elsewhere. But it was willing to flout its international legal obligations and apply double standards when it suited the government’s purposes.

Following the October 7, 2023 Hamas-led attack on Israel, the UK government rightly condemned Hamas’ deliberate killings of civilians and taking of hostages, which amount to war crimes. However, it has failed to call out Israel’s collective punishment of the people of Gaza by cutting electricity, water, fuel, and food, which are also war crimes, nor signal any concern with Israel’s incessant aerial bombardment that has killed thousands of children and other civilians and reduced large parts of neighborhoods to rubble. The hostilities gave rise to an increase in reports of antisemitism and Islamophobic incidents in the UK, according to civil society groups and the police in London.

Since signing its asylum deal with Rwanda, the UK’s position on Rwanda’s human rights record appears compromised, since it has failed to press Rwanda to end its assistance to the M23 armed group, which is committing atrocities in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

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