The United Kingdom exited the European Union in January, and then faced the public health and economic challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government’s response to both highlighted its willingness to set aside human rights for the sake of political expediency and a worrying disdain for the rule of law. Black and Asian people were disproportionately impacted by Covid-19, while growing numbers depended on food banks to get by. Survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire and Black British citizens from the Windrush generation harmed by UK immigration policy awaited justice. The UK took positive steps to strengthen international human rights protection, and showed leadership on Belarus and Hong Kong, yet with no clear strategy on human rights in foreign policy equivocated in the face of abuses by Saudi Arabia and other states.
The Rule of Law and Human Rights
During the course of the year, the UK government showed a willingness to weaken the rule of law and democratic institutions that constrained its authority, in ways that put human rights at risk.
The government sought in February, to restrict media access to the Prime Minister’ office and in August banned a media outlet from Ministry of Defense press conferences, raising concerns about media freedom.
In July, the government announced a panel of experts to review the power of courts to hold the executive to account, a move motivated by a desire to curb court powers.
In September, the government introduced legislation that would breach the Brexit treaty agreed with the EU the previous October, which a minister admitted in parliament “does break international law in a very specific and limited way.” The move prompted widespread criticism in the UK and abroad, including concerns about the negative impact on human rights in Northern Ireland.
The possibility that the UK might end the year without a deal with the EU on future relations raised concerns about a negative impact on food and medicine supplies, on human rights in Northern Ireland and that the UK might seek to water down employment and other rights derived from EU law in future.
The Covid-19 pandemic had a widespread impact on life in the UK. WHO data showed that as of October 28, the UK had the most Covid-19 deaths in Europe with 45,365 dying of complications from the disease, many of them in facilities for older people. Specific concerns arose around as to whether the UK government had acted swiftly enough to protect the rights to life and health of people in these facilities.
In June, health authorities set out recommendations to reduce the health inequalities highlighted by the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the UK’s Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population and on BAME healthcare workers in particular. At time of writing the government had failed to implement the recommendations.
Legal experts criticized the government’s rushed emergency legislation in response to the pandemic for being uneven in its approach and unclear in its implementation. The UK parliament’s human rights committee raised concerns that Covid-19 laws affecting fundamental rights were being passed without effective legislative scrutiny.
The emergency legislation’s increased time limits for detention of people with mental health conditions and relaxation of rules and standards for social care services and assessments raised specific concerns for the rights of people with disabilities and older people during the pandemic.
Despite a record surge in claims for social security support, the government reinstated some of its draconian social security rules, including sanctions on and debt recovery from people’s benefit payments, despite having relaxed restrictions between March and June and temporarily raised benefit levels. Longstanding flaws in the automated calculation of people’s benefits remained a concern.
The UK government used emergency law to relax requirements on local authorities to make adjustments to ensure education delivery for children with disabilities after schools closed in March, raising serious concerns about discrimination and exclusion. Children from families living in poverty were disproportionately affected by disrupted schooling because many lacked the devices or internet access required for distance learning.
The economic downturn triggered by Covid-19 prompted a range of temporary emergency measures to mitigate the human impact, including employment support and a ban on evictions for private tenants. The evictions ban expired in September, with fears that up to 55,000 households in privately rented accommodation could face eviction in coming months.
Right to Food
The country’s two main food bank networks published statistics showing that reliance on emergency food aid rose markedly after the Covid-19 pandemic, with food parcel distribution close to double the previous year’s levels by May. One network, the Trussell Trust, reported in September that half of its users since the pandemic had never used a food bank before.
The decision by governments across the UK to close schools to contain the pandemic left local authorities struggling to ensure that children from families living in poverty, who often rely on free school meals as their main nutrition, received sufficient food. A flawed electronic system used in England to issue £15 (US$19) per week of supermarket vouchers to replace school meals caused severe problems for schools and families for two months before the system was improved. The government temporarily extended free school meal coverage for the duration of the pandemic to children living in poverty whose immigration status previously left them ineligible.
Migration and Asylum
In May, following a lawsuit brought in March by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Detention Action, authorities released almost 1,000 immigration detainees who could not be returned to their home countries because of Covid-19 travel restrictions.
As approximately 5,000 migrants and asylum-seekers arrived irregularly by boat from France in the first 9 months of the year, the government threatened to opt out of the human rights law and use offshore detention and processing to facilitate the deportation of those arriving.
The UK continued to detain asylum-seeking children and migrant children facing deportation.
In March, an independent government-ordered review into the authorities’ treatment of a group of British citizens, primarily from the Caribbean, wrongly threatened with deportation or deported from the UK with widespread consequences for their rights and wellbeing, published its findings. The report said the treatment of the group, known as the “Windrush generation,” by the government as a result of its “hostile environment” migration policy demonstrated an “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness … consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism.”
Campaigners and parliamentarians criticized the compensation scheme established in 2019 for not working fast enough, as members of the Windrush generation with claims pending died during the year, and only a small fraction of claims were settled.
Accountability for the Grenfell Tower Fire
Accountability remained elusive more than 3 years after the Grenfell Tower fire in London that killed 71 people. A statutory public inquiry was ongoing into the fire which destroyed an apartment block of primarily social housing, and its second phase began in September. At time of writing the government had yet to implement the first set of recommendations of the inquiry published in January or find a solution for owners of private apartments in buildings with similar dangerous cladding.
In February, the Attorney General agreed to grant immunity from future prosecution to a number of building contractors and architects concerned about self-incrimination, angering fire survivors and relatives of those killed.
UK parliament regulations providing legal abortion in Northern Ireland in any circumstances up to the twelfth week of gestation, entered into force in March. However, reproductive rights advocates reported that women seeking abortions in Northern Ireland continued to face obstacles from some healthcare professionals unwilling to carry out the procedure.
In March and April, in response to rising need for safe abortion services during the Covid-19 pandemic, authorities in Scotland, Wales, and England, temporarily eased restrictions to allow for self-management of medical abortions at home, a safe and effective method that avoids unnecessary surgical procedures and complies with public health guidance on self-isolation.
After serious delays, in September, the Department for Education introduced compulsory age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education for primary and secondary students in England.
Violence Against Women and Girls
The UK fell within the global trend of escalating reports of violence against women during the Covid-19 pandemic. Groups providing assistance to victims of domestic violence, reported a surge in requests for help from women and girls and noted that remote services and English-only government campaigns disadvantaged BAME women in particular from accessing services. Anti-domestic violence groups raised concerns about the end of a £37 million ($48m) emergency fund to support services to women and girls experiencing violence. A draft law intended to help women who experience domestic violence fails to adequately protect migrant women.
In July, following a legal challenge and pressure from the UK’s information oversight body, police scrapped the controversial “digital strip search” approach, which required rape victims to disclose their full mobile phone data to investigators.
Government data showed that prosecutions and convictions for rape hit a record low for the year ending March 2020. The Crown Prosecution Service launched a new five-year strategy for prosecuting rape and other serious sexual offences.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
In March, the Court of Appeal ruled that human rights law did not require British passport authorities to provide a non-binary X gender marker on identity documents. In September, the government walked back plans to amend the Gender Recognition Act that would have allowed for legal gender recognition based on self-declaration.
Military Abuses and Impunity
In March, the government introduced legislation in the Overseas Operations Bill creating a “presumption against prosecution” for members of the armed forces accused of crimes, including torture, committed overseas more than five years ago. It remained pending in Parliament at time of writing.
About 100 UK nationals, including 60 children, remain held without judicial review in squalid camps and prisons for ISIS suspects and family members in northeast Syria. In July, the Court of Appeal in London ruled that Shamima Begum, an Islamic State (ISIS) suspect stripped of her UK citizenship in 2019 after travelling to Syria as a teenager, should be able to return from detention in northeast Syria to the UK to challenge the deprivation of her nationality.
In September, the government shared intelligence with US authorities about Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh allowing US prosecutions of the two high-profile ISIS suspects to proceed. The Supreme Court authorized the intelligence transfer following an assurance by the US government that the two men, stripped of their UK citizenship in 2018, would not face the death penalty.
The UK government’s global human rights sanctions mechanism launched in July, allowing asset freezes and travel bans for those implicated in killings, torture, and forced labor. The mechanism underscored the need for a human rights strategy to ensure a more consistent approach to rights in UK foreign policy.
The welcome initial designation of officials from Saudi Arabia over the state killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was overshadowed by a decision to resume arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition the following day, despite clear evidence of the coalition’s responsibility for war crimes in Yemen.
The UK strengthened its response to the human rights crackdown in Hong Kong, working to marshal international condemnation of China’s actions, offering safe haven to Hong Kongers with UK ties, and suspending extradition to Hong Kong. At time of writing, the UK had yet to impose human rights sanctions on officials from China over abuses in Xinjiang or Hong Kong.
The UK played a largely positive role at the United Nations Human Rights Council, including leading a joint statement on China, and supporting a joint statement on Saudi Arabia, creation of a mechanism on Libya, and an urgent debate on Belarus (the UK also showed leadership on Belarus at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe).
However, it was hesitant to support specific attention at the Human Rights Council to racism in the US or to use its influence to press for stronger action this year at the Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka and at the Security Council on Myanmar and Yemen. Since leaving the EU, the UK has refrained from speaking up against the decline of the rule of law in other European countries, including Hungary and Poland.