Friday 23 September 2016

Last night, civil society organisations, international diplomats, lawyers and academics gathered in Westminster for the launch of the Joint Civil Society Report to the United Nations assessing human rights here at home. The report, coordinated by the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR), as part of our Human Rights Check UK project, was launched with contributions from Sir Nicolas Bratza (Chair of BIHR, and former president of the European Court of Human Rights), David Isaac CBE (Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), the Rt Hon. Harriet Harman QC MP (Chair of the Joint Committee of Human Rights) and our Deputy Director, Sanchita Hosali.

The Joint Report, which BIHR has coordinated following engagement with 175 organisations across Great Britain (GB), has been submitted to the United Nations for its Universal Periodic Review of the UK’s human rights record. The overwhelming theme of the evening, reflected in both the report and event discussions, was the worryingly negative tone of UK political and media discourse on human rights here at home. As was observed, whilst this tends to focus on the repeal of the Human Rights Act, what is in fact going on is a denigration of the very idea of human rights – rights which protect all people, and for which governments can be held accountable.

David Isaac, giving one of his first major addresses on human rights since taking up his post as EHRC Chair took the opportunity to make the Commission’s position clear; declaring the Human Rights Act to be a “well-crafted and effective piece of legislation." He spoke of his commitment to the EHRC’s role as a “guardian of human rights” in GB, and the need to both work with civil society, and to ensure the EHRC makes best use of its powers and functions. As David said, BIHR’s Joint Report is an impressive piece of work, but one which contains many concerns shared by the EHRC, and it is important now for the Commission to be a “more muscular regulator.”

Harriet Harman, welcomed the report for its breadth and depth, and said she would be raising the
issues explained with the Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, when she appears at the JCHR next month. Harriet spoke about how the UK level government debates on human rights were leading to a corrosion of rights domestically, and undermining the core principle of universalism. She spoke of how the UK needs to recognise and celebrate, not disparage, international accountability, whether that be at the UN or the European Court of Human Rights. Yet the contrast between what the UK Government says domestically versus what is said at the UN can be like “hearing two different administrations.”

Key differences in the devolved nations were also noted, particularly around how the Human Rights Act is viewed by those with power. But, as our Deputy Director, Sanchita Hosali, noted, the UPR process needs to recognise and engage with the devolved dimension to human rights protections.

Our Director, Stephen Bowen, conveyed whole-hearted thanks to the 175+ organisations that have helped shape BIHR’s report, to root it in the very real and pressing issues many people in GB face in ensuring their human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. The breadth and depth of organisations involved is a testament to how significant human rights are here at home. And of course BIHR has been honoured to continue to engage and empower groups to be heard in human rights debates.

Chairing the event, Sir Nicolas Bratza, shone a light on the importance of the UPR process in holding all governments to account, including the UK. At a time when there is an increasing domestic narrative in the UK away from governmental accountability, such international processes are all the more important.

The rich discussions with the audience tackled some of the challenging issues CSOs face in ensuring human rights at home are protected, including race and class discrimination, navigating the complex and often harmful immigration system, the role and accountability of the media, the importance of gender and women’s rights, and ultimately the need to continue to make the case for human rights for everyone not simply “popular” people.

With perhaps one of the most interesting questions of the night, Dr Jessie Hohmann of Queen Mary University London asked the panellists what one thing they would like the government to do differently as a result of the report. David spoke about the EHRC’s five point plan to ensure the rights of refugee children are protected. Harriet encouraged the audience to be in touch with the JCHR, because the Committee will indeed be questioning the Justice Secretary next month. Sanchita called for the Government to show the same level of commitment and leadership to human rights at home as it does on the international stage. Which in turn reflects the final conclusion of the report:

‘The UK Government has acknowledged the importance of the UPR for CSOs and we submit this report in the spirit of ensuring progress. Concerted positive action - promoting rather than denigrating international standards - must be taken to ensure the UK Government can truly fulfil its ambition to “stand for freedoms and uphold universal rights”*.’ (para 101)


*UK Government Policy paper, UN Human Rights Council: United Kingdom 2017-2019 candidate (published 9 December 2015)