The situation

The case of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh has this week led to public, political and media debates over our British and European Human Rights Laws. Nick Timothy’s article in the Telegraph this week was headlined: “Britain cannot serve justice to returning Jihadists until we tear up our human rights laws.” For anyone who has missed the media coverage, Kotey and Elsheikh allegedly make up part of a gang of Isis torturers and executioners called, ‘The Beatles’ (based on their British accents). The crimes these men are accused of are horrific and inhumane. They were captured earlier this year by Kurdish fighters and are to date being held in northern Syria in a legal limbo after the UK government stripped them of their British citizenship. The victims' families await justice.

What happens now?

It’s complicated. Both men were brought up, schooled and radicalised here in the UK before travelling to Syria where the crimes they are accused of were committed, they were captured in January and are still being held by non-state actors. The UK government’s decision to strip them of their British citizenship distances Britain pursuing justice in our courts. Nesrine Malik of the Guardian writes that it shows Britain’s willingness to, “wash their hands of the whole affair.”  

This week, a letter by British Home Secretary Sajid Javid to the US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions was leaked to the press. The letter stated that the UK government, “does not currently intend to request, nor actively encourage” the transfer of Kotey and Elsheikh to Britain to be tried for their crimes but instead is happy to allow the US justice system to assume responsibility for the fate of the two men.

Why does this raise human rights issues?

The UK government on this occasion have stated that they would hand the two men over to the United States without gaining any assurances that they would not face the death penalty.

Sajid Javid wrote, “I am of the view that there are strong reasons for not requiring a death penalty reassurance in this specific case.”

The Justice Secretary, David Gauke, defended Javid’s decision:

“We have to bear in mind the government is determined to ensure the two individuals are properly brought to justice….”

“The individuals are properly brought to justice.”  What does justice mean?  The British government appears to have unilaterally abandoned our opposition to the death penalty, and the legal commitment to uphold our own Human Rights Act (1998). The decision to hand these two men over to the US, to Guantanamo Bay and to their potential execution risks falling foul of the right to life (Article 2), the right to be free from torture, inhumane or degrading treatment (Article 3) and to a fair trial (Article 6).

Raising the human rights concerns here is not about fuzzy liberal sympathy for these particular men; but rather asking whether it is acceptable in our modern democracy for a handful of British government officials to make opaque life and death decisions about certain people. This week for Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh but next week for whom? Where is the accountability, the democratic and civilised standards that we seek to protect from terrorism?

Human rights laws exist for the exact purpose of preventing government from unaccountably deciding whose life matters and whose doesn’t. The right to life, and the abolition of the death penalty, in our Human Rights Act (1998) are a fundamental part of our democratic values. The UK holds itself up as a beacon of human rights across the world, and there is much to celebrate; but the decision in this situation and how it is being made behind closed doors, casts a worrying shadow.

Why human rights matter

A recent Ipsos poll revealed that 80% of Britons agree on the importance of human rights law, and only 6% consider them unimportant. It also reveals that 58% of Brits believe human rights laws make a positive difference to their lives.

There is no doubt that the crimes these men are accused of are horrendous. Our response as a nation must be to uphold the very values such crimes seek to undermine.  The point is, that all of us should be protected by human rights law, to be protected from governments making private unaccountable decisions about our lives. We cannot slide into a situation where our government decides on a case by case basis who is worthy of human rights protection and who isn’t. Basic human dignity has to be universally protected. Without this we risk a system of justice that fits the whims of those in power, rather than one in which everyone is subject to the rule of law. Human rights offer us a means to protect the very values radicalism and terrorism seek to undermine; rather than weakening our resolve, our response should strengthen our commitment to human rights and secure that which it seeks to destroy.

 *Did you know 2018 is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; if you think human rights for all people is something to celebrate, sign our digital card here: [www.celebratehumanrights.uk]