The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is 70 this year. The anniversary went off with a bang, as the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, E. Tendayi Achiume, highlighted what she called the ‘structural racism’ at the heart of British society. As the researcher and political commentator TJ Coles documents in his new book, Human Wrongs (iff Books), this is not the first time that the UK has been criticised by UN representatives and agencies for its appalling domestic human rights abuses and social injustices.
In fact, all 30 of the UDHR’s articles have been violated by successive British governments since the year 2000 alone, when UNICEF ranked Britain near the bottom of its list of ‘developed’ countries for child wellbeing.
Sticking to the UN’s criticisms, let’s take a look at what they have to say about just how free and democratic Britain really is…
The word ‘libel’ strikes fear into the hearts of broadcasters and publishers. In 2008, the UN committee on human rights said that Britain’s unjust libel laws ‘discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work.’ The Defamation Act 2013 was introduced to rectify this, but ironically it made stating an opinion a defence and stating a fact a possible offence.
Also in 2008, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women found that ‘British women are under-represented in Parliament, paid less than men at work and [are] increasingly being sent to prison for committing minor offences.’ The report concluded that women’s pay was on average 17% lower than men’s.
That was under Tony Blair. Did David Cameron fare any better? In 2014, Dr Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council, criticised Britain’s ‘boys’ club, sexist culture.’ Dr Manjoo described a culture of impunity, in which women are sexualised and “marketis[ed].’ Sexual bullying and harassment is ‘routine’ and austerity has had a ‘disproportionate’ effect on women. Dr Manjoo was denied a visit to the Yarl’s Wood facility, where women and girls facing deportation are held, many of them for indefinite periods.
Also in 2014, the UK became the first country to be investigated by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for what campaigners called ‘grave violations’ of human rights, particularly relating to Department for Work and Pensions’ social security cuts. Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur for Housing, condemned the government’s under-occupancy charge, or ‘bedroom tax,’ as breaching the human rights of disabled people by making their accommodation unaffordable due to their having extra rooms. As if to prove Dr Manjoo’s thesis about rampant sexism, Rolnik faced a torrent of personal abuse from men in the press and even from male politicians over her findings.
So, how can the poor defend themselves? In 2016 the UN Economic and Social Council criticised the Conservative government’s cuts to legal aid, which it said deprives vulnerable citizens of free legal representation. The report says, ‘The Committee is concerned that the reforms to the legal aid system and the introduction of employment tribunal fees have restricted access to justice in areas such as employment, housing, education and social welfare benefits.’
Britain has also been condemned for its role in torture. In 2009, Martin Scheinin, then-UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, named several countries including the UK as helping the US rendition program. ‘While this system was devised and put in place by the United States, it was only possible through collaboration from many other States,’ including Britain. The cases of Diego Garcia and Northern Ireland show that Britain has, in the recent past, allowed torture to take place in its own territories. The UN Committee Against Torture’s report on the UK (2013) expressed concern about the Conservative government’s ‘position on the extraterritorial application of the Convention.’
Turning to detention, in December 2015, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention launched an investigation into the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s de facto imprisonment in the Ecuadorian embassy. In early-2016, three out of the five members of the Working Group said, ‘Assange was arbitrarily detained by the Governments of Sweden and the United Kingdom,’ and thus detained unlawfully.
Assange exposed, among other things, the extent of government spying. In 2014, the Conservative government adopted the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP). The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, condemned the Act as ‘de facto coercion of private sector companies to provide sweeping access to information and data relating to private individuals without the latter’s knowledge or consent.’ But Pillay’s report for the UN Human Rights Council went further, condemning the UK’s mass data collection as contrary to international law. Pillay also criticised the Cameron government’s efforts to ram DRIP through Parliament.
Sticking with spying, in 2015 Joseph Cannataci, the UN Special Rapporteur on privacy, said of the UK, ‘Your oversight mechanism’s a joke, and a rather bad joke at its citizens’ expense.’ In January 2016, UN Human Rights experts ‘called for a comprehensive review of the [UK’s] draft Investigatory Powers bill, warning that if adopted … could threaten the rights to freedom of expression and association.’ In March 2016, Cannataci submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council on surveillance in the digital age. The report contained a section on the UK’s Investigatory Powers Bill and condemned its ‘disproportionate, privacy-intrusive measures.’
Right to protest
So, what can we do? There’s always protest, right? In 2013, at the invitation of the British government, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, Maina Kiai, visited the UK. Kiai condemned the UK’s ‘use of embedded undercover police officers in groups that are non-violent’ and went on to talk about surveillance and kettling, the latter being ‘detrimental to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly due to its indiscriminate and disproportionate nature.’ Kiai later criticised the government’s so-called Prevent strategy and, with others, another draft surveillance bill.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to UN criticisms on more than a dozen occasions, rights groups, cross-party reports and newspaper articles note that each of the UDHR’s 30 articles are violated in one way or another by the British government. The long journey towards the realisation of fundamental rights continues. It must be bolstered by grassroots activism and solidarity.