Countercurrents | January 13, 2023
The NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said: Rising food, rents, and energy prices, and inadequate social protections threatened the rights of people on the lowest incomes, including to food and housing.
The HRW has warned: The UK could become known as a “human rights abuser,” if it does not reverse a series of controversial laws.
The NGO criticized Britain’s treatment of illegal immigrants, protesters, welfare recipients, and ethnic minorities, among others.
The NGO’s World Report 2023 (https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2023/country-chapters/united-kingdom) said:
The UK government in 2022 adopted laws that violate rights and proposed significantly weakening human rights protections in domestic law. The government signed an agreement to transfer asylum seekers who arrived irregularly in the United Kingdom to Rwanda, putting them at risk.
The report said:
The government failed to take meaningful steps to address institutional racism including in policing. Although the UK government worked with partners to press other states failing to uphold their human rights obligations, it did not consistently prioritize human rights in its foreign policy agenda and undermined international standards.
Rule of Law and Human Rights
The report said:
Four laws adopted in a single week in April raised grave human rights concerns: an immigration law that dismantles key aspects of existing asylum and refugee protections, replacing them with a discriminatory system; a police law that restricts and increases penalties for protests; an election law requiring voter identification, likely to create disenfranchisement based on race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, and reducing the independence of electoral oversight; and a law limiting people’s rights to judicially review social security, and immigration tribunal decisions.
In June, following a flawed consultation process, the government announced legislation to repeal the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, replacing it with a weaker Bill of Rights. The proposals sought to diminish the influence of the European Court of Human Rights on domestic courts, to reduce public authorities’ obligations to protect rights, and to limit the responsibility of the UK authorities to protect rights outside UK borders. The proposed legislation attracted widespread criticism, including from domestic civil society groups, United Nations experts, and the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights. At time of writing, the status of the plans was unclear following changes to the prime minister and cabinet ministers in September and October.
Asylum and Migration
The report said:
In April, the UK and Rwandan governments signed an agreement, allowing migrants and asylum seekers arriving by irregular means into the UK to be sent to Rwanda where their cases would be determined, undermining the refugee protection system. In June, the European Court of Human Rights issued three decisions temporarily halting the UK’s plans for the first such transfer flight. The plan’s legality was subject to a court challenge at time of writing.
The Nationality and Borders Act, enacted in April, discriminates against and criminalizes those seeking asylum through irregular routes, provides for pushbacks at sea and offshore processing, and increases powers to strip citizenship. It was roundly criticized by the UN Refugee Agency, UN experts, and more than 200 domestic civil society groups.
The UK continued to lack a time limit on immigration detention.
Right to Social Security, Adequate Standard of Living
People with lower incomes were particularly hard hit by a cost-of-living crisis precipitated by sharp increases in energy and food prices, and slow government efforts to mitigate these impacts. Inflation reached a four decade high of 10.1 percent in July, with single-parent households (overwhelmingly women-led), households led by a Black, Bangladeshi or Pakistani person, and single pensioners worst affected. A study projected that inflation would reverse the modest decrease in child poverty recorded the previous year.
Restrictive social security policies continued to negatively impact the right to an adequate standard of living, to food, and to housing for families with children and other recipients of social security support, including many people in paid employment. An overall cap on the amount of social security support a household can receive affected 123,000 families, while a cap on social security payments to larger families affected around 400,000 households and 1.4 million children.
A below inflation increase in social security support levels in April’s budget and a failure to reverse a 2021 cut to the main social security program left people who rely on social security worse off in real terms. The government refused to review disability-linked benefits, ignoring a July recommendation made by a parliamentary committee.
Right to Food
The report said:
The country’s largest food bank network, the Trussell Trust, said in March that it had distributed 2.1 million emergency food parcels to people in need, an 81 per cent increase since 2017. The Independent Food Aid Network reported in October that 91 percent of its member organizations had experienced an increase in demand since July, and that one in four was reducing the size of food parcels because their supplies had been affected.
Official data on food security published in March showed single-parent households, households led by Black people, and people in social housing were more likely to be food insecure.
Survey data gathered by the Food Foundation showed that nearly one in 25 adults now reported that they or someone in their household had gone a whole day without eating. People with disabilities and people receiving social security support were nearly four times more likely to be food insecure.
Right to Safe and Adequate Housing
Homelessness numbers rose, after pandemic mitigation measures such as eviction bans and increased support to house rough sleepers ended. Data from England and Scotland showed the end of the eviction ban in June 2021 and reduced support networks contributed to increasing homelessness. Data from England, published in July, showed that “no fault evictions,” a legal provision allowing a private landlord to evict a tenant without providing a reason, had increased dramatically during 2022. In response, the government published a consultation paper in June, which proposed ending the “no fault” loophole, among other measures that could better protect housing rights.
Local authorities in England, particularly in Greater London, continued to over-rely on substandard “temporary accommodation,” including over the medium- to long-term, to address the shelter needs of people who would otherwise be completely unhoused. The overreliance on temporary accommodation is in part exacerbated by cuts to affordable housing programs.
An official inquiry into the June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire that killed 71 people concluded its public hearings and began preparing its final report. The government passed building safety legislation in April, and fire safety regulations for high rise residential buildings in May, implementing many recommendations from the inquiry’s first phase, including greater oversight of building safety during planning, making landlords responsible for replacing dangerous cladding, and greater retrospective liability where homes are found to be unfit for habitation. However, the government refused to include a legal requirement for people with disabilities living in high-rise buildings to have personal evacuation plans, prompting strong criticism and legal action considering the deaths of 15 of the Grenfell Tower’s 37 residents with disabilities in the fire.
Legislation relating to killings during the conflict in Northern Ireland continued to make its way through parliament. Rights groups and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner of Human Rights raised serious concerns, particularly about proposals for a conditional amnesty for killings, and the inadequacy of a proposed review mechanism to satisfy human rights obligations to investigate killings.
Legislation introduced in June to replace the Human Rights Act would ban all human rights claims relating to UK armed forces acting overseas, including abuse by soldiers, and by soldiers trying to enforce their human rights. The bill was suspended following the appointment of a new prime minister in September.
The report said:
In July, the UK ratified the Istanbul Convention, but did so with reservations that exclude from protection migrant women who depend on their abuser — leaving them without access to crucial support and a pathway to escape violence — and limit the possibilities of prosecution for violence committed outside UK territory. The convention took effect on November 1.
Women and girls in Northern Ireland continue to face significant obstacles and variation between hospital trusts in accessing abortion services.
In August, Scottish legislation came into force requiring local authorities and education providers to ensure availability of free products to manage menstruation for all.
Racism and Ethnic Discrimination
An April government policy paper on race and ethnic disparities, asserting that institutional racism had disappeared, received widespread criticism from anti-discrimination groups.
During the year, multiple reports evidenced the negative impact of institutional racism in various areas of life, including at work (particularly for women of color), in pre-natal and maternity care, the broader medical system, sport, policing, and mental health detention.
The independent police oversight mechanism for England and Wales published recommendations in April for police to address the disproportionately discriminatory use of “stop and search” powers, citing data that Black people were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.
In April, Parliament approved new anti-trespass powers specifically linked to informal settlements, likely to negatively impact Roma, Gypsy, and Traveller people.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The UK dropped from 10th to 14th in ILGA’s 2020 European ranking reflecting the negative climate for transgender people, with trans and non-binary people continuing to face an often-hostile environment in the media and public debate, as well as inadequate legal protections.
An independent review into health services related to gender identity for children and young people in England published an interim report in February, indicating a need to improve the quality of care and increase capacity.
In March, Scotland’s authorities proposed legislation to make it easier to obtain legal gender recognition without the medical diagnosis and two-year wait required elsewhere in the UK. UK national government plans to reform gender recognition are stalled.
A public inquiry into the UK authorities’ handling of the Covid-19 pandemic began preliminary public hearings in October. The inquiry is tasked with identifying lessons learned to inform future pandemic responses. At time of writing, more than 200,000 people had died of Covid in the UK.200,000 people have died of Covid in the UK.
The United Kingdom is among the top 20 emitters of the greenhouse gases responsible for the climate crisis, which is taking a growing toll on human rights around the globe.
Prior to hosting the 2021 UN climate conference, the UK embraced ambitious emissions reduction targets—through its national climate plan commitment to reduce emissions by 68 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, and a legislated target to reach a 78 percent reduction by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. According to the Climate Action Tracker, the UK’s 2030 target is aligned with the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
However, current programs are not on track to reach net-zero targets. The UK still produces over 40 percent of its electricity from gas, despite significant renewable energy potential. The reliance of UK homes on gas for heating and insufficient government programs to increase energy-efficiency measures are exacerbating the climate crisis and putting the right to an adequate standard of living at risk for millions of low-income people.
In July, temperatures in the UK exceeded 40°C for the first time on record, leading to a surge in hospitalizations and fires. Scientists calculated the July heatwave was made at least 10 times more likely by climate change. According to the UK’s climate advisory body, the UK’s climate adaptation efforts have not kept pace with the country’s increasing climate risks, including risks of heat-related health impacts and climate impacts on infrastructure and food security.
More than a year after a regulation was adopted by Parliament to restrict imports of agricultural commodities linked to illegal deforestation or the violations of laws pertaining to the ownership or use of land, the government is yet to determine essential aspects of the legislation’s implementation such as enforcement mechanisms and the commodities that are covered. Results from a public consultation, which were released in June, show overwhelming support from the public for the legislation to beimplemented promptly and ambitiously.
The report said:
The UK has shown its commitment to addressing several key issues, including taking concerted action with partners to press states failing to uphold their human rights obligations. However, in the face of competing policy interests, the UK has failed to consistently prioritize human rights in its foreign policy agenda and undermined international standards.
The UK continued to take coordinated action in response to violations committed by the military junta in Myanmar. In 2022, it sanctioned 6 individuals and 12 entities, and joined its G7 partners in condemning the junta’s executions of 4 pro-democracy activists. In August, the UK took an important step to tackle impunity by announcing its intention to intervene in The Gambia’s case before the International Court of Justice alleging Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya violated the Genocide Convention. As penholder on Myanmar at the UN Security Council, the UK proposed a resolution responding to abuses stemming from the February 1, 2021 military coup.
The UK continued to lead in seeking to hold the Chinese government accountable for its ongoing violations and crimes. It consistently pressed China to grant the UN high commissioner for human rights full and unfettered access to Xinjiang, and called on UN member states to, at minimum, debate the Commissioner’s long-awaited report on Xinjiang. The UK also joined the G7 in underscoring its grave concerns with the erosion of civil and political rights in Hong Kong; but has not yet sanctioned implicated officials.
The UK responded robustly to Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, supporting accountability efforts, including mobilizing countries to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court prosecutor for investigation, imposing sanctions, and establishing a Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine scheme. However, it failed to waive visa requirements for those fleeing Ukraine and replicate the schemes for Afghans. The resettlement schemes for Afghans are still not functioning properly, with many at-risk Afghans unable to find safety in the UK.
The April agreement between the UK and Rwanda allows the UK to expel people there, despite most never having set foot in Rwanda and it not being a safe third country for asylum seeker transfers. In June, the UK prime minister attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda and failed to publicly raise any human rights concerns.
Through its Gulf Strategy Fund, the UK provides support and funding to several regimes involved in egregious human rights violations, including Bahrain.
The UK played a largely positive role at the Human Rights Council, including leading on Sri Lanka, tabling a resolution ensuring continued reporting on Sudan, supporting the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate abuses in Ukraine, a special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Russia and a group of experts on Nicaragua, and joining a statement on China. It supported a resolution on women and girls in Afghanistan and renewal of the independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, it continues to oppose the Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, and voted against the resolution on racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia.
The UK played an obstructionist role at the World Trade Organization on a proposed waiver of intellectual property rules for the Covid-19 response. The text adopted in June 2022 failed to address barriers to increasing Covid-19 vaccine production and excluded tests and treatments.
Background of the HRW
Founded as explicitly anti-Soviet ‘Helsinki Watch’ in the late 1970s, the HRW has since rebranded and expanded its focus to cover the globe.
However, it remains adamantly critical of Russia and China, with its 2022 report on the UK praising the British government for accusing Beijing of human rights abuses and sanctioning Moscow in response to the conflict in Ukraine.
Between 2010 and 2020, HRW received $100 million in funding from George Soros, who described it as “one of the most effective organizations I support.”
A report (With $100 million Soros gift, Human Rights Watch looks to expand global reach, by Colum Lynch, Washington Post Staff Writer, September 12, 2010, washingtonpost.com) said:
The $100 million gift to Human Rights Watch from billionaire George Soros announced last week will extend the overseas presence of the influential American rights champion and ensure its financial health for years to come.
But the goal of the gift is more ambitious still: to alter the way human rights are promoted in the 21st century, making rights advocacy less of an exclusively American and European cause.
The donation, the largest single gift ever from the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist, is premised on the belief that U.S. leadership on human rights has been diminished by a decade of harsh policies in the war on terrorism. Soros said he hopes the money will cultivate a much broader constituency of foreign policymakers and philanthropists who embrace the notion that human rights should be observed universally.
“Unfortunately, we lost the moral high ground during the Bush administration and the Obama administration has not done enough to regain it,” Soros said in an interview. “Therefore human rights as an American cause is often resisted because it comes from America.
“Yet the principal of human rights is a universal principal, and people in other parts of the world believe it is as strongly as we do, even more strongly,” he said. “To be more efficient, Human Rights Watch has to become a truly international organization.”
The rights group, which covers more than 90 countries from 45 locations, will build its research capacity, adding more than 120 employees to an organization of 300. The group will also set up regional headquarters in the capitals of emerging political and economic powers, where leaders have frequently criticized human rights advocacy as a Western tool to impose their will on small countries.
“We need to be able to shape the foreign policies of these emerging powers, much as we have traditionally done with Western powers,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Our aim is to enlist places like Brazil, South Africa, India and Japan, all governments that are democracies.”
Human Rights Watch regularly comes under attack from governments around the world, including China, Russia, Israel, Iran, Syria, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.
“American organizations, including HRW, have no credibility,” a Syrian minister told the Washington Post last year after the rights group issued a critical report on the government. “Let them go check the violations undertaken by the previous administration from Guantanamo to the flying prisons to the violations of human rights in Gaza before they talk about other countries.”
Human Rights Watch notes that it has conducted extensive inquiries into allegations of abuses in Gaza and at Guantanamo.
Soros, 80, has stepped up his philanthropy, spending more than $700 million over the past year on causes ranging from supplies for New York City schoolchildren to Pakistan flood relief efforts.
A shrewd hedge fund investor who famously helped force the devaluation of the British pound in 1990s by betting heavily against it, he has long been a stalwart supporter of Democratic causes. In 2004, he spent tens of millions of dollars on political groups including MoveOn.org in an effort to defeat President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign. He also provided financial support for Barack Obama’s election bid.