Analysis: US State Department’s review of UK Human Rights
14 April 2011
As we posted earlier this week, US State department has released its 35th annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, including an in-depth analysis of human rights in the UK.
The report overall gives a balanced view of the Human Rights Practices in the UK, with some criticism but also some praise. It touches upon many of the issues reported in the UK Human Rights Blog but also misses some important topics that have emerged since the last annual country report.
Bermuda as a UK overseas territory is included within the report. The report is broken down into seven sections;
1. Respect for the integrity of the person
Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life, Torture and Mistreatment (my own subsections)
This first section (along with the penultimate section) is the most critical of the UK’s human rights practices. It noted that the nongovernmental organisation (NGO) Inquest reported three deaths of persons in police custody during the year, which was one less than in 2009.
It highlighted three public inquiries, the Baha Mousa Inquiry, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and the Billy Wright Inquiry; the latter two gave critical reports of the UK government in their involvement in the deaths of the protesters shot and killed by the British Army during Bloody Sunday, and the Government’s facilitation of the death of Billy Wright who was shot and killed in prison in Northern Ireland. The Baha Mousa Inquiry is due to report shortly.
The report failed to mention the Al-Sweady Inquiry into the alleged abuse and unlawful killing of detainees in Iraq, which is yet to begin oral hearings.
There were oblique references to torture and the Government’s (particularly the intelligence services) complicity in the mistreatment of detainees overseas. The report noted that the “Torture Inquiry” was announced. There was no explicit mention of extraordinary rendition and what If any role the UK has had in that in the last year.
Abuse, Private Contractors and the Police
The rise of physical and sexual assault and racial abuse perpetrated by private contractors working in public sectors was sensibly documented in the report.
It noted that fifty cases were being reopened in Northern Ireland by the former police ombudsman in order
to address the appropriateness of using private contractors and whether the use of “reasonable force” was appropriate in dealing with failed asylum seekers.
A similar criticism was noted against the UK Border Agency in their alleged mistreatment of failed asylum seekers. The conclusion of the Guardian newspaper official inquiry into this concern was documented, namely that private contractors were not found to engage in systematic abuse of deportees.
The number of complaints of sexual assault, serious non-sexual assault and other assault made against the police has increased 4 per cent since 2009 (data from the Independent Police Complaints Commission).
Prisons and Detention Centre Conditions
Overcrowding was noted as a problem with a list of statistics of the prison population in England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland Bermuda. Further concerns were raised in relation to Northern Ireland’s prisons.
The Prisons and Probations Ombudsman (PPO) for England and Wales reported an 8 per cent increase from the previous year in complaints received from those detained in immigration detention centres. It reported the 2010 Yarl’s Wood hunger strike, where over fifty female detainees went on a hunger strike for three weeks.
Concerns were raised regarding Jersey and Guernsey’s prisons and detention centres and the excessive forced used by police during arrests.
Arrest, Detention and Control Orders
The highly criticised ‘stop and search’ police powers were raised in the report, noting that these have been deemed as civil rights violations and
a move towards excessive surveillance.
The report later makes reference to the European Court of Human Rights’ (“ECHR”) ruling in Gillian and Quinton v The UK (Application No.4150/05) which held that the power to “stop and search” was a violation of the two defendant’s article 8 rights to private and family life.
More neutrally reported was the UK’s twenty-eight day pre-charge detention.
Bermudan practice and procedure was cited, which is due to increase to sixty-six hours pre-charge detention. In addition there is power to hold suspects arrested on firearms or ammunition offences for up to fourteen days prior to being charged.
Significantly Bermuda recently passed the Court of Appeal Amendment Act which allows prosecutors to re-try Court of Appeal cases when new and compelling evidence arises.
The report made reference to the 2009 House of Lords decision which found the use of secret evidence to be a breach of the defendant’s human rights. It further cited the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights which criticised the use of control orders. The report rightly stated that the use of control orders was under review.
This section gave a largely positive report about the right to a fair trial, the independence of the judiciary, right to legal advice and the right to be tried by a jury. It noted the criticisms made by human rights organisations in relation to the use of “intercept evidence”.
Article 8 Rights (right to private and family life)
The indiscriminate retention of DNA data and the ECHR ruling was referred to stating that the retention was not compatible with Article 8.
Further indirect criticism was levied at the UK’s increasing use of electronic surveillance and the overly frequent authorisation (including self-authorisation) of “interception warrants”. As a check on these powers the report noted the body who received complaints about such surveillance, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. Moreover, it highlighted the significant decision of the Government to abandon a centralised surveillance database.
Bermuda’s Telecommunications Amendment Act allows increased use of electronic surveillance but with the added financial penalty for noncompliance with the rules.
2. Respect for civil liberties
Article 10 rights (freedom of speech and press)
A largely positive report was given in relation to freedom of speech and of the press. It went on to briefly refer to the prohibition of materials providing practical assistance to terrorists.
An encouraging report was given on Bermuda under this section, demonstrating the efforts made to bolster freedom of press.
Article 11 rights (freedom of assembly and association)
The report stated these rights were generally respected. It made no mention of the increased problems in policing protests and the use of “kettling”.
Protection of refugees
Whilst a system of providing protection to refugees was noted the report referred to criticisms from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in relation to “forcible” return of Iraqi’s to Iraq despite the dangers posed to them upon return. Human Rights watch was quoted stating the system of handling asylum requests
“is not rigorous enough to meet basic standards of fairness”
particularly for women.
3. Respect for political rights – the right of citizens to change their government
The UK’s most recent elections were given the US seal of approval. No mention was made of the proposed electoral reforms and the problems with “first past the post system”. Bermuda was also deemed to have held free and fair elections in 2007.
Women and ethnic minority participation in government and the judiciary for both the UK and Bermuda were cited without criticism.
There was no mention of one political elephant in the room, namely prisoner voting.
4. Official corruption and government transparency
The parliamentary expenses, the BAE Systems and the Afrimex and Amalgamated Metals Corporation scandals were reported as evidence of UK governmental corruption. This was partially offset by evidence of governmental transparency via the Freedom of Information Act.
5. Governmental attitude regarding international and nongovernmental investigation of alleged violations of human rights
A positive report was given of the UK’s promotion and investigation of human rights violations. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights were cited as evidence of the UK’s commitment.
6. Discrimination, societal abuses, and trafficking in persons
This section starts by stating the government
generally enforced the law effectively
but follows on like the first section to be largely critical of the UK.
The report includes statistics from the British Crime Survey in relation to sexual offences and domestic violence. It cited a 13 per cent increase in reports of rape compared to the low 6 per cent conviction rate. A 4 per cent decrease in domestic violence in Scotland was recorded. NGO’s concerns were reported in relation to some police officers being inadequately trained in relation to crimes committed against women. Notwithstanding this it positively reports the availability of government’s shelters and sexual assault resource centres.
Bermuda imposes very serious penalties for crimes of sexual assault but cited only two reported rapes in the last year, both of which were withdrawn.
Unequal pay and other equality problems were noted by the report
“Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, including rights under family and property law and in the judicial system; however, in practice women experienced some discrimination.”
More positively the report highlighted the Equality Act (although, this may now be under threat by the new government’s “Red Tape challenge“) and the cabinet appointment of Minister for Women and Equalities.
Honour killings and Forced marriages
The report refers to these as
given the majority of the incidents occur in families from Asia, Turkey, Algeria and Nigeria. The rise of honour killings over the last year was reported despite there being no formal statistics.
Similarly the full extent of forced marriages remained unknown but the UK was reported to be attempting to tackle the problem with public campaigns and making it an offence to conduct, facilitate or participate in a forced marriage.
It was noted that child abuse remained a problem in the UK. The British Crime Survey noted an estimated 141 cases of female genital mutilation in the UK (usually practiced on children).
ASBO’s were reported to have received criticism and it was highlighted that the children and youths receiving the orders often had mental or behavioural difficulties.
In July 2010 the prison service manual on restraint techniques used on children was released after a five-year legal battle to have it made public.
A rise in ant-Semitic incidents was noted after the Gaza Flotilla incident.
A neutral account was given of UK law and human rights practices in relation to disability discrimination. It noted the duty on employers and public service providers to make “reasonable adjustments”. It also highlighted the work of the EHRC in stopping discrimination and promoting equal opportunities. A briefing paper was cited showing that those with learning disabilities face many health inequalities.
Racial and ethnic discrimination was observed. The report highlighted the discrimination facing Travellers and noted the Dale Farm Traveller Settlement case.
Northern Ireland saw a reported 15 per cent increase in sectarian incidents from the previous annual report. The killing of Kevin McDaid was mentioned. Northern Ireland also noted a 5 per cent increase in racially motivated incidents.
Sporadic incidents of homophobic violence were reported throughout the year. A high conviction rate was cited (81 per cent) of those cases prosecuted. Bermuda has yet to criminalise discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The NGO Stonewall stated that lesbian, gay, and bisexual asylum seekers experienced
7. Workers rights
The Right of Association
26 per cent of the workforce was reported to be unionised, with a larger percentage in the public sector.
The report noted reports of forced labour by men, women and children. The details of Trafficking in the UK are covered in more depth in the Department of State’s annual report on Trafficking. It was highlighted that very few prosecutions have arisen over the years in relation to trafficking. Sexual exploitation and forced labour of children was noted, in particular girls from China and Vietnam were reported to be targeted.
Acceptable Conditions of Work
The national minimum wage was criticised as failing to provide a decent standard of living. The report stated that this was compensated by government benefits and free access to the NHS. More positively it stated that the government did
employers to ensure compliance with the minimum wage.
Health and Safety law of employees were noted, alongside a report from the Independent newspaper about Leicester factory workers who reported to be working in cramped, overheated and unsanitary conditions.
The case of the fruit farmer who was fined for withholding pay to his two Polish workers and causing stress as a result of work conditions was raised.
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