UK passes ‘human rights exam’, but with room to improve
6 June 2012
Last week the UN Human Rights Commissioner published the draft report of the second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UK’s human rights record (draft report here, webcast of the UPR session here). The UPR involves delegations from UN member states asking questions and make recommendations to the UK government on the protection of human rights, which the government will consider before providing its response. The report is extremely wide-ranging, perhaps to its detriment, though many valuable and interesting insights are provided.
The UPR process was established in 2006. It involves a review of all 192 UN member states once every four years. As readers of this blog will know, the protection of human rights has a troubled recent history in the UK, with newspaper campaigns against “the hated Human Rights Act” providing the background to government pronouncements on human rights that veer from the sensible to the ridiculous. In this context, the UPR provides a valuable attempt at a serious assessment of human rights in this country.
There is a lot in the report. There were 60 statements made by delegations from member states and 132 recommendations for future improvement. The statements range from congratulations for implementing previous recommendations to questions on government policy in certain areas of concern. For example, numerous delegations made statements on protection of gender equality, welcoming the Equality Act 2010 but imploring further action on closing the gender pay gap. The UK’s anti-terrorism measures were also predictably an area of concern, with questions on the proportionate use of stop and search measures and support for the reduction in pre-charge detention for suspected terrorists from 28 to 14 days. Free expression also featured heavily: numerous countries, including the USA, Japan and Iraq, welcomed the government’s plans for reform and others pressed the government on the timetable for passing reform into statute
The recommendations section covers many of the key areas of controversy over rights in the UK. For example, Austria voiced concern over the use of “secret evidence”; and many delegations called for work on the detention and prosecution of suspected terrorists, including renditions, the detention of migrants, and on improving access to legal advice for those that are detained.
Some recommendations raise specific, practical points such as Hungary’s request to improve the response rate to communications from the Human Rights Council. There were also calls to ratify numerous international treaties, and yet more to improve protection of the rights of children, and to prevent human trafficking.
However, some points were raised that many would consider only tangentially linked with human rights. Germany asked for recognition of the human right to safe drinking; a number of recommendations relate to the Leveson Inquiry and phone hacking; and there were calls for economic, social and cultural rights to be guaranteed. These are of course important issues, but in raising these concerns in the UPR, there is a danger that such distinction as it is possible to make between human rights, global justice, ethics and social policy is blurred in the report. Some of the recommendations seem to be so broad as to carry little meaning.
The UPR has been welcomed by the UK’s human rights bodies. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which published its own review of UK human rights in March 2012, stated that the UPR – or the UK’s ‘human rights exam’ – supports the EHRC’s findings, and that there remains room for improvement in protecting human rights.
In its approach to the UPR, the government seems to have used the more constructive engagement with human rights bodies that preceded the Brighton conference. The justice minister, Lord McNally, gave a speech to the UPR session preceding the report and the Ministry of Justice submitted a report to the UN’s Human Rights Commissioner. In large part, it was a defence of many aspects of government and public policy, including on Abu Qatada’s deportation and use of “kettling” by the police.
However, there is none of the more emphatic rhetoric on human rights seen at times in recent years. The Commission on a Bill of Rights is described as “an opportunity to review how best to enshrine the Convention into Domestic law, protecting and extending British liberties”. This is not the radical reform that some members of the government may want to see and Lord McNally’s tone doesn’t exactly chime with the remarks of the Prime Minister on the recent European Court of Human Rights prisoner votes judgment that such decisions should not be made by “a foreign court”.
The varied nature of the recommendations and statements may be both the UPR’s selling point and its potential weakness. It must surely be difficult to argue that any process that involves delegations from countries whose governments do not have the best record on protecting human rights is not important. Giving voice to the people in those countries that value the importance of human rights is of course welcome, and the UPR provides a unique mechanism to do this on a global level. The Secretary General describes the UPR as having “great potential to promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world”.
However, the result is so broad-based that the message may be diluted. With so many areas covered, some that are not readily susceptible to enforcement by legal or policy means, it will surely be difficult for the government to act on each recommendation.
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