The Round-up: companies off the hook for human rights abuses?
29 February 2016
In the news
The UK government is letting companies “off the hook” for human rights abuses, according to Amnesty International. In an 80-page report, Obstacle course: How the UK’s National Contact Point handles human rights complaints under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, Amnesty claims that the National Contact Point (NCP) within the Department for Business Innovation and Skills – who is charged with handling complaints that private contracts may conflict with human rights commitments – is “unqualified to make complex human rights judgments”. The NCP is a non-judicial mechanism tasked with holding companies to account over breaches of the international standards set by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – but has, it seems, rejected 60% of human rights complaints in the past five years without full investigation.
Amnesty describes the NCP as “totally failing in numerous ways”, with its complaint handling procedure being “inconsistent, unreliable and biased towards businesses” resulting in companies being let “off the hook”. The failures to investigate include allegations of serious abuse, such as claims that Vodafone, BT and others allowed GCHQ to access its networks for the mass interception of phone calls, emails and Facebook posts, which it shared with the US authorities under the Tempora program.
The all-party foreign affairs select committee is currently investigating whether the Foreign Office has downgraded its commitment to defending human rights in favour of trade. MPs on the committee decided to hold an enquiry after the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald, commented that human rights no longer had the same profile within his department that they had in the past.
A BIS spokesperson has said in response that their review process meets all the obligations under the OECD guidelines for trading and that there should be no suggestion the government is not committed to human rights.
Last week also saw David Cameron describe UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia as “brilliant” – on the same day that the European Parliament voted for an arms embargo on the country for its aerial bombings on Yemen.
- Last week a seven-judge Supreme Court heard a case on whether the minimum-income visa requirements for UK nationals to bring over a non-EU spouse are in contravention of the right to respect for private and family life under Article 8, the Guardian reports. Under the Family Migration Rules, which changed in July 2012, UK nationals must have available funds equivalent to a minimum gross income of £18,600 to bring over a non-EU spouse, rising to £22,400 if they have a child of non-British citizenship. Two of the appellants, Abdul Majid and Shabana Javed, are British and married to Pakistani nationals; another, MM, is a Lebanese refugee; and the fourth, AF (also MM’s nephew) is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The appellant counsel described the threshold as “completely unachievable” for many. Judgment is expected within six months.
- Proposals to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights have been “put on ice”. Though it is claimed that the legislation is finished and “sitting on a desk inside No.10”, Downing Street is refusing to publish it, allegedly due to Gove’s decision to “defect to the Out camp” in the referendum. An unsurprised David Allen Green comments that the Human Rights Act is not likely to be repealed in this Parliament, saying that the hurdles to doing so still remain (such as the Good Friday Agreement), and suggests that the Conservatives may have begun to realise that its repeal and replacement “is not worth the time and effort”.
In the Courts
- Civek v Turkey – The Court held unanimously that the Turkish authorities had violated Article 2 (right to life) by failing to protect the life of a woman who had been seriously threatened by her husband, HC. Ms Civek had made continued complaints of harassment to the Turkish authorities yet they had failed to take measures reasonably available to them to avoid her murder. Ms Civek had been subjected to sustained abuse from her husband culminating in 2010 in his remand in custody and a court order to refrain from being violent towards his wife. After his release in November 2010 (under judicial supervision), Ms Civek had complained that he was threatening to kill her. Again in December 2010 Ms Civek lodged a complaint, which led to HC being charged with threatening to kill her – but the State Prosecutor took no practical action, even though the husband could have been legitimately arrested for non-compliance with court orders. The Court found the authorities should have acted to protect Ms Civek’s life, and through their failure, her husband had been able to murder her on a street in January 2011, stabbing her 22 times.
- Société de Conception de Presse et d’Édition v. France – An order by the French domestic courts that an unauthorised photograph published by Choc magazine be blacked out was not a violation of freedom of expression under article 10. Choc magazine, published by the applicant company, had published photos of a young man, IH, taken whilst he was in captivity, wearing shackles, and showing visible signs of torture. He had later died from his injuries. The Court found that the photograph had never been intended for public viewing, permission had not been obtained from IH’s relatives, and that its publication showed a grave disregard for the grief of his family. It was therefore a serious interference with the private life of IH’s relatives. The Paris Court of Appeal had ordered that the photograph in question be blacked out in all magazines put on sale, rather than withdrawn completely. The European Court of Human Rights found that such a restriction on freedom of expression was proportionate, as the text of the report remained unchanged, and that in the circumstances the penalty imposed would not have a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.
- Nasr and Ghali v Italy – This case concerned the CIA abduction and extraordinary rendition (the transfer of a person without legal process to another country for interrogation where there is a risk they might be tortured) with the cooperation of the Italian authorities, of the Egyptian imam Abu Omar (also known as Osama Nasr), who had been granted political asylum in Italy. He was held in secret in Egypt for several months in cramped and unhygienic cells where he was periodically interrogated and tortured. An investigation into Mr Nasr’s disappearance had been carried out by the national authorities but this had been ineffective due to the executive’s invocation of ‘State secrecy’ – which resulted in those responsible being granted impunity.
- The Court found in respect of Mr Nasr violations of Article 3 prohibition on torture (in previous cases the Court had already held that the treatment of detainees under the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme amounted to torture), Article 5 (right to liberty and security) – due to the unlawful nature of the detention; Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) and Article 13 (right to effective remedy) read together with Articles 3, 5 and 8. The Court also found in respect of Ms Ghali, Mr Nasr’s wife, violations of Article 3 (because she had suffered significant non-pecuniary damage as a result of her husband’s sudden disappearance), Article 8 and Article 13.
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