The Weekly Round-up: Iran, Technology and the Labour Leadership Contest
7 January 2020
In the news
The news has been nothing if not dramatic this week. US President Donald Trump arranged for the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by drone strike on Friday. At Soleimani’s state funeral in Tehran, the streets were filled with crowds chanting ‘death to America!’, and a weeping Ayatollah Khamenei promised that a ‘harsh retaliation’ would come to the USA. The media is full of geopolitical speculation: some say that this amounts to a ‘declaration of war’ by the USA on Iran, and will lead to World War III, while others worry about the possibility of nuclear escalation. The BBC has published this relatively deflationary overview of the risks, as the situation stands.
British-Iranian dual citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was imprisoned in 2016 for allegedly ‘plotting to topple the Iranian regime’ and ‘spreading propaganda against Iran’, remains in prison in the country. Her husband has called for an urgent meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In light of Mr Johnson’s previous mishandling of the situation as Foreign Secretary, and his refusal to condemn the killing, saying on Sunday “we will not lament his death”, Richard Ratcliffe may well consider that he is entitled to a meeting.
International concern continues, too, over the 19-year-old UK citizen held in Ayia Napa in Cyprus, who says that she was compelled to withdraw her allegations of gang rape against a group of Israeli nationals under duress from Cyprus police. She was convicted in 2019 for ‘wilfully indulging in public mischief’, and is now pursuing an appeal process which could take up to three years. Dominic Raab this week urged the Cypriot authorities to ‘do the right thing’ in deciding her case.
In domestic politics, a Labour leadership contest is looming in the wake of the catastrophic electoral defeat suffered by Jeremy Corbyn. Five contenders have announced their candidacy so far – Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips, Keir Starmer, and Emily Thornberry. Debate continues about the most important reasons for the Labour loss, but there is broad consensus among the contenders that the key reasons include Brexit, Corbyn’s leadership, anti-Semitism, and an implausible set of spending promises. Rebecca Long-Bailey, who would represent the Corbynite strand of the party, is expected to declare her candidacy soon. Former leadership contender Yvette Cooper has released a set of seven recommendations for the next leader, writing in the Guardian. The contest will take three months, with voting opening on 21st February, and the result to be announced at a special conference on 4th April.
On the government side, advisor Dominic Cummings has publicised his plans to reform the Civil Service, calling for STEM experts, programmers, project-managers, and ‘weirdos’ and ‘misfits’ with ‘genuine cognitive diversity’ to sign up, and setting out his recruitment requirements. The post is available here. There was some confusion about its possible violation of employment law requirements. No. 10 has since clarified that Mr Cummings will not be allowed to bypass Whitehall’s normal recruitment process, and that his post was only intended to solicit ‘expressions of interest’.
Globally, this week has seen renewed calls to review the relationship between human rights and the technology sector. Human Rights Watch has urged international rejection of ‘killer robots’ – technology which would kill automatically without human intervention, currently being developed by states such as China, Russia, the USA, the UK, Israel and South Korea. Killer robots have been identified as an issue requiring urgent multilateral intervention, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierres has included the issue in his Agenda for Disarmament. A ban is supported too by a coalition of roboticists, technicians and AI experts from Google, as explained here.
Google has faced criticism this week for failings in its approach to human rights. Ex-International Relations Director Ross LaJeunesse claims that he was pushed out of the company over his desire for human rights reform within the company. He has described offensive workplace incidents where employees were separated by race and gender and encouraged to shout slurs at one another, and highlighted policy failings in Google’s handling of personal data and violent content online. While at the company, Mr LaJeunesse led a decision to stop censoring search results in China, and worked to build a company-wide human rights program. Google has since returned to the Chinese search market, in 2017, with a censored search product code-named ‘Project Dragonfly’.
In response to Mr LaJeunesse’s claims, Google has released the following statement: “We have an unwavering commitment to supporting human rights organizations and efforts… Ross was offered a new position at the exact same level and compensation, which he declined to accept. We wish Ross all the best with his political ambitions.”
Within the UK, Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter has said that public services are seriously struggling without proper guidance from the government on the appropriate use of artificial intelligence technology, as reported in the Guardian. Mr Porter says that he is constantly receiving requests for guidance from public bodies which do not know to what extent they are entitled to use facial, biometric, and lip-reading technology. Facial recognition in particular was a live issue in 2019, with Ed Bridges pursuing a judicial review against the use of the technology by UK police – although the court found that the use of technology was proportionate, it also called for its use to kept under regular review. The government has commissioned a review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life of the use of algorithms in public bodies’ decision-making; the committee is due to report in February this year.
In the courts
The courts are currently in recess, and there are therefore no new judgements of note have been released.
On the UKHRB
Samuelo Scarmarch comments on the Employment Tribunal’s ruling on the status of ‘ethical veganism’ as a ‘protected belief’ under the Equality Act 2010.
Ruby Axelson and Wayne Jordash QC comment on two cases brought in the international courts relating to the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar