United Kingdom: backsliding on human rights must be prevented

“Legal reforms should not weaken human rights protections in the United Kingdom”, said the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, following a five-day visit to the country (27 June to 1 July), which focused on the system for human rights protection, the situation in Northern Ireland and children’s rights.

The proposed repeal and replacement of the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights, if voted through, will affect the human rights of everyone in the UK. The Bill makes significant changes to the way in which people can bring cases to UK courts and have their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) effectively enforced. It would alter the interpretation of ECHR rights by UK courts, widening the gap between the protection of those rights by the UK courts and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

“It is worrying that the proposed legal reforms might weaken human rights protections at this pivotal moment for the UK, and it sends the wrong signal beyond the country’s borders at a time when human rights are under pressure throughout Europe”, said the Commissioner. She also notes that these changes come in a wider context of recent laws and policies already heavily impacting on human rights in concrete areas, such as the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, or of specific groups, such as refugees and asylum seekers or Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

The effective protection of ECHR rights is one of the foundations of the peace settlement in Northern Ireland under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. “It is crucial that this foundation is not undermined as a result of the proposed human rights reforms”, said the Commissioner.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill raises serious questions about the extent to which the proposed mechanism to review Troubles-related cases is compliant with ECHR standards on independent and effective investigations. The possibility to grant immunity from prosecution on a low evidentiary bar raises concerns that this could lead to impunity. While the proposals are ostensibly aimed at promoting information recovery and reconciliation, the Commissioner underlines that justice measures play an important role in achieving truth in Northern Ireland.

The virtually unanimous, cross-community rejection of the proposals also casts doubt over their potential to contribute to reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The proposals fail to put victims at the heart of legacy: “unilaterally shutting down options that many victims and families value greatly as part of their way of dealing with the past ignores their needs and wishes, and is causing many of them deep distress”, said the Commissioner.

The Commissioner emphasises the essential role of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) in safeguarding human rights and calls on the government to ensure it can operate fully independently and effectively, including by guaranteeing sufficient resources and powers in line with the Paris Principles. Threats to freedom of expression, including media freedom, must be tackled urgently, especially in view of the continuing activity of paramilitary groups. All circumstances in relation to the killings of journalists Martin O’Hagan and Lyra McKee must be fully investigated and those responsible held to account to prevent impunity, and any reports of threats against other journalists or public figures must be acted upon immediately and effectively.

Education is key to moving forward as an inclusive society in which children can flourish and peacefully co-exist. While progress has been made on integrated education, more efforts are needed to broaden its availability and accessibility.

Children’s rights must be put centre stage across the whole of the UK, especially given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising cost of living crisis on them. “The high number of children living in, or at risk of, poverty is a serious human rights problem affecting every other aspect of their safety and well-being”, said the Commissioner.

Food insecurity is a particularly widespread manifestation of child poverty, while many children also remain at risk of homelessness and live in temporary accommodation for prolonged periods, often in highly inadequate conditions. Although the scale of the problem and responses to it differ across the UK, specific elements of the overall social security system, such as the level of support under Universal Credit, the two-child limit and the benefit cap appear to negatively affect children’s enjoyment of the right to an adequate standard of living in particular.

The impact of the ‘no recourse to public funds’ policy on the rights of children from migrant families must also be addressed urgently. Further support to mental health services is essential to protect the rights of children to the highest attainable standard of mental health. More action is also needed to tackle air pollution, and especially its impact on children in the most deprived communities, to secure their right to a healthy environment.

Other children’s rights issues requiring attention are children’s interactions with the police and the justice system, the protection of children from violence, and the need expressed by children and young people for better human rights education and Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE). Strengthening the involvement and meaningful participation of children and young people in decision making is also essential for the full realisation of their rights.

The Commissioner is concerned about the impact of an increasingly hostile public discourse, supported by some politicians and by media reporting, on both young and adult trans persons, and LGBTI people in general. This negative environment affects their mental health, well-being and safety. “Contrary to what some are trying to suggest, protecting women’s rights and the rights of trans people is not a zero-sum game”, said the Commissioner.  

“The current discourse is engraining harmful gender stereotypes, which will negatively affect the protection of the rights of all involved in the long run.” She emphasises that rhetoric stigmatising trans persons, including by representing them as a threat, is unacceptable, and that the authorities must speak out clearly against such narratives.

Finally, the Commissioner warmly welcomes the government’s commitment to completing the ratification of the Istanbul Convention before the end of July, and that the UK will therefore soon join this gold standard for the protection of women and girls from violence.

During her visit, the Commissioner met with the Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State for Justice and Deputy Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, the Minister of State (Minister for South and Central Asia, North Africa, United Nations and the Commonwealth) of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon,  the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, Tom Pursglove MP, and (online) the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State of the Northern Ireland Office, Lord Caine.

She also met with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Victims and Survivors and the Victims and Survivors Forum, and the office of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People. In addition, the Commissioner met with civil society and academics, and with children and young people on the different topics covered by the visit. She also travelled to the London borough of Newham, visited the Magpie Project, which provides support to mothers with young children in temporary accommodation, and met with local authorities.

Ahead of the visit, the Commissioner met with the Joint Committee on Human Rights of the UK Parliament, and held online meetings with the Scottish Human Rights Commission, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner of Scotland, and staff of the Children’s Commissioners for England and Wales, as well as further civil society organisations.

The Commissioner’s report on her visit to the UK is forthcoming.

Source: Council or Europe