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NSUN contributes to Civil Society report highlighting current toxic debate around Human Rights

8 February 2017

The UK is undergoing a Human Rights Check. This happens every 4.5 years, as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) which is led by the United Nations. NSUN is among civil society organisations which contribute to the process.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a key way the United Nations (UN) reviews and seeks to improve the human rights situations of all the 193 countries (States) that are members of the UN.

The UPR is run through a part of the UN called the Human Rights Council (HRC).

In 2017 the United Kingdom enters its third UPR examination, and much work has been taking place across the country to gather evidence from civil society on the human rights situation here.

For each state, the UPR relies on 3 reports:

1 - The National Report (20 pages) prepared by the State concerned on the human rights situation in its country;

2 - A 10-page report prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) containing information from treaty bodies, special procedures and other UN agencies such as UNDP and UNICEF;

3 - A 10-page summary prepared by the OHCHR of the information provided by civil society groups. In the UK, the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) has been leading on the Joint Civil Society Report, with the contribution of several organisations, including NSUN.

Toxic debate

The civil society report finds that, even though by comparison to some other countries, the UK has a good level of Human rights protection, there are pressing concerns: we have had a toxic debate about Human Rights in this country, and austerity measures have led to a regression in standards of living and the welfare system’s ability to tackle poverty, homelessness and worklessness.

The frequent denigration of the Human Right Act (HRA) and the government's commitment to scrap it send a very negative message. Our civil society report says: 'Denigration of the HRA is a denigration of international human rights law. The UK’s retrogressive debates are already negatively influencing other countries. There is increasing concern that the UK’s political rhetoric will, if not checked, threaten the coherence and credibility of the post-World War II human rights settlement.'

Besides, Civil society organisations are worried that a new Bill of Rights would offer weaker human rights protections.

The UK appears to be leading on ignoring International Human Rights Legislation. A recent report by the UN's Committee for Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which says austerity measures amount to systemic violations of disabled people's Human Rights, has been rejected by the government and its 11 recommendations are simply not being implemented.  “While the government continues to improve and build on the support available to disabled people, it stands by and is proud of its record,” a government source told the Guardian.

Despite the U.N.’s findings, the British government has said that it has no intentions to follow up on the recommendations made in the report

Adding to toxic debate around our Human Rights is the Government's intention of taking the UK out of the European Union ('Brexit'), which is nothing less than a rejection of the very concept of international co-operation and peer partnerships which is fundamental to the UPR process.

Yes, we still enjoy more human rights than other countries under review, we are still in a good position...but the current negative position which the country’s leadership appears to cling on inspires nothing but anxiety.

Taking stock

On 31 January 2017, NSUN attended a symposium organised by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) Law School’s Human Rights Collegium.

The Human Rights Collegium is an innovative partnership between BIHR and the QMUL Law School which sees academic human rights coupled with practice based work.

The symposium explained what the UPR is about and commented on its findings, taking stock as the public can now read the civil society report and react to its findings.

Professor Geraldine van Bueren QC, who chaired the symposium, introduced 4 presenters:

1 - Stephen Bowen, Director, British Institute of Human Rights

2 - Sanchita Hosali, Deputy Director, British Institute of Human Rights

3 - Dr Jessie Hohmann, QMUL

4 - Alice Wyss, Human Rights and Democracy Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Stephen Bowen and Sanchita Hosali focused on the importance of Human Rights legislation, the concerns around the current toxic debate and placed the UPR in context: mostly by explaining how the National report’s findings do not always tally with those of the Civil Society Report. Both presenters also insisted upon the fact that the perception of Human Rights in general has deteriorated since the previous review, which concluded in 2012.

Both Mr Bowen and Ms Hosali insisted that back in 2012, the Government led on better engagement with Civil society. In the current UPR, Civil Society organisations had to do more and more work by themselves, and the BIHR found that several organisations needed to be educated about Human Rights so as to be able to participate more fully to the UPR.

Both presenters insisted that reporting by Civil Society organisations must be very precise, relying on detailed case studies rather than general statements. Civil society members must work together to make this happen, as most participants have very limited resources.

Dr Jessie Hohmann presented on her work which focuses on the Right to Housing. Dr Hohmann also observes a deterioration, with a 54 % sharp rise in homelessness since 2010.

Alice Wyss, whose previous work experience includes a role with Amnesty International, commented on the advantages and limitations of the UPR: whilst the process remains state-driven, which is in many respects a limitation, it can lead to ‘naming and shaming’ to the eyes of other peers, which is an advantage. However, the United Nations cannot practically impose changes upon any government, which is a serious limitation, especially given the current context.

Ms Wyss said that, despite the current negative discourse, the Home Office’s Human Rights and Democracy Department she works at is ‘open to suggestions’. Ms Wyss also reminded the attendance that her department does not lead on the UPR – the ministry of Justice does.

In conclusion, all panellists insisted that any Government will always insist on staying it’s the best it can. However, when it comes to Human Rights, what matters above all is not comparing where a country stands in comparison to another peer, but whether a specific person or group’s rights are being abused.

Who can we contact with our concerns?

Scrutiny is a strong point in the UPR. UK organisations can be contacted and made aware of any concerns people currently have:

1 – Amnesty (consultative status to the UN)

2 - Human Rights Watch (consultative status to the UN)

3 – Equality and Human Rights Commission (contactable here)

4 – BIHR’s mental health resources

5 – Liberty (advice pages here)

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