LCHR: Introducing ‘Campaign for Social Rights’

In a recent report, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights lamented the impact of the British Government’s “harsh and uncaring” austerity agenda, which has forced families to choose between eating or heating their homes. UN expert Professor Alston argues that it is “ideological” policy choices created a “social calamity and an economic disaster rolled into one”.

The Labour party is committed to rolling back austerity, a brutal political choice that has shamefully punished society’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups since 2010. But we need to do more.

The Labour Campaign for Human Rights’ latest campaign, Campaign for Social Rights, addresses the human rights abuses taking place on a daily basis, here in the UK. It urges the party deepen its commitment to social justice by enshrining in law a Social Rights Bill, ensuring new protections for our most basic – and most neglected – of human rights.

What are Social and Economic Rights?

These are human rights which the UK has recognised when it ratified the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights – a legally binding human rights treaty. They include:

  • The Right to Food
  • The Right to Housing
  • The Right to Health
  • The Right to Work

If a legal right to food existed before 2010, it could have forced changes to the brutal social security policies that have led to an explosion of food banks. A legal right to health could require governments to adequately fund the NHS, while a legal right to work could help bring UK employment law into line global standards on pay, conditions and the right to organise.

Such rights have long been recognised by the UK through binding international treaties, but never translated into UK law.  This has left communities defenceless against benefit cuts and the underfunding of public services. For example, when two women brought a legal challenge to the government’s imposition of a cap on benefits, the Supreme Court agreed this policy contravened the UK’s international obligations on child welfare. But the court said it was powerless to overturn the policy because the relevant treaty had never been incorporated into domestic law.

The impact of Labour giving legal protections to these rights through a Social Rights Bill could be profound.

How can it be done?

The UK would not be alone such rights into domestic law. Indeed, over 90% of the world’s constitutions from Finland to South Africa recognise at least one economic or social right, and around 25% recognise ten or more such rights as judicially enforceable. A group of human rights practitioners and academics have produced a draft bill based on the experience of the UK’s Human Rights Act that could provide a model adapted to our own context.

The UN’s expert shone a powerful spotlight on poverty in modern Britain, which is not just an insult to social justice but also a violation of human rights on a massive scale. Millions of people have suffered from austerity and Britain’s legal and political systems have failed to protect rights that are core to the dignity and wellbeing of us all.

Labour has a proud history of promoting human rights law, but while those rights that define our well-being and dignity remain unprotected, we are falling short.

Over the coming months, we will be highlighting the core pillars of our campaign, beginning with The Right to Food. At Labour Party Conference this month, we were proud to collaborate with Human Rights Watch, End Hunger UK, Just Fair, Sustain and the Independent Food Aid Network in hosting a panel discussion to highlight the scandal and extent of food poverty in the UK.  We were delighted to see the Labour Party announce its commitment a Fair Food Act, following the event. This is an important step in the right direction and we will continue to campaign to ensure that all social rights are protected by law under the next Labour Government.

By promising in its coming manifesto to put the right to food and housing on a par with the right to free speech and a fair trial, Labour can truly promote human rights for the many, not just the few.

To read more about the campaign and what you can do to help, click here

To join our membership sign up here

Our Prime Minister’s Views on Saudi Arabia and Human Rights is Reckless and Dangerous

Olivia Williams

Boris Johnson is no longer a joke; and his attitude to Saudi Arabia is no different. Day-by-day Johnson’s team announce more false commitments to strengthening Great Britain, but his political charade goes beyond our nation’s borders. 

Human rights are vital to every nation. They free the people from persecution so they can decide their own conception of the good life. Here are some of the key areas our new Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shown a dangerous attitude towards Saudi Arabia and human rights.  

Lack of understanding of the Middle East

Johnson has repeatedly demonstrated a dangerous lack of understanding of affairs in the Middle East. In 2016, when he first became Foreign Secretary, he made headlines, not only by breaking Foreign Office convention of criticising UK allies, but also for disparaging the Saudi and Iranian governments for “puppeteering and playing proxy wars” in the Middle East. His comments, at a conference in Rome, revealed his more extreme views on the region.

“There are politicians who are twisting and abusing religion and different strains of the same religion in order to further their own political objectives. That’s one of the biggest political problems in the whole region. And the tragedy for me – and that’s why you have these proxy wars being fought the whole time in that area – is that there is not strong enough leadership in the countries themselves.”

Johnson’s blasé comments suggest either carelessness or a worryingly simple understanding of political motivations in the Middle East.

They are also massively contradictory. Previously in the Commons he has denied the conflict in Yemen is a proxy war between Saudi and Iran, and so it is hardly surprising that what Emily Thornberry MP has duped his “shabby hypocrisy” continues to this day.

Dishonesty about the arms trade

According to Johnson, the UK operates one of the best arms control regimes in the world, and are committed to International Humanitarian Law. However:

Government statistics show that during his time as Foreign Secretary, Johnson waived convention to allow £1.2 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite Cabinet rules dictating that the Secretary of State for International Trade take responsibility for granting arms export licences.  Johnson seemed unmoved by the devastating repercussions of these sales. In August 2016, a Saudi airstrike killed 14 people when it targeted a Yemeni food factory. Just 2 days later, Johnson signed off yet another licence.

According to Johnson “the key test for our continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia in relation to IHL is whether there is a clear risk that those weapons might be used in a commission of a serious violation of IHL [international humanitarian law].” But even after June 2019, when the Appeals Court rules the arms trade in violation of humanitarian laws, trade was not suspended, only the granting of new licences.

Instead of supporting the ruling, Johnson backed a challenge to it, despite conclusive independent evidence being submitted from a government enquiry, the UN, Amnesty and CAAT. The evidence reveals that:

Disquieting relationship with Saudi government

During his time as Foreign Secretary, Johnson drew criticism for a £14,000 trip to Jeddah from the deep paid for by the Saudi Foreign Ministry, under the veneer of discussing policy to empower women and girls. Since his visit the rights and women and girls in Saudi Arabia have mysteriously disappeared from his agenda.

In the same way the state-sponsored murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Kashoggi and Boris’s own condemnation, fleeted from his mind, barely after the ink had dried on his column in the Telegraph. When Saudi rounded up and imprisoned prominent female rights activists Johnson was again silent.

At the beginning of the month when a series of government decrees announced adult women were able to travel freely, apply for a passport and have more control over family affairs, Johnson was again remarkably silent. Perhaps an act of keeping his rather tarnished golden head beneath the parapet, after the outrageous, outlandish comments published in the Telegraph that described women dressed in burkhas as resembling letterboxes.

What can you do?

We can’t let human rights can’t become the irrelevance that Johnson has made through his rhetoric and his actions.

For all Yemen families, for their vulnerable people and children; the Saudi women who are running away from their communities; for those unable to express their sexuality and for those who cruelly and unfairly punished for their opinions, the LCHR demands we wake up to the human rights injustices.

You can read our policy recommendations on how the British government can help reduce the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia: Please write to your MP urging them to implement these recommendations & end UK complicity in such egregious crimes.

Boris Johnson cannot be trusted to defend Human Rights

Stephen Delahunty

Last week just 0.13 % of the population voted in a man to be the next Prime Minister whose commitment to human rights is as dubious as his voting record on the subject.

The inevitability of Boris Johnson’s coronation as Conservative party leader and Prime Minister rendered the leadership contest something of a dud, despite his proclamation that he was the “dude” to unite the country, before blaming half of it for lacking optimism. 

Beyond his usual outlandish narcissism it is not clear what his promise to ‘deliver, unite, defeat, and energise’ will mean for protections afforded under the Human Rights Act. Introduced in 1998, it incorporates the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic British law, and it sets out the fundamental rights and freedoms that everyone in the UK is entitled to.

However, the previous government failed to give assurances that it will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act post-Brexit, and there is no evidence to suggest that Johnson, an ardent Euroscpetic who was taken to court under allegations of misconduct in a public office for claims made during the Leave campaign, can be trusted to maintain the Act’s commitments.

His party has previously pledged to replace the act with a British Bill of Rights, although Johnson missed a vote on whether to repeal the Human Rights Act in 2016.

Several human rights groups have already outlined what they think are the key issues that Johnson needs to address. Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said that he must work to resolve the case of British Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who was arrested in 2016 while visiting relatives and accused of spying by Tehran.

Although the last time the former foreign secretary intervened he failed to secure her release and Iranian officials cited his words as evidence that she had engaged in “propaganda against the regime”. Nazanin’s husband has since called on Johnson to acknowledge his mistake.

Allen also said Johnson should work to empower women and girls and reunite refugee families torn apart by conflict and persecution. As foreign secretary, Johnson gave a speech to the UN Human Rights Council stating: “We could achieve virtually every sustainable development goal – if only we could provide every girl in the world with at least 12 years of quality education”.

Despite his trademark bluster Johnson has consistently voted against laws to promote equality and human rights and was absent for a vote on the Impact of Tax and Benefit Changes on Women and Protected Groups in 2016.

On foreign affairs, watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described his approach to human rights as “weak, inconsistent, and often incoherent”. London’s diplomatic efforts in Egypt and Myanmar have “lacked leadership”, and documents released last year suggested that Johnson pushed the government to continue UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite concerns UK arms are contributing to “significant” civilian deaths in the Saudi-coalition’s war in Yemen.

The former journalist has been sacked from previous roles for making up quotes and lying about an affair, while his history of racist, homophobic and anti-LGBT slurs suggest he is not suddenly going to become a friend to minority communities at home or internationally.

He has also been referred to the Equality and Human Rights Commission for Islamophobic comments, and once wrote a lengthy Spectator column arguing that the best thing for Africa would be for the old colonial powers to return. If trust and words are to matter in politics, the new Prime Minister’s grasp of language, history and culture make him unfit to hold office.

Ultimately the Old Etonian’s approach to human rights may be best judged by the company he keeps – Johnson has courted the same white nationalist Svengali that installed his floppy haired equivalent in the White House – and he has just appointed arguably the most anti-human rights cabinet to date. The no-deal Brexit his cabinet are advocating could see many human rights protections currently enjoyed by UK citizens lost, including employment rights, equality and privacy. 

The new Prime Minister used his first speech in the Commons to declare a new “Golden Age” – but if Johnson’s record is anything to go by – human rights protections could hark back to the Stone Age.

Sign up!

If you’d like to know more about the Labour Campaign for Human Rights and our campaigns, sign up to our mailing list here.

LCHR call for the Labour Party to commit to a fully-funded legal aid system

Stephen Delahunty

The Labour Campaign for Human Rights (LCHR) is calling on the Labour Party to commit to a fully-funded and reformed legal aid system by adopting the recommendations of the Bach Commission on Access to Justice in full.

The report was commissioned by the Fabian Society and has the backing of Lord Falconer, Andy Slaughter MP, and grassroots groups like the Society of Labour Lawyers. Its recommendations would help reverse the Conservative government’s cuts to legal aid and improve the right to justice for millions of vulnerable people across the UK.

After almost a decade of cuts, legally aided matters have fallen from over 900,000 (2009/10) to less than 15,000 (2017/18), and the number of not-for-profit legal advice centres has more than halved in 10 years. While nearly a million people are living in areas where there is no legal aid provision for housing, and a further 15 million in areas with only one provider.

Shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon MP, committed to reform in 2018, but no further action has been taken. LCHR are now calling for the shadow justice team to adopt the recommendations in full as party policy and to include them in Labour’s next manifesto.

The recommendations include legislating for a new Right to Justice Act, which would establish a right to reasonable legal assistance that would be legally enforceable in the courts, as well as broadening the scope of civil legal aid and the legal aid eligibility rules. This would allow more people to access legal advice across the UK.

Matthew Turner, chair and executive director of the LCHR said: “Rights granted to British citizens are meaningless unless they can be enforced in the courts. That is why we are calling on Labour to treat the right to justice as a fundamental human right. Legal aid cannot be seen as a fringe issue.”

Labour MP and former barrister Andy Slaughter said that the Government’s own review had found that legal aid has been cut well below effective levels but it was still unwilling to act. 

Former Lord Chancellor and secretary of state for justice Lord Falconer said it was critical that Labour commit to restoring legal aid to levels that mean the poorest in society have genuine access to the law.

He added: “At the moment only the rich have those protections, and safeguards must be built in which stop any future government from dismantling those protections.”