Lord Lester condemns British Government’s Human Rights record

UCC Faculty of Law Adjunct Professor Lord Lester of Herne QC has revealed that he quit as Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s advisor on constitutional reform last month because of the British Government’s “dismal” lack of leadership on human rights. Described at the time of his appointment as an “eminent outsider” brought into “the government of all talents” his position was clearly not a comfortable one.

In a speech marking 60 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Lord Lester revealed that he had felt “tethered” by the government and described its human rights record as “dismal and deeply disappointing”. He singled out the Justice Secretary Jack Straw for particular criticism for both a failure to defend the Human Rights Act and the lack of radical constitutional reform. The criticism of Jack Straw comes on the back of the Justice Secretary’s comments in the Daily Mail pledging to “reform the ‘villain’s charter’” (the Human Rights Act).
Lord Lester stated that

“In spite of its achievement in introducing the Human Rights Act, the government has a deeply disappointing record in giving effect to the values underpinning the Human Rights Act in its policies and practices. Through a lack of political leadership, it has also failed to match the expectations raised by the Governance of Britain green paper for much-needed constitutional reform.”

And he criticised the government’s failures to fight for human rights in relation to a wide range of human rights issues:

“The government could have celebrated Human Rights Day by defending the Human Rights Act against unfair attack. It could have celebrated by accepting the recommendations of the UN human rights treaty bodies, the joint committee on human rights and NGOs to allow the people of this country to exercise the right of individual petition against the government under the international covenant on civil and political rights, the convention for the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, and the torture convention.
“The UK is alone in the European Union in refusing to do so in the case of the international covenant. And the government is judge in its own, rather than in the people’s cause, in shielding itself in this way.”

Many human rights activists and organisations have voiced their support and understanding for Lord Lester’s position. Amnesty International issued a statement saying that they sympathised with his position and were “disappointed by the antagonism towards human rights coming from the government.” The proposed 42 day detention period and the treatment of asylum seekers were singled out by Amnesty as causing particular concern.

International Human Rights Day – thoughts from Ireland to Cambodia

Today, 10th December, is International Human Rights Day. And it also marks 60 years since adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations.

In Ireland, the Equality and Rights Alliance is calling on TDs and Senators to ‘stand up for human rights and equality. Amnesty International Ireland made the point as it launches its report Human Rights: The Sustainable Future that this meant not only speaking out against human rights abuses abroad, but also at home. The message is an important one. Ireland, like many developed nations, does little to mark International Human Rights Day, and the role of international human rights treaties tends to be limited to a rhetorical one. At the same time, the government encourages and expects developing nations to ‘live up to’ their international human rights obligations.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin writing in the Irish Times today, states that “The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights offers us an opportunity to renew our commitment to securing the declaration’s promise of dignity and justice for all.” In practice this renewal of commitment must include both human rights protection at home and abroad. For the Universal Declaration provides the promise of dignity and justice for everyone. And in the current financial climate, the impact of budget cuts on key human rights bodies in Ireland – Equality Authority facing a 43% cut and the Irish Human Rights Commission a 24% cut – are significant. At the very least such cutbacks send out a message that domestic human rights bodies are a luxury – something the government would not suggest to the developing nations they provide development aid to.

International Human Rights Day does however, provide me with an opportunity to highlight significant concerns regarding human rights violations that are being systematically carried out in a country I know well – Cambodia. The country has dropped off the international news agenda in recent times, even as it is gearing up to begin trials of people accused of crimes against humanity arising for atrocities committed during the Pol Pot era. However, whilst Cambodia has been consolidating its rebuilding process following those terrible years of violence and occupation and although its economy has grown dramatically, human rights abuses are widespread. Ironically many of the abuses arise out of years of strong economic growth as the rich consolidate their power and wealth.

Land theft and community evictions are at record levels and represent one of the most significant areas of human rights abuses in the country. According to Amnesty International in 2008 some 150,000 Cambodians were estimated to live at risk of forced eviction and tens of thousands have already been forcibly evicted in recent years: Cambodia: A Risky Business –Defending the Right to Housing. These actions leave people homeless or relocated to inadequate resettlement sites with poor infrastructure and limited access to work opportunities. The Cambodian authorities fail to protect the population against forced evictions and in fact many with political and/or economic power are allowed to act with impunity in arbitrarily expropriating land – Cambodia: Rights razed: Forced Evictions in Cambodia. The basic rights to land and housing, access to sanitation, amenities and the possibility of work, are crucial in a country where so many of the population are simply struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis. It is not surprising therefore that many of the countries civil society organisations took to the streets today to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

20th World Aids Day – Stigmatisation and Discrimination in Ireland

Today is International World Aids Day. Often portrayed as a health issue, it is far more complex than that involving important human rights issues in relation to such issues as discrimination, access to health services, and the provision of adequate support services.

In Ireland recent data shows that nearly 5,000 people had tested positive for HIV by June 2008, with 170 new cases being seen in the first half of the year. In the run up to the 20th World Aids Day the stigmatisation of those who live with HIV has been highlighted. In the first national report on HIV related stigma and discrimination published on November 26th by Stamp Out Stigma. Commenting on the report, Ciaran McKinney, vice-chair of the campaign stated “The studies found that people living with HIV experienced significant levels of stigma and discrimination across a wide range of areas: in families, among friends, in the workplace and in accessing health and social care services.”

Significantly, the findings include the fact that 49% of those living with HIV reported that they were discriminated against by their friends, and 28 % that they had experienced discrimination from their families. 54% of the general public and 84% of people living with HIV agreed that people with HIV are viewed negatively by society. Whilst the general public in the main felt that people with HIV should not feel ashamed of their condition, a significant proportion (23%) reported that they would worry about sharing a meal with someone with HIV, illustrating a worrying lack of understanding about the virus.

Discrimination against people living with HIV is of course illegal in Ireland under the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Acts 2000 and 2004. In addition, the Equality Authority has previously indicated that it would take up cases of discrimination based on HIV and AIDS although no such cases have yet been seen. What is not clear is why that is the case, although stigmatisation and the fears of people living with HIV and AIDS may well be a factor. Clearly at a minimum more education and advocacy work about HIV and AIDS is needed to promote greater awareness and understanding. But with the recent budget cutting the Equality Authority’s budget by 43% spending in this area generally is unlikely to see a large increase in the near future.

However, whatever the financial climate it is important to remember that “The promotion and protection of human rights must be at the centre of all aspects of an effective response to HIV and AIDS” (Amnesty International).