Human rights: answering to the UN
As the UK Government awaits the outcome of the UN Universal Periodic Review of its performance on human rights, this article highlights some of the concerns raised in reports to the review panel
As Eleanor Roosevelt, the chair of the first United Nations Human Rights Commission and architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, once said: human rights begin “in small places, close to home”.
It is in these small places in our own towns and cities in the UK that our human rights are respected, implemented – and violated.
It was therefore interesting when last month, it was the turn of our own domestic human rights to come under United Nations scrutiny through the Universal Periodic Review.
What is the Universal Periodic Review?
The key process by which the UN reviews state compliance with human rights obligations is through the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review – the UPR. It is a state driven process – every state is reviewed by a group of other states, and all states are reviewed to the same standard.
The review is based on information provided by the state under review, information provided in independent UN reports, and information from other stakeholders such as NGOs and national human rights institutions. The review involves an interactive discussion involving questions and recommendations from other states. A report is then prepared which summarises the discussion and provides recommendations to the state.
Ultimately, the aim is to hold states to account and share best practice, in a bid to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur.
The review on 4 May was the UK’s third – it having been reviewed previously in 2008 and 2012. While the final outcome report has yet to be produced, the national report, UN bodies' report and stakeholders' report on which the review is based are all now available online. Positive areas of improvement were noted – for example, efforts made to combat human trafficking and prevent child sexual exploitation were welcomed. However, it is perhaps most interesting to consider the areas where it was felt the UK could improve, which ranged from managing Brexit in a human rights positive manner to protecting asylum seekers from arbitrary detention.
The constitutional landscape: Brexit and the Human Rights Act
Significantly, the national report opens by acknowledging the impact of Brexit, while insisting that the “UK is committed to maintaining its strong global role in relation to human rights and continues to comply with its international human rights obligations”. Further, in a nod to the Conservative Government’s pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act, the report states that the Government is “committed to reforming the domestic human rights framework. We will consider further the Bill of Rights once we know the arrangements for the EU exit and consult fully on our proposals in the full knowledge of the new constitutional landscape that will create”.
With such weighty constitutional issues forming the backdrop to this review, it is unsurprising that many NGOs also commented on these issues in their reports. Several expressed concern that the domestic human rights system would be weakened with repeal of the Human Rights Act. UN bodies also noted their concerns around repealing the Act – with both the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee against Torture raising concerns and seeking assurances that the repeal would not lead to decreased levels of human rights protection.
Concerns around these issues also featured prominently in the questions posed in advance by other member states. For example, Norway noted “a growing concern regarding the possibility of a weakening of legal protections for certain groups once the UK exits the European Union and extracts itself from EU laws”. Particular concerns were raised around employment protections, anti-discrimination policies, and asylum and migration laws and how these will be maintained once we have exited the European system which is the basis for so many of these laws.
Counter-terrorism and human rights
In terms of specific substantive issues, counter-terrorism policies were high on the agenda. While the Government stated that it considers that its anti-terrorism measures comply with the UK's international human rights obligations, certain UN bodies were less certain on this point. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was concerned that new counter-terrorism measures had “created an atmosphere of suspicion towards members of Muslim communities”. Further, the special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association specifically addressed the controversial “Prevent” strategy. The rapporteur suggested that the strategy is actually having “the opposite of its intended effect by dividing, stigmatizing and alienating segments of the population”.
Concerns were also expressed in relation to social security and the impact of austerity measures. The Committee on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights stated that the national minimum wage is not sufficient to ensure a decent standard of living, and noted that the level of child poverty remained high and was projected to increase in the future, especially in Northern Ireland. Further, the committee attributed, in part, the “persistent critical situation in terms of the availability, affordability and accessibility of adequate housing” to cuts in state benefit. Nourish Scotland, in the stakeholder report, also suggested that “financial accessibility to food was the area in which the state had most regressed since the 2012 UPR cycle”.
No review of current human rights policy would be complete without a discussion of the UK response to migration. The migrant crisis dominates our news feeds, and the UPR was no different.
Detention of asylum seekers was a particular area of concern. The UNHCR stated that this should be considered only as a measure of last resort and ought not to be used for “administrative convenience”.
The UNHCR did welcome the new 72-hour limit on the detention of pregnant women, but emphasised that there remains no fixed statutory time limit on detention, which is concerning. Amnesty International recommended the introduction of periodic, automatic judicial oversight of the continuation of a person’s immigration detention, and Detention Action-UK suggested exploring community-based alternatives to detention.
The route ahead
While we await the final outcome report and the UK Government response to the recommendations therein, it remains to be seen how the UK will tackle the concerns raised through the UPR. However, what is clear from this process is that we should all as lawyers be keen to ensure that human rights do not suffer as a result of constitutional change and that we seek to rise to the challenges identified in the UPR – rather than ignore or deny their existence.
For reference, all UK UPR documents can be found here: www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/Pages/GBIndex.aspx
Seonaid Stevenson is a trainee solicitor. The views expressed are her own and do not represent the views of her employer.