The second round of consultations on a UK Bill of Rights closed at the end of September, as did the 21st session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Both contain symptoms of the UK's problematic relationship with international human rights law.
The last few weeks of the Bill of Rights consultation produced a flurry of final commentary, especially after one of the Commissioners wrote an alarmist article about "the wrongs of human rights" in the Jewish Chronicle. The Commissioners will now retire to consider their verdict, which is promised by the end of the year. This is not the place to consider again the details of the consultation; it is widely appreciated that the Commission is a response to the increasingly vexed relationship between the UK Government and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
But a little further south, in Geneva, another session of the UN Human Rights Council drew to a close on Friday. The mainstream media in the UK tend to report on this Council only as a venue for ongoing discussion of high-profile foreign crises such as Syria. Its work is in fact much broader than that, and its mandate extends beyond the human rights of those in far-flung places. In her opening survey of human-rights concerns around the world the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, included the disturbing attitudes toward minorities in France and Greece. She also expressed concern about the impact of "austerity" on vulnerable groups across Europe.
After its three week session the 21st Human Rights Council had adopted 33 resolutions on a wide range of issues. But its immediate relevance to the UK is that this session also adopted the outcome of the UK's second Universal Periodic Review. The UPR process was conceived seven years ago as part of the reform of UN human rights mechanisms, and involves individual review of the human rights records of all 192 UN member states over a four-year cycle. It has now completed its first cycle, and the UK's review comes early in the second cycle.
The UK has been an active supporter of UPR, highlighting its importance among UN human rights mechanisms and emphasising the benefits of both its universality and its constructive spirit. But last month it was the turn of the UK Government to take to the podium and make clear its response to the 130 recommendations it had received about bringing the protection of human rights in the UK more closely in line with international standards.
The process was not covered by any of the UK media. Consequently very few people in the UK will be aware that their Government rejected nearly a third of the recommendations it received.
They refused, for example, to consider changing the law in the UK to accord to the standards of the human rights of children with regard to corporal punishment, or the minimum age of enlistment in the army. They refused to accede to international conventions on the rights of migrant workers or on enforced disappearances. And they refused to abandon the policy of deporting people to countries where they might be tortured, based only on "diplomatic assurances".
How is this relevant to the Bill of Rights Commission?
Partly because several UPR recommendations were directly relevant to the questions of the consultation. For example, recommendation 32: "Continue to ensure that human rights principles are integrated in domestic laws"; and recommendation 48: "On the basis of the UK's commitment to the rule of law, comply with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights on the cases concerning the United Kingdom". Interestingly both of these recommendations were accepted by the UK.
Partly because during the discussion of its report, speaking in the time allocated for contribution by the UK's National Human Rights Institutions, Prof. Alan Miller described the ongoing debate about human rights (and especially the calls to repeal the Human Rights Act) as one of the most pressing human rights challenges faced in the UK.
But more generally because both the Bill of Rights consultation and the recent UPR are symptomatic of a broader UK attitude towards international human rights law. It has long been the policy of the Foreign Office that it will only accede to international standards with which it can guarantee conformity immediately. At first glance this represents a laudable scrupulousness about international commitments. But it is also a reflection of a legislative arrogance in the UK concerning matters of human rights. Any internationally-agreed norm which coincides with what the UK already does is fine; any which doesn't is to be regarded with great suspicion.
Thus the Foreign Office can be "deeply concerned" about the trial of Pussy Riot in Russia; but after a Strasbourg ruling on indefinite detention without opportunity to demonstrate rehabilitation the new Justice Secretary states that this is "not an area where I welcome the Court seeking to make rulings."
The UK did at least commit to keeping all UPR recommendations received under constant review. But if the Foreign Office is truly committed to promoting human rights around the world, it is hopefully giving serious consideration to the impression conveyed globally by the Government's rather superior attitude towards international human rights standards at home.
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