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UN criticises UK human rights record

Benjamin Zephaniah, the Rastafarian dub poet, was recently talking on Radio 4 about the focus on China's human rights record during the Olympics. The gist of what Zephaniah said was: how would the UK react when London holds the Olympics, if the world's media decide to talk about all the black deaths in police custody and the stabbings on the streets?

In criticising the UK human rights record, Zephaniah, whose website features the story of the death of his cousin, Mikey, in police custody, may start with black deaths in police custody. The Concluding Observations of the United Nations Committee on Human Rights in relation to the UK provide plenty of other points for robust criticism of the UK human rights record:

I welcome the criticism in this report of the UK's abhorrent detention of asylum-seekers, and particularly in this local context the concerns about those moved from NI to Great Britain on which the Refugee Action Group has long campaigned and continues to campaign:

 "The Commitee remains concerned that the State party [the UK] has continued its practice of detaining large numbers of asylum-seekers, including children.  Furthermore, the Committee reiterates that it considers unacceptable any detention of asylum-seekers in prisons and is concerned that while most asylum-seekers are detained in immigration centres, a small minority of them continue to be held in prisons, allegedly for reasons of security and control.  It is concerned that some asylum-seekers do not have early access to legal representation and are thus likely to be unaware of their right to make a bail application which is no longer automatic since the enactment of the Nationality, Immigraition and Asylum Act 2002.  The Committee is also concerned by the failure to keep statistics on persons subject to deportation who are removed from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, as well as their temporary detention in police cells."

This Human Rights Committee paints a very bleak but realistic picture of civil liberties in the UK, as it criticises many different areas of law and policy. It frequently returns to the erosion of civil liberties under terrorism laws and attacks on freedom of expression in the guise of British libel and secrecy laws.

On terrorism, the UN report notes:

“In particular, while it [the Committee] is disturbed by the extension of the maximum period of detention without charge of terrorist suspects under the Terrorism Act 2006 from 14 days to 28 days, it is even more disturbed by the proposed extension of this maximum period of detention under the counter-terrorism bill from 28 days to 42 days”

Further, the report is very critical of the failure of inquiries into murders into Northern Ireland to secure prosecutions, recommending more independence and impartiality in these inquiries. Northern Ireland is again the focus later in the report, as trial in the absence of a jury under Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 is recorded as of concern and the necessity of such trials questioned.

Other focuses of criticism in the report are the delays in justice in investigations into the shooting of innocent Jean Charles de Menezes by police in London and the use of the British Indian Ocean Territory as a transition point for extraordinary rendition flights.

The report also notes that women and ethnic minorities remain under-represented in the judiciary; criticises ASBOs; attacks the prohibition on voting for prisoners and urges the UK to re-examine its libel laws, noting the danger that the “unduly restrictive libel law will affect freedom of expression worldwide on matters of valid public interest.”

The UN report has been widely reported in the press – for example see here and here. The original report dated 30 July 2008 is sadly buried in the depths of the lamentably complicated UN website, but can be read by going to this page and following the link to 'Human Rights Committee: Concluding Observations 2008”.

If you want to support refugees and campaign against the detention of asylum-seekers, why not join the Refugee Action Group? Our next meeting is at 10.00 AM this Friday, 22 August 2008, at NIACRO Training Room, Amelia Street. You are welcome to come along and find out more.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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