UK: New Prime Minister must make ‘clean break’ with Johnson years on human rights
Amnesty UK Chief Executive writing to new PM with offer of meeting to discuss ‘new agenda on rights’
Rwanda refugee scheme, scrapping of Human Rights Act and draconian restrictions on protests among issues of concern
‘We need a clean break from the Johnson years and the dangerous drift toward ever more authoritarian laws and policies’ - Sacha Deshmukh
Amnesty International has called for the new Prime Minister to ensure there is a “clean break” from the “authoritarian laws and policies” of Boris Johnson’s prime ministership, warning that the UK’s reputation for respecting and upholding human rights is at stake.
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have both signalled their broad support for recent Government policies on issues such as the controversial Home Office scheme to forcibly remove refugees to Rwanda and plans to scrap the Human Rights Act, but Amnesty’s Chief Executive Sacha Deshmukh has appealed to the pair to “take a cool look” at these and other key human rights issues if they become the next PM.
Deshmukh will be writing to the new Prime Minister setting out seven key human rights issues which the new Government should urgently address, with an offer to meet the new PM to discuss them in person.
Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s Chief Executive, said:
“From the Rwanda refugee policy to draconian new curbs on peaceful protest and attempts to remove key protections by scrapping the keystone Human Rights Act, Boris Johnson’s time in office has been an unmitigated disaster for human rights.
“We need to see the new Prime Minister charting a completely different course.
“After the heat of the leadership campaign, the new PM will need to take a cool look at the most extreme policies of the Johnson years and ensure they’re consigned to history.
“The reckless Rwanda scheme should be halted, freedom of speech should be protected by repealing excessive policing powers, the Human Rights Act should be safeguarded, the Troubles Bill abandoned and the new PM should also end the ministerial name-calling against lawyers and human rights groups.
“We need a new agenda on rights and a clean break from the Johnson years with its dangerous drift toward ever more authoritarian laws and policies.
“Britain is fast losing its self-proclaimed reputation for upholding human rights, for allowing free speech and standing up for those being persecuted.”
The seven key human rights topics being raised by Amnesty are:
Retention of the Human Rights Act
The Government should abandon the previous administration’s plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and should make a point of demonstrating its strong commitment to upholding the basic human rights of people across the UK, and to bolstering the crucial human rights framework across Europe. The deeply controversial proposed Bill of Rights would make it harder for people to challenge unfair treatment by the Government, police and other authorities at a time when likely budget cuts and rising tensions in society make legal safeguards for people’s basic human rights all the more important. The move could also threaten the fragile peace in Northern Ireland, as the Human Rights Act is a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement. Recent polling found that almost three quarters of people in the UK (73%) thought it was important to keep the Human Rights Act as a safety net to be able to hold the Government to account when things go wrong such as Hillsborough or the handling of the pandemic.
Northern Ireland Troubles
The New Prime Minister should abandon the controversial Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, which would permanently deny the prospect of justice to victims of the Troubles, be a worrying interference in the justice system, undermine the rule of law and set a dangerous precedent internationally signalling to other countries that they too can grant immunity for state forces and other perpetrators who have committed serious crimes including murder and torture. The Bill, a de facto amnesty, has been rejected by and victims groups on all sides, Amnesty International, Northern Ireland political parties and the Irish Government with grave concerns raised by the UN, the US Congress and the Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights.
Refugees and migrant rights
The new Government must act on its asylum responsibilities under international law rather than seeking to avoid them. It should support and encourage the UK’s neighbours and others - who presently accept far greater responsibility than the UK - by reasserting and demonstrating its own commitment to the Refugee Convention. It should begin this turn-around by taking three immediate steps. First, abandoning the cruel and unlawful Rwanda deal. Second, processing and deciding the asylum claims of people who have been wilfully placed in limbo and now constitute a large backlog at the Home Office. Third, seeking an agreement with France to ensure access to asylum on both sides of the Channel, with the UK accepting a fair share of people into its asylum system including those with clear family and other connections here.
Excessive curbs on public protests
The Public Order Bill contains a number of deeply authoritarian provisions, reintroducing measures removed by the Lords during the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which itself introduced extensive restrictions on peaceful protest. The provisions in the Public Order Bill include an enormous extension of stop and search powers which have already been proven to increase racial discrimination, have virtually no effect on reducing crime, are frequently misused and erode trust and confidence in policing at community levels. The Bill also seeks to criminalise non-violent tactics such as “locking on” and introduces orders to ban specific individuals from protesting, including restrictions on their use of the internet.
The new Government should rapidly increase the pace and scale of its evacuation from Afghanistan of survivors of gender-based violence and women’s rights defenders who need to flee to safety. The Government should meanwhile identify and use forms of leverage that may influence the Taliban without harming the Afghan people - such as targeted sanctions or travel bans imposed through a UN Security Council resolution - in a coordinated manner to end the Taliban’s mass violations of the rights of women and girls.
Reform of policing
The Government must tackle several key issues in policing, including sexism and racism within the ranks, the use of discriminatory stop-and-search and other powers, the over-use of Tasers (including a racially disproportionate use against black men), an unnecessarily adversarial approach to the policing of peaceful protests, the excessive and discriminatory use of strip-searching against children, and systemic and historic failures to properly investigate rape and other forms of sexual assault.
The new Government must follow through on its commitment to be a “force for good” in the world. First, by modelling best practice at home, ensuring UK domestic policy and action is in line with international human rights law. And second, by pursuing its foreign policy in an even handed, rights-centred manner. For example, the UK’s strong support for justice and accountability over suspected war crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine, and its coordinated international action against China’s internment of more than a million Uyghurs and others in labour camps in Xinjiang, need to be matched by similar efforts towards justice for Palestinians subject to Israeli apartheid policies, and for human rights defenders jailed and otherwise persecuted in Saudi Arabia.
Amnesty will be making more detailed recommendations on each of these areas in the coming weeks and will be seeking meetings with ministers and officials to pursue them.