The British government faced major human rights challenges in 2012 both at domestic and international levels. Here, we will have a review on human rights in Britain over the past year.
Top of the agenda on the foreign front were an ongoing dispute with the EU over London’s plans to annul EU human rights regulations and introduce its own human rights bill as well as a series of compensation indictments by foreign victims of British human rights abuses over torture in other countries.
On the domestic front the secret courts were the focus of rights campaigners while a pre-Olympic ‘un-free zones’ controversy raised fears that London is turning into a de facto police state.
Extraditions and Queen Elizabeth’s personal intervention in one of them, support for Syrian rebels along with continued backing for the Bahraini regime’s crackdown on protesters, the so-called snoopers’ charter and criminalizing squatting were other key issues on the agenda.
The British government moved full steam ahead with proposals to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into the British law, with a British Bill of Rights in a bid to essentially decouple London and Brussels on human rights.
The excuse was that the HRA is essentially a “criminals’ charter” that allows illegal asylum seekers, immigration applicants and so-called terrorists resort to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg to challenge decisions made by British politicians on human rights grounds.
Other London-EU disputes including the ECHR’s ruling that the British government must extend voting to prisoners exacerbated the issue.
However, the December 17 report by the government’s 18-month commission on a British Bill of Rights proved a complete shambles as — according to Liberty rights group — it included “nothing to shed light on the proposed contents of a mythical British Bill of Rights.”
Massive criticism of a Bill of Rights as a tool in the hands of politicians to violate human rights at will was as effective as lack of consensus on a new human rights law in its defeat.
As Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, put it: “The majority includes people who would replace human rights with citizens’ privileges that can be stripped away by Government.”
Amid disputes over the government’s new attempt to clamp down on human rights in Britain against the EU, case after case of human rights embarrassments emerged for Britain from its former colonial subjects.
That was one of the most awkward foreign policy episodes facing London: the government faced international calls for apology over torture of Mau Mau uprising victims in Kenya in the 1950’s, over the 1948 Batang Kali killing in Malaysia, over an Indonesian death squad backed up by London, and finally, over the colonial policy toward Palestinians during 1917-1948 that led to the forgery of the Zionist regime of Israel.
The past horrific crimes came to haunt London as calls for apology rained down from the Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the Malaysian parliament, Indonesian protesters and displaced Palestinians campaign group the Palestinian Return Center.
London courts have granted Mau Mau victims permission to bring civil claims against the British government for torture while a British judicial review is ongoing into the massacre of 24 unarmed Malaysian civilians during the so-called Malayan Emergency in 1948.
The 2012 also saw British politicians rush to get the Justice and Security Bill, which introduces secret courts into almost all civil cases, through the parliament.
According to leading rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW), the widely criticized Bill aimed to widen the use of secret hearings in the civil courts on national security grounds, excluding the person affected and his or her lawyer from the courtroom.
The HRW added that such hearings would undermine a basic principle of justice: the ability to know and challenge the case against you while parts of the judgments in the cases would also be kept secret.
However, following a series of defeats in the House of Lords, the government u-turned on the issue at the second reading of the bill on December 19 saying secret courts will go ahead but judges would decide when to set them up rather than the government.
Liberty campaign group, among other critics, condemned the decision.
“Our politicians continue to tinker around the edges of a Bill that would change our justice system forever. These concessions are minor nips and tucks, and leave the chilling prospect of secret justice intact,” Isabella Sankey, Director of Policy for Liberty, said.
Next in Britain’s key human rights issues in 2012, which was not made public, was the pre- Olympic police state, centering around the so-called ‘un-free zones’, that was kept in place after the Summer Games.
British councils and police retain powers to single out public spaces and suspend certain freedoms, including handing out leaflets and protesting there, that means one will be punished in those zones for doing a perfectly legal thing.
According to a map published on September 11 by Manifesto Club freedom campaign group, there are a dizzying 435 such zones in London that cover almost half of the whole area of the city, mostly in its central parts.
While, the report was given almost no airtime except by Press TV, major human rights concerns remain over London’s 110 leafleting zones, 32 active arbitrary curfew areas known as “dispersal zones”, and the single special restricted protest zone around the parliament buildings.
The controversial Squatting Laws also did not receive coverage in British media after the Ministry of Justice announced its criminalization from Saturday September 1 in a short statement published on its website only a day earlier.
Critics of the move including the campaign group Squatters’ Action for Secure Housing said it is a blatant attack on the homeless and could send their numbers sky-rocketing just in time for this winter.
Another planned attack on human rights by the British government was revealed by The Sun in April.
The proposals, now widely-known as “snoopers’ charter”, would give the government intelligence body, GCHQ, real-time access to information held by internet service providers (ISPs) and other internet firms, such as information on who individuals are contacting, how frequently and for how long.
Snoopers’ charter has been hugely controversial. The latest such controversy rose from the very heart of the government after 40 Conservative backbenchers signed a letter demanding that the application of the powers be limited to cases of terrorism and “most serious crimes” if Britain is not to be turned into a nation of suspect.
The government also made human rights headlines over extradition of five Muslims, including Abu Hamza al-Masri, to the United States.
The extradition ruling issued on October 5 after years of legal battle raised eyebrows after it emerged that the British Queen had personally intervened to ensure al-Masri’s extradition.
The anti-monarchy group Republic said at the time that they fear Queen Elizabeth could also be “making her views known on [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange and [Scottish computer hacker] Gary McKinnon.”
The last but not the least in the list of Britain’s long adventures in the realm of violation of human rights in 2012 was its open support for Syrian rebels, despite reports of their crimes against civilians, and the simultaneous backing for the Bahraini regime in its bloody crackdown on pro-democracy uprisings.
The relentless support for the regime was provided in the form of invitation of the most senior al-Khalifa officials to attend the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and to hold intimate talks with senior British officials including PM David Cameron himself.
Britain’s unreserved support for the al-Khalifa regime and reports of London’s military assistance to Bahrain in its suppression came despite widespread condemnations of the regime’s blatant breaches of human rights including by the London-based rights group Amnesty International.