In September the UK Government faced criticism from human rights groups for failing to back a series of recommendations by the UN Human Rights Council. UN officials made a total of 229 recommendations on UK policy and law which aim to strengthen human rights outcomes, but the Government said that it will support just 96 of them – equivalent to 42%. The recommendations were made as part of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process which assesses every country’s human rights record once every five years.
UK taking a back seat in the fight for human rights
The UK’s refusal to back most of the recommendations indicates that it is no longer a global pioneer of human rights. On average, countries support 73% of UPR recommendations. At its last UPR review in 2013 France support 82% of the recommendations, while Saudi Arabia supported 66%.
Recommendations that the Government declined to support include decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland for certain cases, and to conduct a review of the impact of welfare reforms on disadvantaged children. The UK also declined to increase the minimum age at which people can join the armed forces – a move which would have brought it in line with the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The minimum age for joining the UK armed forces is currently 16 – making it the only country in Europe to routinely recruit people under 18, and one of the few in the world to do so.
Immigration detention recommendations declined
The Government also declined to support several recommendations relating to immigration detention. This included a suggestion that the UK should limit the amount of time that a person can be held in detention for immigration purposes. The UK is currently the only EU country which does not have such a limit. There are currently 2,994 held in detention centres in the UK, of which the longest period that any one person has currently been held for is more than four years.
People are usually held in detention for the purposes of immigration while their applications are being assessed, or if they have been refused. However, some groups claim that UK detention policy is unjust and ineffective. According to UK charity Detention Action, keeping one person in detention costs the taxpayer around £30,000 per year. But research suggests that the majority of people who are released from detention centres do not abscond; many are waiting for their immigration decision and so have a strong incentive to abide by the conditions and restrictions that the government imposes on them. Often those held in long term detention are caught in a limbo whereby they are classified as ‘stateless’ or are unable to return to their country of origin because it is too dangerous.
Recent human rights violations at UK detention centres
There have also been reports of poor conditions and rights violations within the detention centres. Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre near Bedford has been the target of repeated criticism and protest over its conditions. Campaigners have also highlighted the fact that many of the people in detention have suffered serious rights abuses in their home countries, including torture. In 2016 a call by the House of Lords to place a ban on the detention of pregnant women led to the government imposing a 72-hour time limit on detention for pregnant women.
The UK’s shifting stance
The Government’s attitude towards detention is becoming increasingly contentious, with several high profile cases recently being fought in the courts. In July a Kenyan asylum seeker at Yarl’s Wood won a court case again the Home Office for detaining her in segregation for 28 hours without authorisation. Legally, any period of isolation beyond 24 hours must be authorised by the Home Secretary.
It is not the first time that the Government has been forced to back down over its lack of respect for human rights. In September the Government was instructed to fly Samim Bigzad, a 23 year old asylum seeker, back to the UK after having deported him to his home country of Afghanistan despite a high court order not to do so. The breach of the first order led to a second high court order for his return. Mr. Bigzad feared for his life in Afghanistan, reporting that he had received death threats from the Taliban.
In the decades since the end of the Second World War, the UK played a key role in pioneering a new international framework to recognise the inalienable human rights of all people, including the support of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK Human Rights Act. In abdicating responsibility of upholding those rights to the UK courts and declining to implement a majority of the UPR recommendations, the UK Government is working against its own human rights commitments and sending a dangerous message to the world.