“Both the overall system for protecting human rights, and the rights of specific groups, are currently under pressure in the United Kingdom (UK). The authorities should spare no effort to reverse this trend”, warns today the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, while releasing the report following her visit to the UK in June 2022.
The report focuses on the overall human rights landscape in the UK, children’s rights, and specific human rights issues relating to Northern Ireland.
“The report reflects the anxiety about the direction of human rights protection in the UK that I encountered during my visit. This anxiety is fed by what appears to be an increasingly antagonistic attitude towards human rights by the UK government, and especially by recent and proposed changes to laws and policies”, she observes.
Most prominent among these is the proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act and to replace it with a Bill of Rights. The Commissioner underlines that this step would weaken rather than strengthen human rights in the UK, including by encouraging divergence between the interpretation of human rights by domestic courts and by the European Court of Human Rights. In addition, Commissioner Mijatović is concerned about the impact of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, especially its chilling effect on the right to peaceful assembly, which will be worsened if the Public Order Bill is adopted. The Commissioner also highlights a significant regression in the observance of the UK’s international obligations to uphold the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, including through the expansion of inadmissibility rules for asylum claims, the pursuit of removals to Rwanda, and the criminalisation of asylum seekers arriving irregularly. She furthermore calls for steps to counter the toxic public discourse towards trans persons, which risks reversing the progress made in the UK in combating discrimination against LGBTI people. Finally, the Commissioner reiterates her call on the UK government not to allow Julian Assange’s extradition, due to the impact this step would have on media freedom more generally.
To better protect children’s rights, the Commissioner calls for urgent measures to combat child poverty, including by developing comprehensive strategies and establishing binding targets, as well as by addressing structural elements of the welfare and benefits system. Specific steps also need to be taken to tackle food insecurity among children, especially by working towards the universal provision of free school meals, and to realise their right to adequate housing. Other measures to be taken to better protect children’s rights comprise reviewing the use of stop and search powers against children, including the practice of strip-searching, raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to bring it in line with international standards, and ensuring that 16- and 17-year-olds can fully benefit from child-friendly justice. Steps should also be taken to build on good practices to promote the participation of children in decision-making, including by lowering the voting age where applicable.
As regards Northern Ireland, the UK government should consider withdrawing the Legacy Bill in view of the widespread opposition in Northern Ireland and the serious issues of compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights it raises. The Commissioner stresses: “Any further steps on legacy must place the rights and needs of victims at its heart.” She also calls for steps to be taken to enhance overall human rights protection in Northern Ireland, including by providing adequate resources to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission so that it can carry out its functions fully. The Commissioner calls for steps to protect journalists, as well as other groups at risk, in the light of continuing threats against them. She underlines that there can be no impunity for the murders of journalists, recalling the cases of Martin O’Hagan and Lyra McKee. Tackling the widespread segregation in the Northern Ireland education system, including by significantly expanding the number of integrated schools, is another crucial step to move forward as a society. The Commissioner also stresses that adequate and sustained funding of abortion services in Northern Ireland is essential to safeguard women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.