International human rights can help reverse yet another heavy blow on sexual and reproductive health

My Body My ChoiceThis article was published first in UK Human Rights Blog

Women’s sexual and reproductive rights are not safe and accessible in all corners of the United Kingdom.

Abortion is still a crime in Northern Ireland. Women who choose to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights have to travel to mainland Britain, but they have to face costs (about £900 in this recent case) that would not apply if they lived in England, Wales or Scotland.

By a majority of 3 to 2, the Supreme Court has ruled that, while this situation does in principle concern the right to enjoy a private and family life without discrimination (Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights), the difference in treatment is justified because the decision on this matter falls under the powers of the devolved administration of Northern Ireland (paragraph 20 of the Judgment). And therefore the human rights of women living in Northern Ireland are not being breached.

Well, international human rights bodies beg to differ. Continue reading “International human rights can help reverse yet another heavy blow on sexual and reproductive health”

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International human rights bodies have said it loud and clear: We need clear targets to reduce child poverty

This article was published first by Huffington Post

The UK needs clear targets to reduce and eventually put an end to child poverty.

This is the purpose of a Private Members’ Bill sponsored by Dan Jarvis MP. The Bill places the duty on the government to set targets to limit both absolute and relative child poverty, to lay out a clear strategy, and to report to Parliament on progress made to meet the targets. The Bill intends to restore the benchmarks of the Child Poverty Act 2010, which were removed by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.

According to the Department of Work and Pensions, the proportion of children in absolute low income (before housing costs) was 17% in 2014/15, substantially more than the 5% target of the Bill being discussed in Parliament. Furthermore, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted a 3-point rise in absolute child poverty between 2016 and 2020 as a result of planned tax and benefit reforms. Continue reading “International human rights bodies have said it loud and clear: We need clear targets to reduce child poverty”

Economic and social rights in the UK in 2016: A whole year under the UN spotlight… and more is coming

downloadThis article was published first by Housing Rights Watch

After nearly two years of evidence gathering and interaction with civil society and government officials, last June the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued its Concluding Observations on the extent to which UK authorities have been complying with international law on these rights.

To the government’s sorrow, the picture was bleak, but the report also included 60 very specific recommendations. For example, the Committee recommends making economic and social rights enforceable in court, just like civil and political rights are, without regressive changes to the Human Rights Act 1998. Authorities must adopt measures to address the deficit of affordable housing, particularly rental housing. The UK should review its fiscal policy to make sure that taxes provide the necessary resources to satisfy economic and social rights. The government must also enact Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that authorities have socio-economic equality in due regard when designing and implementing their policies. Decisive measures must be taken to eliminate the gender pay gap, and reduce the use of temporary and precarious forms of employment, such as “zero hour contracts”.  The Committee also expressed serious worries about the negative impact of welfare reforms introduced since 2012, in particular benefit cuts and freezes, the use of sanctions, and the disconnect between state benefits and costs of living.

These findings can only be explained if one factors austerity into the equation. The Committee expressed serious concerns about “the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups”. The Committee had seen the link between austerity and human rights retrogression before in the Czech Republic (2014), Slovenia (2014), Romania (2014), Portugal (2014) and Spain (2012). The connection had also been noted by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe (2013).

2016 was a busy year for the UK government. The Committee on the Rights of the Child published its Concluding Observations in June, and so did the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in October. In September, the UN made public a joint letter sent to the UK government some months earlier by the Special Rapporteurs on Housing, on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on Extreme Poverty, and on the Right to Food, with specific questions about the compatibility of welfare reforms with international human rights obligations of the UK, and the report of the inquiry of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was published in October. This Committee stressed a series of concerns about the negative impact of austerity-led welfare reforms on the rights of people with disabilities.

UN human rights oversight does not end here. Every five years or so, countries are grilled for three hours in the UN Human Rights Council in what is known as the “Universal Periodic Review”. Next turn for the UK will be May 2017. We don’t know what sort of recommendations the UK will receive from other countries, but many organisations and coalitions, including Just Fair, have already made some suggestions. The joint report produced by the British Institute of Human Rights gathered information from 175 organisations, including Just Fair.

Ok, so the UN has spoken categorically, and more is surely coming in mid-2017. But what now?

The UK has voluntarily assumed the commitment to bring to live the rights proclaimed in international treaties. International human rights mechanisms provide advocacy opportunities, but they are only as effective as civil society makes them to be. Organisations and society at large must hold the government to account and demand policies that fulfil the human rights promise.

As soon as she entered into office, PM Theresa May promised that her government would “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.” For now, however, apart from some minimal announcements in the Autumn statement in November, the government has not changed course from the austerity path initiated by Cameron and Osborne. The government has not reacted to the report of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in its response to the inquiry report of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the government ignored entirely the criticism of the deliberate and unjustified retrogressive measures of recent years.

Even in turbulent waters, there is room for good news. Following the lead of Scotland (since 2012) and Wales (since 2015), a bill is currently being discussed in Westminster Parliament that would create a new duty to prevent homelessness for all eligible applicants threatened with homelessness in England, which would stop councils turning non-vulnerable single people away without any assistance at all. In November, the Supreme Court ruled on the human rights compliance of the so-called “bedroom tax” (or “spare room subsidy”), which essentially means the lowering of housing benefit for those living in social housing that is deemed to have spare bedrooms. The Court ruled that disabled adults who cannot share a room with another person should not have their spare room subsidy removed, and also that treating children and adults differently in this regard would breach Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on private and family life, and non-discrimination. The Scottish government is considering legalising the right to food in accordance with international human rights standards, and has also announced its intention to introduce a new socioeconomic equality duty on public authorities in 2017.

Brexit has taken the UK to an unchartered territory. We don’t know when and how the UK will leave the European Union, and we don’t know the effect that this may have for human rights in general, and economic and social rights in particular. But it is fair to say that the UK is not heading out in order to protect and promote economic and social rights better. At times of enormous political and social uncertainty, in Just Fair we will continue using the international human rights machinery in defence of human rights for all.

Koldo Casla

Policy, Research and Training Officer, Just Fair

Ecocide: the international crime that could have been but never quite was

This post was first published in NBXMain in October 2015

Genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity are international crimes and, since 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate individuals accused of having committed acts of that nature. From 2017, under certain circumstances the ICC will also have jurisdiction in relation to the crime of aggression. These are the four international crimes recognised in the Statute of the ICC. There was a time, however, when scholars, international bodies and even some government officials spoke about a possible fifth international crime: Ecocide.

Ecocide was a crazy idea promoted by a bunch of visionary/loony academics of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Aware of the fact that human action was causing irreparable damage to the ecosystem, they argued that humanity as a whole could be considered to be the victim of premeditated forms of aggression against the environment.

The idea could have remained an exercise of academic engineering had it not resonated, even if mildly, in international political discourse. Most famously, the then Prime Minister of Sweden, Olaf Palme, said in his opening address of the 1972 Stockholm Conference on Environment:

”The immense destruction brought about by indiscriminate bombing, by large scale use of bulldozers and herbicides is an outrage sometimes described as ecocide, which requires urgent international attention.”  Continue reading “Ecocide: the international crime that could have been but never quite was”

Should rights be submitted to referendum? (You won’t find the answer here)

0fe51435c8d9f2e165e32117bb1d8c65-800xEarlier this year, many of us felt proud of Ireland. 62% of Irish people voted to proclaim marriage equality in the national constitution. Ireland, a country of profound Catholic roots, had become the first country to recognise at the constitutional level the right to marriage regardless of sexual orientation. It was very good news for those who believe in human rights, equality and non-discrimination.

Last week, only seven months after the Irish vote, 63.5% of the Slovenian electorate rejected a law allowing same-sex marriage. Turnout was rather low (36%), lower than in Ireland (61%), but enough to make the result just as valid. The result was particularly disappointing considering that in 2005 Slovenia became the first Eastern European country to legally recognise same-sex partnerships. (By the way, two days after Slovenia voted against equal marriage, the Greek Parliament voted in favour of civil partnerships for gay people).

Reportedly, the Slovenian constitution forbids referendums on human rights issues, but the Constitutional Court authorised the popular vote called by a civic platform (suggestively named “Children Are At Stake”) that had gathered more than 40,000 signatures.

I haven’t been able to find the ruling in English, so I am not familiar with the Court’s reasoning, but the Slovenian story makes me wonder: Should rights be submitted to referendum? Continue reading “Should rights be submitted to referendum? (You won’t find the answer here)”

Bombardment of Damascus 90 years later: Two questions around the Responsibility to Protect

France bombed Damascus 90 years ago as a reaction to the Syrian revolt for independence. France held the mandate over Syria under the League of Nations authority. The day after an attack against French troops, France bombed the city for 48 hours. It is said that between 1000 and 5000 people died. Bombardments continued the following months.

France’s intervention was authorised by the Western powers and by the League of Nations. And precisely the endorsement of the League triggered the reaction of Arab critics: Was France allowed by international law to intervene militarily in Syria? Continue reading “Bombardment of Damascus 90 years later: Two questions around the Responsibility to Protect”

Against the criminalisation of foreign fighters with the discourse of terrorism

chartoftheday_2658_Where_Syrias_Foreign_Fighters_Come_From_nLast week, interior ministers of the 15 countries sitting at the UN Security Council met to discuss foreign fighters. They did so as part of the follow-up of Resolution 2178 (2014), which defines foreign fighters as people who travel or attempt to travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality, and other individuals who travel or attempt to travel from their territories to a State other than their States of residence or nationality, for the purpose of the perpetration, planning, or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts, or the providing or receiving of terrorist training”.

This is hardly a new phenomenon, but foreign fighters are getting more and more attention in relation to Syria and Iraq. The number of foreign fighters in both countries could exceed 20,000, and according to the Director of Europol, between 3,000 and 5,000 of them would come from EU countries.

In Resolution 2178, as well as previous ones since 2001, the Security Council urges states to adopt legislative and criminal measures to prevent terrorism and bring suspects to justice.

With the intention to operationalise the mandate of the Security Council, the Council of Europe is working on a draft protocol to the 2005 European Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism. This text criminalises the action of joining a group and “participating” in its activities “for the purpose of committing or contributing to the commission” of terrorist offenses (Article 2), “receiving training for terrorism” (Article 3), “travelling abroad for the purpose of terrorism” (Article 4), “funding travelling abroad for the purpose of terrorism” (Article 5), or “organising or otherwise facilitating travelling” for that purpose (Article 6).

As noted by Scheinin, the formulation of these provisions relies on the intent (“purpose”) of the person to participate or contribute towards the commission of a terrorist offence.

The draft protocol, therefore, does not call for the criminalisation of travelling to conflict zones, and individual countries have not modified their criminal legislation to punish travelling per se. The subjective element of intent is required.

However, a variety of measures are already being taken in relation to foreign fighters, ranging from passport confiscation (Germany), attempts to bar foreign fighters from acquiring national citizenship (Austria), stripping known foreign fighters of access to social services (Belgium), or revoking naturalised nationality (UK and Netherlands) (see reports here, here and here).

So far, these measures are targeting Islamic foreign fighters travelling to conflict areas with a religious motivation. However, there is no reason why these measures could not be potentially applied to other conflicts. For example, Spanish authorities recently detained eight nationals that had fought in Ukraine on the pro-Russian side. Apparently their actions may have infringed Spain’s neutrality, and therefore compromise the country’s “peace or independence”. Continue reading “Against the criminalisation of foreign fighters with the discourse of terrorism”