I lived in the Middle East for seven years. In Dubai, specifically – land of chandeliers, Chanel and, latterly, alleged daughterly detainment.
It was a confusing place to be for a dyed in the wool feminist with an interest in environmentalism, equality and human rights, and I found myself feeling continuously unsettled, as though every visa renewal offered my tacit approval to the country’s woeful human rights record, censorship and modern slavery practices.
Certainly, I wasn’t the only person considering the contradiction. The question I most often faced was how I felt about living in a country where racism and sexism are not just present, but legally protected. I never really found the right response – which is a shame, as it feels like it would be handy now, living in the UK.
While I’ve always been aware that Britain is far from infallible, I was fairly convinced basic democratic rights could be taken as given here. How wrong, and how privileged, I was. Because if Amnesty International’s newest annual report is anything to go by, the gaping chasm I once thought existed between the two nations is now barely a pothole.
“For years, the UK has been moving in the wrong direction on human rights – but things are now getting worse at an accelerating rate,” explains Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK. “On the right to protest, on the Human Rights Act, on accountability for coronavirus deaths, on asylum, on arms sales or on trade with despots – we’re speeding toward the cliff edge. We need to stop this headlong rush into abandoning our human rights.”
There’s little question the Amnesty report, which details human rights trends over the last year, both globally and in 149 individual countries, makes for sobering reading – particularly for anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that UK remains among the world’s fairer nations.
“Having made mistake after lethal mistake during the pandemic, the Government is now shamefully trying to strip away our right to lawfully challenge its decisions no matter how poor they are,” Allen explains, pointing to the judicial review, the ongoing review of the Human Rights Act, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which threatens to severely restrict the British public’s right to peaceful protest.
Indeed, as the report explores at length, the UK has already gone some distance to curtail such civil liberties, under the guise of corona-protection. “In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, parliament granted far-reaching emergency powers to the UK and devolved governments for up to two years, subject to parliamentary renewal every six months,” the report notes. “Lockdowns implemented to slow the spread of the virus severely restricted freedom of movement, freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to privacy and family life.”
Having highlighted the UK’s death toll as among the highest in Europe, and criticised the country’s inadequate provision of PPE, the report goes on to state that officials “violated the right to health and right to life of older people resident in care homes”, both through the level of care provided and through the blanket imposition of do not resuscitate orders. It also blasts ministerial resistance to calls for a critical investigation of disproportionately high rates of coronavirus deaths among our Black and Asian communities.
While it would be easy for the government to try and justify such erosions as necessary in an emergency, the report goes to great lengths to demonstrate the ways in which the UK’s response has disproportionately impacted upon its most vulnerable residents.
From the use of “excessive force” against Black Lives Matter protesters and the disproportionately high rate of fines issued to Black and Asian people for non-compliance with lockdown measures, to high-profile cases of Taser use against Black people and the record high number of stop and searches conducted during the first lockdown, a quarter of which targeted young Black men, the picture of race painted in the report is grim – and deeply at odds with the government’s own report on racial disparity, published just last week.
It is no less damning of the country’s treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, highlighting continuing detentions, the decision to maintain no recourse to public funds legislation and the end to free movement as having a detrimental impact on already vulnerable people.
And then, there’s its view on the UK’s treatment of women.
“The government lacked a fully coordinated plan to tackle the foreseeable risk of domestic violence during the pandemic and failed to provide sufficient and timely emergency funding for frontline services,” the report rages. Women from ethnic minorities faced increased risk, and yet no funding was ringfenced for those communities. Meanwhile, women whose immigration status prevents access to benefits faced even more complex barriers to support.
Sex workers, the report notes, were also left in a particularly precarious situation, while the government’s insistence on maintaining a five-week waiting period for benefits further compounded that picture of risk – despite ministers previously acknowledging the delay itself “was a factor in some women resorting to sex work.”
The report also highlights the inadequate provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland, despite decriminalisation taking effect last March, and notes that “amid growing transphobic rhetoric and fear-mongering in the media, the government’s proposed amendments to the outdated Gender Recognition Act in England and Wales fell short of human rights standards.”
Friends and influence
So, if the UK’s record at home has been left lacking in the last year, what about its standing abroad? First up, Amnesty notes with dismay the UK’s decision to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia in July, one year on from a court ruling that suspended new military licensing to the country in light of its violent intervention in Yemen.
The report’s authors also highlight the UK’s decision to continue exporting crowd control equipment, including rubber bullets and tear gas, to the USA, even when it was being used against peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors.
Were that not enough, it goes on to accuse the UK government of state overreach in the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill’s proposed sentencing overhauls, and highlights proposed new laws that would allow British soldiers overseas to act with impunity, safe from prosecution for crimes including torture.
“COVID-19 has brutally exposed and deepened inequality both within and between countries, and highlighted the staggering disregard our leaders have for our shared humanity,” summarises Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s new secretary general. “Decades of divisive policies, misguided austerity measures, and choices by leaders not to invest in crumbling public infrastructure, have left too many easy prey to this virus.
“We face a world in disarray. At this point in the pandemic, even the most deluded leaders would struggle to deny that our social, economic and political systems are broken.”
I guess we shouldn’t mention the race report…
Amnesty International’s full 2020/21 report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, is available to read here