A few weeks ago, the House of Commons was presented with the latest Queen’s Speech in which the government, despite the expectation of a General Election, set out its priorities for the coming period of Parliament. It is rare for such speeches at any time to focus on issues of human rights, especially with so much current attention being on the Brexit debate and the ongoing political uncertainty. The latest Queen’s Speech was no exception.
With so much in the political and social worlds that seem to divide the British nation at present, it is timely and helpful to take a step back and focus on the values that unite us – especially the fundamental rights and freedoms we all share.
Amnesty International (AI) is an organisation that exists in order to protect and enhance human rights worldwide. So, in anticipation of the 2019 Queen’s Speech, AI put together an alternative Queen’s Speech in which it listed its seven human rights’ priorities for challenging injustices – both in the UK and around the world.
In what follows I will set out these seven priorities and, with the encouragement of AI, provide a brief explanation of what AI has stated about these priorities.
1. A Bill to embed respect for family life in all immigration and asylum decision making, including enabling more refugee families to be reunited in safety in the UK.
The Government should underline respect for the best interests of children and the importance of family life by extending family reunion rights to child refugees in the UK, so that children have the right to bring their parents here to join them. Adult refugees should be able to sponsor their elderly parents, siblings, and children up to the age of 25.
2. Measures to strengthen support and protection for human rights defenders.
Championing human rights around the world should be at the heart of UK foreign policy – and this must include increasing support for brave human rights defenders who face unprecedented levels of repression and abuse.
Defenders are ordinary people doing extraordinary things – lawyers, journalists, activists – defending the environment, uncovering corruption, promoting the rights of women and girls. They are the agents of change in their communities, and they need strategic support from the UK which includes access to funding, emergency protection, greater promotion and recognition.
3. A Bill to overhaul the UK’s immigration system to ensure respecting people’s rights is the primary priority of the system.
This must include ending indefinite immigration detention, restoring legal aid for immigration and nationality cases, guaranteeing the best interests of children, and ensuring no one – including EU nationals living in the UK – is unjustly deprived of rights to British citizenship.
4. A Domestic Abuse Bill that gives equal protection to all survivors of domestic abuse.
The Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill could be a trailblazing piece of legislation, but it will fail unless it meets the needs of migrant women. They must have access to safe reporting systems, without the fear of immigration enforcement, and be able to access public funds and support services. Migrant women should be asked if they are safe, not where they are from.
5. A clear commitment that the UK will remain a member of the European Convention on Human Rights after Brexit.
It is vital that human rights are prioritised and protected throughout and beyond the Brexit process. The Government must also commit to retaining the Human Rights Act and to restoring the domestic rights and protections which UK citizens have lost through the previous Government’s decision to scrap the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the general principles of EU law.
6. Legislation to strengthen the arms export control system to ensure the UK complies fully with its human rights.
The fact that the UK has supplied more than £4 billion of military hardware to Saudi Arabia since the outbreak of the conflict in Yemen, despite the clear risk of it being used to commit or facilitate violations of international humanitarian law, shows that the current system is not fit for purpose and requires a complete overhaul.
7. Regulations that will enable free, safe, legal and local abortion in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, passed in July 2019, decriminalised abortion, provided a moratorium on prosecutions and made abortion lawful – including in cases where there is a risk to health, serious malformation of the foetus and in cases of sexual crime. The Government must now put in place regulations to enable free, safe, legal and local services by 31 March 2020.
As anticipated, the recent Queen’s Speech said little about fundamental human rights and the values that underpins them. Nevertheless, Amnesty International continues its work of protecting people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity is denied.
As a global movement of over 7 million people, AI is the world’s largest grassroots human rights organisation. It is composed of ordinary people from across the world standing up for human rights.
The organisation investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilises the public, and helps transform societies to create a safer, more just world. On reflection, it would have been wiser, more prudent and just, to have spent the time, effort and money involved in mounting a Queen’s Speech on advancing the cause of human rights issues – in this country and elsewhere.
Amnesty International has received the Nobel Peace Prize for its life-saving work.
Posted in Uncategorized
Tagged abortion law reforms, Amnesty International, arms export control, European Convention of Human Rights, family life, human rights, human values, injustice, legal aid, Nobel Peace Prize, Queens's Speech, refugees, UK foreign policy
Readers of this blog will be aware that I have a long-standing and reasonably frequent exchange of communications with my elected Member of Parliament. My most recent letter to my MP concerned the subject of “democracy” and the governance of the UK, as well as the role of the monarchy in all of this.
Much has been made recently by politicians about democracy. From the opinions voiced it is obvious that various ideas about democracy exist in the UK. However, even the politicians themselves show frailty and confusion about the subject.
It is often stated that the UK is a parliamentary democracy. This is, unfortunately, fallacious, as we are not a constitutional parliamentary democracy after all. The system of government in the UK is that of a constitutional monarchy.
There are distinctive and crucial differences between these two forms of governing and these differences are not generally known by the British electorate. However, it is a personal conviction that there are many amongst those who wish to remove the UK from the EU who are aware of these distinctions and who, whilst normally remaining subtly quiet about it, can be identified as those who voice such slogans as “let us take back control”.
Had this distinction between parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy been known at the time of the EU Referendum it may well have resulted in a different referendum outcome and a change in the subsequent shape of the political and constitutional malaise that the result has caused. This could also be said of other “unknowns” at the time of the EU Referendum.
The reaction by the so-called “right wing” element within the Conservative Party to parliament’s recent actions in the House of Commons suggests to this writer that the group strongly favours the institution of the monarchy, as well as a nationalist form of government for England. It further suggests to me that this element has an extremely biased and false view of the nature of democracy.
There are many in the UK, and not only those involved in politics, who are of the view that the UK’s political system is in urgent need of reform. This reform would include setting clear boundaries between the powers of the government, parliament, judiciary and the head of state. So too, there is a substantial body of opinion who are of the view that the British Constitution should now be put into written form, so that it is available to all and not just to the chosen few who wish to “take back control”!
Further, and consistent with what is expressed in the above, the British Head of State should be elected by the people. This is, surely, a fundamental aspect of what democracy should mean in the UK. In a genuine democracy this office should not be the prerogative of an unelected citizen of the UK and, more specifically, should not reside in any member of a hereditary monarchy who might regard the British people as her/his “subjects” rather than “citizens” of the nation.
The above follows recent reports that the present Conservative government could tell the present Head of State, the unelected Elizabeth Windsor, to block the passage of any Brexit bill of which the Prime Minister doesn’t approve. At this point I am mindful of the fact that it was only some fifty years ago that the British monarch’s representative in Australia, an unelected Australian Governor General, forced the removal of a duly elected Federal Labour government.
Another slogan during the debate on the first EU Referendum was that the people of the UK should return “sovereignty” to these isles. What does it mean to be a sovereign power? The Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore is most apposite in stating:
“In our case, it means having a monarch that legitimates hereditary privilege, the Lords and owning half of Scotland. It means that power is an accident of birth, but God help anyone who disses the Queen. We not only enact our serfdom; we embrace it by accepting that the monarchy is above ordinary politics.”
Whatever the processes and outcomes of the Brexit business, resort to an interference in whatever democratic principles and practices are extant in the Brexit process by an unelected Head of State, who is also a hereditary monarch, is a complete insult to any description of democracy that may have been bandied about by any politician. What, then, of being “a vassal state of Europe”?
It seems ludicrous to vote for a representative in the House of Commons only for decisions of that House to be overridden by a constitutional appeal to the reigning monarch to interfere in its judgements and rulings. That is not the same as the Commons exercising parliamentary sovereignty. I would vote for an MP pursuing the latter, but not the former!
Following the above, let me briefly address those MPs who, in the face of a Brexit that is proving altogether more difficult than it was perceived at the time of the EU Referendum, now insist on leaving the EU with or without a suitable deal. Not only this but also the fact they do so in consequence of a single referendum vote that was divisively narrow in its decision to leave the EU.
Despite a lapse of three years, such MPs continue to believe that they “must respect the will of the people” in pursuing a final Brexit outcome of the 2016 EU Referendum.
Was the will of the people respected in 1975 when the decision was taken for the UK to enter the Common European Market? Since 1975, a group of Conservative MPs, who today nestle under the banner of the European Research Group (ERG), have constantly advocated and agitated for the UK to leave the EU.
The British system of government insists that the will of the people is heard in national elections that are held no more than five years from the previous election. This process recognizes that people can, and often do, change their minds – in politics as with other aspects of life. In the situation where the result of a referendum proves difficult, if not impossible, to institute, then surely it is entirely consistent with the principles of democracy that the people should have the opportunity to change their collective mind – confirming or otherwise a suggested outcome?
When elected, do MPs always follow their party’s manifesto – do they always hold to the promises of a manifesto? From one election to another, do they constantly adhere to the will of the people they represent? Why do so many MP’s now insist on respecting the result of the EU Referendum when it is counter to what they campaigned for, a result they obviously regret and one that, it is generally considered, will be damaging to the national well-being?
What place has their obligation, as elected representatives, to represent to their electors what they and their chosen political party stands for – even where this may be unpopular? Are MPs teachers as well as preachers?
What factors cause them to change their minds in the face of opposition from their electorates? To what extent, in the face of challenge and adversity, do they have the integrity to remain true to the cause they originally campaigned and fought for?
The cries of the Brexiteers to “take back control” and “return sovereignty to these isles” would have more substance if they were accompanied by a determination to reform our political and social institutions and refuse to bow to a feudal system. Again, the words of Suzanne Moore are most apposite: “Yet even sensible people fall for the circus of honours, touches of ermine and empire, while young working-class men get their legs blown off to ‘serve Queen and country’”.
Have we in the UK become, or are in the process of becoming, the authors of our own demise?