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United Kingdom 2016/2017

Full accountability for torture allegations against UK intelligence agencies and armed forces remained unrealized. An extremely broad surveillance law was passed. Women in Northern Ireland faced significant restrictions on access to abortion. The government failed to establish a review into the impacts of cuts to civil legal aid. Hate crimes rose significantly following the UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU.

Legal, constitutional or institutional developments

In June, the majority of the electorate in the UK and Gibraltar voted in a referendum to leave the EU.

Although the new Justice Secretary announced in August that the government intended to continue with plans to replace the Human Rights Act (which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law) with a British Bill of Rights, by the end of the year the Attorney General suggested that concrete proposals would be deferred until after the EU referendum process had been completed.

Justice system

Calls intensified for a review of cuts to civil legal aid brought about by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), based on their impact on vulnerable and marginalized people in various contexts, including inquests, immigration, welfare, family and housing law.1 Official statistics published in June by the Legal Aid Agency showed that legal help in civil cases had dropped to one third of pre-LASPO levels. In July, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights called on the government to reassess the impact of reforms to the legal aid system. The government failed to establish a review.

Counter-terror and security

Counter-terrorism powers and related policy initiatives to counter “extremism” continued to raise concerns.

Definition of terrorism

Despite a Court of Appeal judgment in January which narrowed the definition of terrorism, and recurring criticism of the over-broad statutory definition by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, the Home Secretary confirmed, in October, that the government had no intention of changing it.

Administrative controls

In November, Parliament extended the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIM) Act 2011 for five more years. TPIMs are government-imposed administrative restrictions on individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism-related activity.

The Independent Reviewer’s annual report, published in November, documented that new powers to prevent suspected “foreign terrorist fighters” from travelling were applied 24 times during 2015, and pre-existing powers to withdraw passports from British citizens were exercised 23 times, but that a power available since 2015 to temporarily exclude returning “foreign terrorist fighters” had not been used.

“Counter-extremism” policy

Plans for a Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill were announced in May, but no concrete legislative proposal had been tabled by end of year.

NGO research into the statutory “prevent duty” on certain public bodies, including schools, to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”, found that the scheme created a serious risk of violating human rights, including peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, and that its application in educational and health care settings undermined trust.

In April, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association warned that the government’s approach to “non-violent extremism” risked violating both freedoms. In July, the Parliamentary Joint Committee for Human Rights recommended the use of existing laws rather than drafting new, unclear legislation.

Drones

In May, the Joint Committee for Human Rights published its inquiry into the use of drones for targeted killing. The inquiry examined the drone strike by the Royal Air Force in 2015 in al-Raqqa, Syria, killing three people, including at least one British national, believed to be members of the armed group Islamic State (IS). The inquiry called on the government to clarify its policy of targeted killings in armed conflict and its role in targeted killing by other states outside armed conflict.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Internment in Northern Ireland

In December, the government responded to questions put to it by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), following a 2014 request by the Irish government to review the 1978 judgment in Ireland v UK, on torture techniques used in internment in Northern Ireland in 1971-72.

Rendition

In June, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided not to bring any criminal charges relating to allegations by two Libyan families that they had been subject to rendition, torture and other ill-treatment in 2004 by the US and Libyan governments, with the knowledge and co-operation of UK officials. In November, the two families – Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar, and Sami al-Saadi and his wife and children – began judicial review proceedings to challenge the CPS decision.

Armed forces

In September, it emerged that the Royal Military Police were investigating approximately 600 cases of alleged mistreatment and abuse in detention in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2013.

As of November, the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, the body investigating allegations of abuse of Iraqi civilians by UK armed forces personnel, had concluded or was about to conclude investigations into 2,356 of 3,389 allegations received.

The Iraq Fatality Investigations, a separate body established in 2013, reported in September on the death of 15-year-old Ahmad Jabbar Kareem Ali, finding that he drowned after being forced into the Shatt-al-Basra canal in southern Iraq in 2003 by UK soldiers. The Ministry of Defence apologized for the incident.

Allegations of war crimes committed by UK armed forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 remained under preliminary examination by the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

Surveillance

In November, the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA), which overhauled the existing, piecemeal domestic legislation on surveillance, became law. The IPA granted increased powers to public authorities to interfere with private communication and information in the UK and abroad. It permitted a broad range of vaguely defined interception, interference and data retention practices, and imposed new requirements on private companies, facilitating government surveillance by creating “internet connection records”. The new law lacked a requirement for clear prior judicial authorization.

In October, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled that the secret, bulk collection of domestic and foreign communications data and the collection of “bulk personal datasets” had violated the right to privacy previously, but were now lawful.

Proceedings were pending before the ECtHR regarding the legality of the pre-IPA mass surveillance regime and intelligence sharing practices. The Court of Justice of the EU ruled in December that the general, indiscriminate retention of communications data under the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 was not permitted.

Northern Ireland: legacy issues

The former and current Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland both referred to those raising allegations of collusion or focusing on human rights violations by state agents as contributing to a “pernicious counter narrative”. NGOs advocating for accountability for victims raised concerns that such language placed their work as human rights defenders at risk.

In November, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence urged the UK government to address structural or systemic patterns of violations and abuses, rather than focusing solely on existing “event-based” approaches. He suggested widening the focus of measures from cases of death to include torture, sexual abuse and unlawful detention, with a gender-sensitive approach. The Special Rapporteur also urged limiting national security arguments against claims for redress, and ensuring that reparations for all victims be tackled seriously and systematically.

The Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland set out a detailed five-year plan to address the backlog of “legacy” coroner’s inquests, but failed to receive funding from the Northern Ireland Executive and central government.

The government continued to refuse to establish an independent public inquiry into the 1989 killing of Patrick Finucane, despite having acknowledged previously that there had been “collusion” in the case.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Access to abortion in Northern Ireland remained limited to exceptional cases where the life or health of the woman or girl was at risk.2 The abortion law in Northern Ireland was criticized by both the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Rights of the Child in July.

Women in Northern Ireland faced criminal prosecution for taking WHO-approved medication to induce abortions. A woman was given a three-month suspended sentence after pleading guilty to two offences under the 1861 law governing abortion in Northern Ireland.

Official statistics for the previous year showed that 833 women from Northern Ireland had travelled to England or Wales to access abortion, and that 16 lawful abortions had been performed in Northern Ireland.

In June, the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal heard appeals of a 2015 High Court, ruling that the region’s abortion law was incompatible with domestic and international human rights law.

In November, Scotland’s First Minister set out proposals to provide access to abortion services through the National Health Service in Scotland for women and girls from Northern Ireland.

Discrimination

The National Police Chiefs’ Council’s official statistics in June and September showed a 57% spike in reporting of hate crime in the week immediately following the EU membership referendum, followed by a decrease in reporting to a level 14% higher than the same period the previous year. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed his concern in June. Government statistics published in October showed an increase in hate crimes of 19% over the previous year, with 79% of the incidents recorded classified as “race hate crimes”. In November, the CERD Committee called on the UK to take steps to address the increase in such hate crimes.

In the first inquiry of its kind, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reported on the cumulative impact of legislative changes on welfare, care and legal assistance. The government disagreed with the Committee’s findings of “grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities.”

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

The Immigration Act became law in May. It extended sanctions against landlords whose tenants’ immigration status disqualifies them from renting, while increasing landlords’ eviction powers; extended powers to block limited appeal rights against removal from the UK until after the person has left the country; and introduced a scheme whereby separated children seeking asylum in the UK may be transferred between local authorities.

The government continued to resist calls to take more responsibility for hosting refugees. In April, the government announced it would resettle up to 3,000 people from the Middle East and North Africa by May 2020. In October, the government accepted a few dozen separated children from the “Jungle” camp in Calais, France, alongside a larger number of other children relocated to join family under provisions of the Dublin III regulations.

In January, an Independent Review into the welfare in detention of vulnerable persons made strong criticisms of the scale and longevity of immigration detention. In August, the Home Office responded with a new “adults at risk” policy. However, NGOs criticized the policy for further removing safeguards against harmful detention, including by adopting a narrow definition of “torture” when considering the risk posed by detention to a person’s welfare. In November, the High Court permitted a challenge to the policy, ordering that the previous wider definition of torture be used for the time being.

Violence against women and girls

In December, the House of Commons voted to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention), which the government had signed in 2012. In July, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended improved collection of information on violence against children, including domestic and gender-based violence.

Serious concerns remained about the reduced funding of specialist services for women who had experienced domestic violence or abuse. Research by the domestic women’s rights organization Women’s Aid showed that refuges were being forced to turn away two in three survivors due to lack of space or inability to meet their needs, and that the rate for ethnic minority women was four in five.

Trade union rights

In May, the Trade Union Act, which placed more restrictions on unions organizing strike action, came into force. During the year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights called on the government to review and revise the law.

  1. United Kingdom: Cuts that hurt – the impact of legal aid cuts in England on access to justice (EUR 45/4936/2016)
  2. United Kingdom: Submission to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (EUR 45/3990/2016)

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