United Kingdom 2017/2018
Women in Northern Ireland continued to face significant restrictions on access to abortion. Counter-terrorism laws continued to restrict rights. Full accountability for torture allegations against UK intelligence agencies and armed forces remained unrealized.
Legal, constitutional or institutional developments
In March, the Prime Minister triggered Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union, officially starting the withdrawal by the UK from the EU (Brexit). In July, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill received its first reading in the House of Commons. The Bill threatened to significantly reduce existing human rights protections. It excluded both the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (in its entirety) and the right of action for violations of EU General Principles from domestic law after the UK’s withdrawal. It also handed sweeping powers to ministers to alter legislation without appropriate parliamentary scrutiny, placing current rights and equality laws at risk.
In January, the government committed itself to completing the post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, by April 2018. Legal aid in civil cases had dropped drastically since the Act was introduced. In October, an internal post-legislative review memorandum was published and plans for completion of the review proper were announced for mid-2018.
In July, Lady Hale was appointed the first woman president of the Supreme Court. There was only one other woman Justice at the Court, and just 28% of all court judges were women. Representation of ethnic minorities among judges also remained a concern; only 7% declared to be a member of an ethnic minority.
Counter-terror and security
Between March and June, 41 people were killed, including the attackers, and many others injured in attacks in London, the capital, and Manchester. In June, the government announced that it would review its counter-terrorism strategy and commission an independent “assurance” of the internal reviews conducted by the Security Service (MI5) and the police around the attacks. In June, plans for a “Commission for Countering Extremism” were announced.
In May, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association issued a report warning that the government’s approach to “non-violent extremism” risked violating both freedoms.
In October, the government announced its intention to propose amendments to Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 regarding the collection, recording or possession of information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. The proposals sought to expand the scope of the offence to include repeated viewing or streaming of online material, and making such viewing punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Similar uplifts to discretionary sentences were also proposed to the offence of eliciting information about the armed forces.
In September, Muhammed Rabbani, Director of the advocacy group CAGE, was convicted of “wilfully obstructing or seeking to frustrate an examination or search” under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. He had refused to disclose the passwords for his laptop and phone to police at Heathrow Airport in London. By June, police had stopped 17,501 people under Schedule 7 powers, which did not require any suspicion of wrongdoing.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Torture in Northern Ireland
The 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 1971-1972, remained pending before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). In October, the High Court in Northern Ireland quashed a decision by the Police Service of Northern Ireland to end preliminary inquiries into torture of the 14 “Hooded Men”, who were abused while in detention in Northern Ireland by the British army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1971.
In January, the Supreme Court issued a judgment in the joined appeals in Belhaj and Others v. Jack Straw and Others and Rahmatullah v. Ministry of Defence and Another. It ruled that the government could not rely on the legal doctrines of “sovereign immunity” and “foreign act of state” to escape civil claims in the two cases alleging UK involvement in human rights violations by foreign governments. The first case concerned allegations by former Libyan opposition leader Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar that they had been subjected to rendition, torture and other ill-treatment in 2004 by the US and Libyan governments, with the knowledge and co-operation of UK officials. The second case was brought by Yunus Rahmatullah, detained by UK forces in Iraq in 2004 before being handed over to US forces and allegedly tortured and imprisoned without charge for over 10 years.
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 ICC. On 3 December, the Office declared that there was a reasonable basis to believe that members of the UK armed forces committed war crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court against persons in their custody. An admissibility assessment was ongoing.
In April, the House of Commons Defence Select Committee issued a report in which it proposed to introduce a Statute of Limitations with regard to alleged crimes committed by British soldiers and other security forces personnel in Northern Ireland before 1998.
Proceedings brought by Amnesty International and other applicants were pending before the ECtHR regarding the legality of the pre-Investigatory Powers Act, mass surveillance regime and intelligence sharing practices. The judgment was pending at the end of the year.
Northern Ireland – legacy issues
In January, the Historic Institutional Abuse Inquiry published findings from the investigation into 22 residential children’s institutions in Northern Ireland, covering the period from 1922 to 1995. It found widespread and systemic failings by the UK and institutions in their duties towards the children in their care. The government had not implemented any of the recommendations at the end of the year.
The government continued to refuse funding to implement plans by the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland to address the backlog of “legacy” coroners’ inquests.
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
Abortion remained criminalized in Northern Ireland in almost every circumstance. Abortion was permitted only where the life or health of the woman or girl was at risk. Women faced criminal prosecution for taking WHO-approved medication to induce abortions. To access abortions, 724 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England and Wales in 2016.
In June, in the case of a 15-year-old girl who travelled to England for an abortion, and her mother, the Supreme Court ruled that women resident in Northern Ireland were not entitled to free abortions on the National Health Service. In September, the threat of prosecution against medical professionals in Northern Ireland who made abortion referrals to Great Britain was lifted.
The UK Supreme Court case challenging Northern Ireland’s abortion law was ongoing. The case considered whether the law breached women’s rights by prohibiting abortions in cases of rape or incest and serious/fatal foetal impairment. A ruling was expected in early 2018.
Arrangements for women resident in Northern Ireland to access free abortion services in England and Scotland were confirmed in October and November respectively.
In January, the Scottish government set up an independent review into hate crime laws in Scotland.
Northern Ireland remained the only part of the UK to deny same-sex couples the right to marriage. In July, thousands of people took part in a march in the city of Belfast calling for marriage equality.
In September, an independent review into ethnic minority individuals in the criminal justice system in England and Wales was published. It found that ethnic minorities were disproportionately represented in prisons, with 25% of prisoners (despite making up 14% of the population in the counties reviewed), and that 40% of young people in custody were from ethnic minority backgrounds.
In August, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities severely criticized the UK for failing to ensure the rights of people with disabilities with respect to, among other things, education, employment, and an adequate standard of living and social protection.
Right to life
During the night of 13-14 June, at least 71 people died and dozens were injured in a fire at the Grenfell Tower social housing block in London. In September, a public inquiry into the cause of the fire, the emergency services’ and authorities’ responses, the building’s construction and modifications, as well as the adequacy of the regulatory framework began. The fire raised questions concerning the authorities’ and private actors’ compliance with their human rights obligations and responsibilities including protection of the right to life and guaranteeing an adequate standard of living, including the right to adequate housing.
Refugees’ and migrants’ rights
The government continued to extend immigration-related controls across public and private life, collecting children’s nationality and country of birth data from schools and widening nationality and immigration checks on access to free health care.
In July, the government ended its so-called “Dubs Amendment” scheme under which 480 unaccompanied refugee children who were already in Europe were to be resettled in the UK. No children were resettled in 2017, despite 280 local authority places available for them. A legal challenge to the government’s limited implementation of the scheme, brought by the NGO Help Refugees, was unsuccessful before the High Court and an appeal was lodged.
In September, the government introduced a Data Protection Bill that included a provision to exclude basic safeguards on taking, holding and using personal data for the purpose of “effective immigration control”.
In October, the High Court ruled that the Home Office’s “Adults at Risk” policy on the detention of victims of torture was unlawful.
Violence against women and girls
In June, the Prime Minister announced plans for adopting a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill and appointing a Domestic Violence and Abuse Commissioner. The government was yet to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention), which it signed in 2012.
Concerns remained about the impact of austerity-led cuts on funding for specialist services for women who had experienced domestic violence or abuse.
The UK continued to supply arms to Saudi Arabia despite ongoing serious violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen.