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UNITED KINGDOM 2021

The government promised an inquiry into its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and significantly cut a welfare benefit received by 6 million people. The rights of refugees and migrants were routinely violated. A new policing bill seriously endangered the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and non-discrimination. A bill on judicial review and a review of the Human Rights Act caused concern. Certain areas of Northern Ireland still lacked adequate access to abortion. Accountability for past violations in Northern Ireland and for UK complicity in the US-led secret detention programme remained unrealized. A court decision blocking Julian Assange’s extradition to the USA was overturned on appeal. Detention conditions in Scotland fell below necessary standards.

Background

The Covid-19 pandemic escalated in 2021 with steep rises in cases and significant pressure on hospitals. The government imposed a national lockdown on 5 January and parliament renewed Covid-19-related emergency powers twice. Most restrictions imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic were lifted in July and August. In late December, daily Covid-19 infections exceeded records and some restrictions were reimposed in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Right to health

By December, the UK had recorded the second-highest death toll from Covid-19 in Europe. Life expectancy for men fell for the first time since records began due to the pandemic. By the end of the year, 82.4% of the population aged 12 and over had been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. The UK had a large surplus of vaccine doses by the end of the year, which were not sufficiently redistributed to low and lower-middle income countries in need of vaccines.1

In May, the Prime Minister announced that an independent public inquiry into the government response to the Covid-19 pandemic would not begin until the second quarter of 2022. Bereaved families, unions, health workers and other groups demanded that the government launch the inquiry immediately.

The widespread use of Do Not Attempt Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) orders during the pandemic was criticized in a report by an independent regulator in March. Older people and people with disabilities were not sufficiently supported or given adequate information before DNACPR orders were put in place.

Right to social security

In October, the government withdrew a £20 per week increase to social security payments received by 6 million low-income or unemployed people; it had been introduced in April 2020 in response to the pandemic. It was estimated that the cut would push 500,000 people into poverty amid increasing energy and food prices.

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

Amid an increase in people crossing the Channel by boat to seek asylum in the UK, the government introduced changes to the UK’s Immigration Rules and proposed new legislation that would make it harder to seek asylum in the UK. The Nationality and Borders Bill includes provisions penalizing asylum seekers based on how they arrive in the UK and when they claim asylum, and amendments further criminalizing people seeking asylum. The bill will correct discrimination that excludes many British people from citizenship rights, but also includes provisions that allow the government to deprive a person of their British citizenship without notice.

The Home Office announced an increase in government-chartered mass deportation flights from July. People on these flights were often deported before accessing adequate legal advice and having their claims fully considered.

The government failed to adequately protect Afghans fleeing the human rights crisis in Afghanistan. In addition to an existing scheme for Afghans employed by the UK government, the government announced the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme in August, but admitted in late October that the scheme was still not in operation, despite the urgency of the crisis.2 Official data showed that of 1,055 Afghans whose asylum claims were determined in the year to September, only 484 were granted protection.

People seeking asylum continued to be held in inhumane conditions, including in former army barracks where outbreaks of Covid-19 occurred.3

Freedom of assembly

In June, prosecutors decided not to prosecute people who had participated in Black Lives Matter protests in Belfast and Derry-Londonderry in June 2020. The Police Service of Northern Ireland also took steps to refund 72 fines for infringement of Covid-19 restrictions issued to the protesters.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (the PCSC Bill) would drastically curtail the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, including by expanding police powers to ban, limit or impose undue restrictions on “noisy” or “disruptive” protests, creating new offences of “locking on” and “being equipped for locking on”, and allowing courts to impose broad restrictions on individual protesters. The bill also includes criminal penalties for people who unwittingly breach police-imposed conditions on protests and increases criminal penalties for organizers who disobey such conditions.4 More than 350 organizations condemned the proposals and thousands of people joined demonstrations.

In March, police used unnecessary and excessive force to disperse a vigil in the capital, London, predominately attended by women, for Sarah Everard, who was raped and murdered by a police officer. Police claimed that the gathering violated Covid-19-related regulations.

Discrimination

In February, a coalition of 17 organizations declared a boycott of the government’s review of Prevent, its counter-radicalization strategy, after the appointment of William Shawcross as its chair despite his record of expressing Islamophobic views.5

In March, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, appointed by the government after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, published a report rejecting the existence of institutional racism in the UK and arguing that there was a “repeated use and misapplication of the term ‘racism’ to account for every observed disparity”. The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said the report “repackaged racist tropes and stereotypes into fact, twisting data and misapplying statistics and studies into conclusory findings”.

The PCSC Bill contained provisions to extend the use of police stop-and-search powers with newly proposed Serious Violence Reduction Orders and to criminalize “residing on land without consent in a vehicle”. A new statutory duty to reduce serious violence would further empower police and ministers to request information about individuals from public bodies, eroding existing safeguards on data sharing. The government conceded that these provisions were likely to impact Black men and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities disproportionately.

In June, a police officer was found guilty of the manslaughter of Dalian Atkinson, a Black man, in 2016. The officer had fired a Taser at him for 33 seconds and kicked his head twice. Data released by the Independent Office for Police Conduct in August found that Black people were Tasered with disproportionate frequency and more likely to be Tasered for prolonged periods by police.

Right to truth, justice and reparation

In November, the Northern Ireland government agreed to establish an independent public inquiry, along with other measures co-designed with survivors, into “mother and baby homes”, Magdalene Laundries and work houses, which operated between 1922 and 1990. Many women and girls who became pregnant outside marriage were sent to these institutions and suffered arbitrary detention, forced labour, ill-treatment and the forced adoption of their babies.6

In July, the government announced a plan to address the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The plan included a statute of limitations for all conflict-related incidents and an end to all criminal, civil and coronial judicial activity related to the period, amounting to a de facto amnesty for human rights violations during the conflict.

In July, the government also introduced the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which contains provisions that would decrease the likelihood of victims obtaining effective remedies for human rights violations through legal challenges and remove proper judicial oversight over certain tribunal decisions particularly impacting asylum seekers and migrants.

A government-commissioned review of the Human Rights Act 1998 ended in October. The government subsequently proposed far-reaching changes to the Act that would significantly erode human rights protection in the UK, including by increasing deviation from European Court of Human Rights judgments and making it harder for people to bring human rights claims.

Sexual and reproductive rights

The ongoing failure to deliver fully commissioned and funded abortion services in Northern Ireland in line with the new legislative framework left access to healthcare in a fragile state and created a postcode lottery for those needing early medical abortion provision. Services were withdrawn in one health trust as a consequence of the lack of commissioning. In July, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland directed the Northern Ireland health department to make abortion services available by 31 March 2022.

Impunity

In April, the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021 introduced restrictions on legal proceedings related to overseas military operations. It imposed time limits for civil claims against the Ministry of Defence and introduced a presumption against prosecution for offences committed over five years ago, other than certain serious crimes.

In February, Guantánamo Bay detainee Mustafa al-Hawsawi filed a complaint before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal regarding UK complicity in his torture and other ill-treatment at secret CIA detention facilities between 2003 and 2006. In April, another Guantánamo Bay detainee, Abu Zubaydah, filed a petition against the USA, the UK and five other countries before the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Freedom of expression

The USA government appealed a UK court decision, issued in January, to refuse its request to extradite Julian Assange. The USA successfully widened the scope of its appeal in August. In December, the High Court granted the appeal and ordered Assange’s extradition, accepting diplomatic assurances from the USA that Assange would not be held in solitary confinement. Assange appealed that decision in late December seeking review by the UK Supreme Court.7 Assange faced prosecution in the USA for the publication of disclosed documents as part of his work with Wikileaks.

In May, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK government’s bulk interception of communications powers did not contain sufficient safeguards against abuse, thus violating the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.8

In September, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled in favour of an activist, Kate Wilson, who had been deceived into a long-term sexual relationship with an undercover male police officer spying on her and her associates’ peaceful political activities. Kate Wilson had been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, sex discrimination and violations of her rights to private and family life, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. A public inquiry into the infiltration of social justice and environmental groups by undercover police continued to hear evidence in April and May, including from other women deceived into sexual relationships.

Inhumane detention conditions

In August, the UK National Preventive Mechanism issued a report regarding persistent issues in places of detention in Scotland, including overcrowding and detention in police custody for more than 24 hours.


  1. “Covid-19: Big Pharma fuelling unprecedented human rights crisis – New report”, 21 September
  2. “UK: Afghanistan resettlement scheme is ‘too little, too late’”, 18 August
  3. “UK: Napier Barracks Covid outbreak shows Home Office ‘just doesn’t care’ about people seeking asylum”, 12 August
  4. “UK: MPs should vote down ‘dystopian’ policing bill”, 4 July
  5. “UK: NGOs condemn appointment of William Shawcross and announce civil society-led review of Prevent”, 16 February
  6. “Northern Ireland: Mother and Baby Home public inquiry welcome step towards truth and accountability”, 15 November
  7. “US/UK: ‘Drop the charges, stop the extradition and free Julian Assange,’ says Amnesty Head”, 25 October
  8. “UK: Europe’s top court rules UK mass surveillance regime violated human rights”, 25 May