Speech: British Institute of Human Rights Civil Society report launch event

by David Isaac

Published: 23 Sep 2016

Delivered on: 22 September 2016
 (Check against delivery)

I’m delighted to be here this evening to speak on behalf of the Commission.

Thank you to the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) for inviting me to speak about the Commission’s work on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), and for working with us to support civil society in producing the report we are celebrating today.

This report, combined with our own assessment, will give the United Nations an independent, robust and evidence-based picture of where we are now and what more needs to be done to ensure human rights are better protected.

British Bill of Rights and non-regression

Just like you all, I am I am keeping a very close eye  on forthcoming government proposals for a new British Bill of Rights. The Commission considers the Human Rights Act to be a well-crafted piece of legislation.

It maintains parliamentary sovereignty and a primary role for domestic courts in the interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It has led to greater quality and accountability in public service delivery. And, importantly, it is woven into the constitutional arrangements for the UK, being central to devolution in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

My message to government is clear. Any proposed changes to human rights law must not weaken the protections we all enjoy, jeopardise our remarkable history of upholding human rights, nor move the country backwards.

Human Rights Act “plus”

We all know that there is always room for improvement in any legislation. The Commission’s ultimate goal is to see a Human Rights Act “plus.” Just last week, the Commission had a very useful exchange with the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) about the practical impact of an enhanced status for the Convention on the Rights of the Child in domestic law.

We are working with some of the organisations here today on a proposed amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill that would introduce a requirement to have due regard to children’s rights, along similar lines to legislative provisions in Scotland and Wales. We welcome the JCHR’s decision to conduct a full inquiry into this and other children’s rights issues.

Brexit and human rights

We also talked to the JCHR about the impact of Brexit on human rights. Although the outcome of the referendum does not in itself alter the Human Rights Act, or the European Convention on which it is based, it does raise important questions about the relationships between the UK and other countries in Europe and the rest of the world, and, crucially, what sort of country we want to be.

We are all profoundly alarmed by the rise in hate crimes since the referendum, and in particular by the senseless killing of the Polish factory worker Arek Jozwik in Harlow last month.

And by our disappointing national response to the refugee crisis that extends from the Middle East across Europe. There is a clear need to maintain cross-border cooperation to ensure the rights of people on the move are respected and protected.

The British tradition of respecting human rights and being good world citizens has inspired many politicians from across the political spectrum. It was Winston Churchill’s Conservatives who drove forward the European Convention on Human Rights, and it was a Labour government which brought those universal rights home – with cross-party support – through the Human Rights Act.

Our role is as the guardian of these legal rights, and the JCHR’s new inquiry on the human rights implications of Brexit will provide an opportunity for us to use our collective influence, hard evidence and compelling arguments to build a cross-party consensus to ensure we do not move backwards, but add new protections where we can.

UPR and the Commission’s treaty work

Which brings me to our own UPR report that will be published in December. First, I must say that for our treaty monitoring team it has been a very busy time with the UK’s record on promoting and protecting socio-economic rights, and the rights of children and ethnic minorities all being examined this summer. We’re currently gearing up for next year’s long-awaited Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) examination, including supporting Disability Rights: UK, Disability Wales, and Inclusion Scotland to work with disabled people to coordinate the civil society report.

Our UPR report will draw together the recommendations we’ve put forward in all of our work for UN treaty bodies.

Child Refugees

I want to mention specifically one of our main priorities.

Children and families are on the move in unprecedented numbers. The UN estimates that 65.3 million people were either refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced at the end of 2015, an increase of 5m in a year. We are facing the highest number of child refugees since the Second World War. These children need our help, yet 239 unaccompanied refugee children disappeared from care facilities in England and Wales in 2015. That’s a 75% increase from 2014. The Prime Minister said on Monday that Britain was “already playing its part" but promised to "step up our efforts.”

When we publish our own UPR report in December we will make some strong and clear recommendations on exactly how the government can step up its efforts to protect the rights of refugee children.

We are calling for the government to bring in a five-point plan to:

  • establish independent guardians for all unaccompanied children entering the UK
  • introduce a statutory duty to record and report trafficked and refugee children who go missing from care
  • cease the immigration detention of children
  • ensure that children seeking refugee status receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance
  • ensure that, where a person’s age is uncertain and there are reasons to believe they are a child, they are presumed to be a child until their age has been assessed objectively by an independent expert

The Commission is already taking action on these issues. We have intervened in a judicial review of the Home Office’s reduction in asylum support rates for children taking money away from claimants, meaning they can’t provide adequate food and clothing for children.

We have also intervened in an appeal case to challenge the Home Office about its use of subjective age assessments for young asylum seekers, which have resulted in the unnecessary detention of children. 

The UK’s role in the world

The UPR places the UK’s domestic human rights record under the international microscope. If we are to stand up to human rights abuses abroad, our own record inevitably comes under scrutiny. Our credibility and influence as a global player depends on the UK having an exemplary human rights record - both in terms of the legal framework and our adherence to the highest standards of human rights in practice.

The outcome of the EU referendum requires us to look further at the kind of global role we want for ourselves, so it is essential that we build on our record and do not allow our high standards to slip.

Since joining the Commission I have made very clear my view that we still need to see progress in a number of areas. Rights for disabled people have stalled, and our recent race report evidenced the continued inequality in our society in access to justice, health, education and employment. Access to justice is of serious concern and we will continue to challenge the government strongly in all these areas.

The UK needs a strong National Human Rights Institution that can work with government and we are ready to offer our help and support. But we are also independent and will challenge robustly whenever we think more needs to be done. I want us to be a more muscular regulator and confident enforcer of rights.

The role for civil society

Another important role for a National Human Rights Institution is to promote and protect the work of civil society. The rhetoric on the shrinking space for civil society is high on the UN’s agenda. While, thankfully, human rights defenders in the UK do not face the challenges of our colleagues in other parts of the globe, new legislation to restrict lobbying activities and the rights of trade unionists, and to expand the use of investigatory powers, have an impact on civil society space in Britain.

Achieving our shared aims depends on us all working together. Civil society organisations reach people and issues that we cannot and you have an absolutely crucial role in highlighting areas of concern, applying pressure to those in power, and driving forward debate.

That is why it is so important for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to support the civil society report that is being launched today. Although we have supported this report financially and share many of the concerns set out in it, the report belongs to you.

It has been a marathon undertaking for BIHR and all those who have contributed their time and expertise to submit important evidence. The Commission is hugely grateful to all of you and we look forward to working alongside you in the build up to the examination in Geneva next year.

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