On 20 June 2018 the US announced that it was leaving the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) because it was ‘a cesspool of political bias’ particularly against Israel. Although this decision has been condemned by human rights activists and NGOs around the world, and/or ‘regretted’ by other western states, sadly, the claims upon which it is ostensibly based are not without foundation.
The protection of human rights is one of the UN’s key objectives and a formal element in all its activities. But, since 2006, the UNHRC has been particularly entrusted with this task. The final nail in the coffin of its discredited predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights, was the election of Libya as chair in 2003. Composed of officials from 47 UN member states, the UNHRC is elected on a secret ballot by simple majority of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Thirteen seats are set aside for African states, thirteen for Asian, eight for Latin American and Caribbean countries, six for Eastern Europe, and seven for Western Europe and the rest. Any member state of the UN, irrespective of its own human rights record, is eligible to stand. The UN requires states, when casting their votes, to take the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights into account, and the vast majority of those seeking election make written pledges and commitments to this effect. But it is widely believed that diplomats horse trade with each other about who to vote for, with the usual back room deals and political partisanship this entails. (more…)
By Prof Steven Greer, Professor of Human Rights (University of Bristol Law School), Prof Janneke Gerards, Chair in Fundamental rights law (Utrecht University), and Miss Rose Slowe, Barrister (Middle Temple) and Honorary Research Fellow (University of Bristol Law School).
In our experience the general public, some of our students, and even some of our colleagues, are confused about the differences between the 47-member Council of Europe, the parent body of the European Court of Human Rights, and the 28 (soon to be 27)-member European Union, in human rights and other fields. Confusion about the differences between the two organizations has also been compounded by increasing interaction between them, particularly over the past decade or so. The human rights-related literature is also dominated by separate studies, largely concerning their respective legal systems. As a result, more integrated accounts are increasingly required. This is the primary objective of our recently-published book – S. Greer, J. Gerards and R. Slowe, Human Rights in the Council of Europe and the European Union: Achievements, Trends and Challenges (Cambridge University Press, 2018). (more…)
By Mr Marc Johnson, Teaching Associate in Law (University of Bristol Law School).
On 7 February 2018, Bermuda’s Governor approved the Domestic Partnership Act 2017 (DPA) which withdraws the right for same-sex couples to marry in Bermuda. The ‘Domestic Partnership’ purports to offer the same legal standing as marriage though there is a degree of scepticism around whether this will be the case. There is a substantial body of writing in the UK on whether the civil partnerships established under the Civil Partnership Act 2004 were in fact equal to marriage, or whether creating a second form of legal partnership also created a subordinate form of legal partnership.
This may not however, be the end of the story. According to Reuters News Agency, on 20 February 2018, a Bermudian Lawyer has filed a motion asking for the Supreme Court of Bermuda (a court of first instance unlike the Supreme Court of the UK which is the UK’s final appellate court), to consider whether the DPA is inconsistent with the Bermudian Human Rights Act 1981 (HRA). This blog piece will briefly consider whether the Bermudian constitution has been altered by the HRA to include protections for same-sex marriage, to what extent is the HRA constitutional, and can rights given under the HRA be removed. (more…)
A cardinal axiom of international human rights law is that the prohibition against torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is absolute in the sense that no exception can be accepted, defended, justified, or tolerated in any circumstance whatever. Yet, for several reasons this is deeply problematic. For a start, since absoluteness is not an express, inherent, self-evident, or necessary feature of the provisions in question, this status is a matter of attribution rather than, as the orthodoxy holds, inherent legal necessity. Other non-absolute interpretations are not only possible, but expressly underpin similar prohibitions in some celebrated national human rights instruments. It does not follow either, because the term ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ is typically included in the same clauses which prohibit torture, that each of these very different types of harmful conduct must necessarily share the same status. The much-repeated claim that the prohibition is absolute in principle but relative in application is also unconvincing. Finally, it is not merely morally or legally, but also logically impossible for each of two competing instances of any ‘absolute’ right to be equally ‘absolute’ in any meaningful sense. The prohibition against torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in international human rights law can, at best therefore, only be ‘virtually’, rather than strictly, absolute. It applies, in other words, in all but the rarest circumstances but not, as the received wisdom maintains, to the exclusion of every possible justification, exoneration, excuse, or mitigation.
By Mr Peter Dunne, Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).
In the coming months, the United Kingdom (UK) and Irish governments will (separately) review the legal processes by which transgender (trans) persons can have their preferred gender (currently referred to as the ‘acquired gender’ in UK law) formally recognised. Drawing upon my scholarship from recent years, in this post, I consider current movements for reform in the UK and Ireland, with a particular focus on trans minors (who are largely excluded from the UK and Irish frameworks) and non-binary individuals. I conclude this discussion, in the last section, by reviewing the question of ‘self-determination’, and asking if/how the UK can move beyond its current diagnosis-orientated recognition model. (more…)
By Dr Katie Bales, Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School) and Dr Lucy Mayblin, Assistant Professor in Sociology (Department of Sociology, Warwick University).*
In June 2017, ten immigration detainees launched a judicial review action against the Home Office challenging the payment of ‘slave’ like wages for labour undertaken within immigration detention.
This practice, termed ‘paid work’ by the Government, is remunerated at a rate of £1.00 or £1.25 per hour and includes work as cleaners, cooks, hairdressers, gym orderlies and gardeners – roles that are essential to the running of the immigration removal centres. In 2014 this practice resulted in 44,832 hours’ worth of work.
In this blog, we argue that this work is exploitative and ‘unfree’. In recognition that many detainees wish to work however, we do not call for an end to this practice; rather we highlight the structural conditions that render detainees more likely to accept exploitative conditions of work (including but not restricted to low pay), and argue that, at the very least, detainees should be provided with the national minimum wage. (more…)
On Thursday, 13 April 2017, the European Court of Human Rights released one of the most anticipated decisions in the Court’s history – the Tagayeva and Others v Russia case. The judgment concerned the siege of the Beslan School, North Ossetia by Chechen fighters in September 2004 and the ensuing rescue operation by the Russian forces. During these tragic incidents, 330 people lost their lives, including more than a hundred children. Almost 180 of the victims were burnt to an extent that the identification of the remains and establishment of the cause of death were impossible.
The purpose of this blog is to summarise the key findings of the Court’s 239-page decision and provide a brief overview of the human rights obligations of states in the context of hostage-taking as discussed by the Court. Although this hostage-taking incident was of an unprecedented scale, terrorist groups have never stopped taking hostages within or outside Europe, and as a result European states have been involved in a number of rescue operations. Therefore, this judgment can help clarify the obligations that states have before, during and after a hostage-taking incident occurs. (more…)
By Prof Nicholas Hardwick, Professor of Criminal Justice (Royal Holloway, University of London) and collaborator of the Human Rights Implementation Centre (University of Bristol Law School).
2017 looks set to be a good year for torturers.
Most noteworthy, they have received a glowing endorsement from President Trump. When it was put to him in a recent ABC interview that during his election campaign he had said he would “bring back waterboarding…and a hell of a lot worse” he did not demur. “Would I feel strongly about waterboarding? As far as I am concerned we have to fight fire with fire,” he said. “Absolutely I feel it works”, he went on.
It is true he qualified his remarks by stating that he would defer to the views of his defence secretary, James Mattis, and CIA director, Mike Pompeo, both of whom have said they would abide by the existing prohibition, and it is true there would be formidable political and legal obstacles to overturning the ban on torture. But it cannot be denied that the moral and operational case against torture has been dealt a heavy blow. Torturers worldwide can claim Trump has said torture is acceptable and it works. (more…)
The case of Phil Shiner, struck off by the solicitors’ disciplinary panel for the attempted procurement by financial inducements of spurious abuse claims against the British army in Iraq, sadly illustrates that the ‘post-truth’ era has penetrated even the noble cause of human rights (‘Review of Iraq war cases after lawyer struck off’, Guardian, 3 February 2017).
While this episode is, of course, a grotesque aberration, myth, misinformation, misrepresentation, and intellectual tunnel vision, coupled with excessive and unsustainable demands, are, nevertheless, increasingly prevalent in the contemporary movement, and not confined to its opponents as many might suppose. This not only devalues the currency, it also stokes the scepticism towards human rights currently sweeping western states and societies. (more…)
By Prof Sir Malcolm Evans, Professor of Public International Law (University of Bristol Law School) and Chair, United Nations Subcommittee for Prevention of Torture.
On Thursday 26th January a debate took place in Parliament* on the ‘shrinking space for civil society’ in international human rights protection. I was recently at a meeting where it was pointed out that this description of the problem – which is much discussed in international circles at the moment – made it sound vaguely as if it was something to do with washing things at the wrong temperature, and meant very little to most people. To the extent that effective human rights protection is based on openness and transparency, which might be summed up in the idea of ‘washing dirty linen in public’, the idea of human rights being ‘shrunk in the wash’ at the moment is not altogether a bad one – but this hardly helps convey the significance of what is taking place and why it matters enough to warrant a debate in Parliament. The reality is that there is something extremely worrying going on in many parts of the world – which is that those who stand up for those in need are themselves increasingly subjected to various forms of attack, including physical attack, for doing so. (more…)