Human Rights

It is remarkable that out of the bloodshed and destruction of the Second World War there was forged perhaps the defining guarantee of all that allows democracy and liberty to be defended – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What may prove even more remarkable, in the long term, is that this declaration was endorsed by member states reflecting all of humanity’s diversity of philosophies, religions and political systems.

That in itself should prove a positive and timely reminder of the values that we share across the globe in the face of those who seeks to spread division and discord, either behind the barrel of a gun or from the top of a soap box.

At its heart the declaration is a recognition and codification of the inherent dignity and rights of all members of the human family.

It is not a bestowal of rights by a generous overlord, state or international organisation. We might wish to reflect on this as we look at the Human Rights situation within our own jurisdiction.

Across the United Kingdom of course we have our own contributions to the recognition of human rights. The Magna Carta for England and the Declaration of Arbroath for Scotland also provided a fundamental recognition of the freedom from tyranny, usurpation and subjugation by foreign powers.

But whilst these rights are timeless, and universal, that does not mean they are always recognised in practice. Nor does it mean they can be taken for granted. All individuals have a responsibility:

“to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance”

as it says in the preamble to the declaration.

No more so than when these rights are imperilled by those who do not recognise them; whether that is those who use coercive violence at an international level or those who refuse to recognise and uphold the fundamental dignity of those who are unemployed or sick or disabled.
We have seen charities and human rights groups say in no uncertain terms that the government’s welfare agenda is damaging the rights of disabled people. Amnesty International UK called in 2013:

“for urgent action to halt the abrogation of the human rights of sick and disabled people by the ruling Coalition government and its associated corporate contractors”.

In some cases the right to life itself is being infringed, with suicides closely following on from a withdrawal of support from genuinely disabled persons, who are later found to have been assessed incorrectly.
I’m gravely concerned by the direction of travel, the rhetoric and the philosophy of the Tory government when it comes to Human Rights. Indeed two of our finest organisations in this field, Amnesty International and Liberty, share these concerns and are already campaigning stridently to defend our Human Rights Act.

But whilst the British government is moving in the wrong direction, let nobody think they are supported by the people of these countries in the UK or by civic society at large. We are blessed on these islands to have produced some incredible charities, NGOs and community groups who provide lifelines for their fellow human beings with very little funding.

I cannot name them all but I want to pay tribute to just one which has recently celebrated its’ 30th Anniversary: the Scottish Refugee Council, one of Scotland’s leading human rights agencies which I am proud to say is recognised as an example of best practice in the UK, Europe and across the world. SRC is known for its pioneering and holistic approach to integration which recognises the dignity and resilience of refugees and works with them as assets and actors in this.

I would now like to say a bit about the international context in which we in this country operate. Let me turn my attention to the Saudis who are busy killing their own civilians and foreign nationals in the name of justice in the most barbaric ways possible: stoning, beheading and beheading followed by crucifixion.

The government may argue that engagement with tyrannical regimes might help bring them back into the fold and towards a recognition of universal rights. And I have some sympathy with that view.

But with Saudi Arabia this strategy of engagement is clearly not working. No matter how close our government and theirs; and no matter how close our Royals and theirs, we see the butchering of civilians in the name of justice increasing.

Amnesty tell us that at least 151 people have been executed this year, with scores more due to be executed in the coming weeks. This is the worst rate of execution for 20 years and includes many so called crimes which are in fact an exercise of one’s right to free speech and to protest.

A Sri Lankan house maid is about to be stoned to death by Saudi Arabia. I had never really thought through what stoning entailed until I was reading about this recently. This woman will be buried up to her neck in sand and a bunch of men will hurl bricks at her head. She of course will be unable to even lift a hand to protect herself. There will be nothing to stop those bricks smashing into her eyeballs, bursting her nose open, caving her skull in.

And it is the Saudi Arabian regime, the very one that succeeding governments have befriended that is doing this to this poor woman.

Trying to bring such a wolf in sheep’s clothing back into the fold is not working – it is not pragmatism, it is veiled indifference.

If the government continues to choose receipts for arm sales to the defence of the Universal Declarations of Human Rights then their words are empty and meaningless.

This Government was quick to condemn any opposition over the Syria vote in December 2015, but if there is one example of appeasement in the face of tyranny it is the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. I, and no doubt members of all parties, would welcome a statement from the government on the role of British-made weapons in the deaths of innocent civilians at the hands of Saudi forces in Yemen and I have had dozens of emails from constituents about this very point.

And whilst the abysmal record in the Middle East continues to shame the nations of these islands, the United Kingdom should recognise and indeed make the most of the fact that it has a unique role to play in promoting Human Rights. Our role in the creation of the declaration, the ECHR and the continued, tireless, tremendous work of our NGOs are all a testament to the best of what the UK has contributed to the world and we should be proudly beating the drum for human rights in the best traditions of these islands.

Of course it wasn’t all good. Our history as an imperial power has left us with a legacy which we can either run away from, or which we can use to further Human Rights across the globe. I believe we have a MORAL duty to make good some of the wrongs which were committed in the name of the Empire.

We can make it clear that if you want to do business with the United Kingdom then you should uphold the basic standards and liberties to which all of humanity is entitled. Indeed, not only can we make this clear, we are obligated to secure this universal recognition and observance of the UDHR.

And finally, what of human rights in Britain?

Thanks to groups like Liberty we have some examples of how Human Rights and specifically the Human Rights Act has had a real life impact on our lives.

Verna Bryant’s daughter Naomi was cruelly murdered by a convicted sex offender. Her daughter’s death was not to be subject to an inquest because the murderer had already been identified. However, by using the human rights act, and Article 2 the right to life, Naomi Bryant’s mother working with Liberty managed to secure an inquest. This inquest identified a catalogue of failures by public agencies and other partners which allowed a known, convicted, sex offender to murder Naomi Bryant. Without the Human Rights Act this inquest would not have happened; a victim’s family would have been denied the truth and we would all be at risk from the same institutional malpractice that failed Naomi Bryant.

Article 3 of the Human Rights Act protects us from torture and inhumane and degrading treatment. Without this Gary McKinnon who received a lot of support from the current Home Secretary, who used the Human Rights Act to prevent him being extradited. Without this he would have been extradited and at risk of suicide in a super max prison in the US.
I will close with the words of Thomas Muir of Huntershill, educated at Glasgow University, which was then sited on the High Street of Glasgow at my constituency boundary. In the 18th century Muir was sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay for sedition, for exercising his right to free expression, as it is now generally known, outside of regimes like Saudi Arabia. Speaking from the dock Muir said:

“I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause… It shall ultimately prevail… It shall finally triumph.”

Human Rights, their international recognition, protection and fulfilment are the modern successor to that fight, protecting the voiceless and defending the vulnerable. And advocates like the imprisoned Saudi human rights lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair are the modern successors to Thomas Muir.

I will continue to fight with all in my power to defend them: be that in the Universal Declaration, the European Convention or in our own Human Rights Act.