With the UN's theme for this year's Human Rights Day as 'Stand up for someone's rights today', UNA-UK has taken the opportunity to encourage a more positive debate around human rights in the UK. Over the past few months, we have engaged with members of Government and our grassroots network to help maintain and strengthen Britain's leadership on human rights.
The UK has long played a proactive role in promoting international human rights, from the creation of the Magna Carta in 1215, to the UK's doubling of funds to its 'Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy' to £10.6m in 2016. This programme has funded over 300 human rights projects in more than 60 countries worldwide since 2011. Britain's recent re-election to the Human Rights Council has also put it in good stead to help improve the effectiveness of the UN's human rights system.
Speaking at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's (FCO) annual Human Rights Day reception on 8 December, Baroness Anelay, the FCO's Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN (pictured), reinforced the Government's recognition that human rights are squarely in the UK's national interest:
Despite the Minister's welcome assurance, human rights have become a hotly debated topic in recent years. UNA-UK is disappointed that representatives from across the political spectrum have contributed to an increasingly negative domestic debate on our fundamental freedoms, which has led to proposals to replace the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) - as well as ministers criticising visiting UN human rights experts.
Recent examples include Government rhetoric on seeking to exempt the armed forces from legal action under the European Court of Human Rights, as well as the dismissal of a report by the UN Committee on on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by a Government minister as "patronising and offensive".
Such language risks exacerbating negative public feeling towards human rights at a time when the future of the UK's human rights protections are in question. It also risks misinforming the British public about the purpose of human rights laws, which provide a minimal amount of legal protection for every human being, including British soldiers.
Changing the conversation
This is why, to mark UN Human Rights Day on 10 December, UNA-UK is seeking to restore a more positive conversation on human rights, both within UK Government and among the general public, which reflects the UK's integral role in building the international human rights framework that protects us all. There are three strands to our activites:
- UNA-UK organised a high-level roundtable event last month with members of Government, UN officials and academics, to discuss the UK's prospective role in strengthening the UN Human Rights Council. The recommendations arising from the discussion will be presented to the UK Government early next year.
- UNA-UK has encouraged its 100 local UN Associations around the country to raise the profile of human rights in Parliament by writing to their MP, and asking them to raise the issue of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Parliament. The UPR is the UN's peer-review process, by which the human rights records of all countries are regularly assessed. The UK received 73 recommendations at its last review, and it could set a positive global precedent by enabling Parliament to scrutinise whether and how these recommendations were implemented ahead of its next review in Spring 2017.
- UNA-UK took part in a 'Twitter chat' with the organisation Impact Squared on 9 December, in a push to raise awareness about youth rights and importance of giving millennials a say in key UN decisions that will affect their own lives. Join the conversation at #Futureisours.
- UNA-UK has signed an open letter organised by the UK Human Rights Alliance, of which it is an active member, calling for the UK Government to abandon plans to repeal the UK Human Rights Act. The letter will be published in the Saturday Times on 10 December, and will be available on our website.
Photo copyright: UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office