Human rights in Britain have been undermined during the COVID-19 pandemic, and hostility to human rights legislation by the UK government raises “serious concerns”, according to Amnesty International’s annual report.
In a massive 408-page report, the human rights NGO looked at the state of human rights globally, and broke down the issues found in 149 countries.
It said that as the world struggled with the pandemic over the past year, COVID-19 had “revealed and sometimes aggravated existing patterns of abuses and inequalities.”
Researchers said that in some cases the pandemic was used as an excuse by governments to chip away at various rights: for example, in 42 countries, state authorities harassed or intimidated health or other essential workers using reprisals or even arrests after they raised concerns about health and safety conditions at their workplaces.
On the positive side, the report concludes that if leaders put in place human rights-orientated policies to help their countries recover from the pandemic they “have an opportunity to fashion a more just future.”
In a press statement, the UK director for Amnesty International Kate Allen highlighted problematic UK trends — including the fact that it is becoming harder to challenge government decisions legally because of a review of the judicial review process, and a review of the Human Rights Act.
“For years, the UK has been moving in the wrong direction on human rights – but things are now getting worse at an accelerating rate,” said Allen. “Having made mistake after lethal mistake during the pandemic, the government is now shamefully trying to strip away our right to lawfully challenge its decisions, no matter how poor they are.”
Allen said that when it comes to the right to protest, the vulnerability of the Human Rights Act, accountability for deaths from COVID-19, and considering the UK arms trade with Saudi Arabia, the UK was failing.
The report also slates the UK’s handling of the pandemic and refusal to launch an immediate inquiry into COVID-19 deaths.
“We need to stop this headlong rush into abandoning our human rights,” Allen concluded.
Here are some of the major ways that Amnesty International has criticised the UK’s human rights record:
1. Clamp down on protests
The report highlights the police reaction to summer 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests.
In London, it says, police used excessive force, including the confinement of people to a narrow space (kettling) and the use of horses to disperse protests — both undermining the right to assembly.
In Northern Ireland, the report notes, police issued approximately 70 infringements of COVID-19 restrictions to peaceful protesters at Black Lives Matter demonstrations and initiated criminal investigations against the organisers. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland said that this was “unfair” and “discriminatory.”
From #EndSARS, #BlackLivesMatter to women's protests, leadership in 2020 came not from privilege or profiteers. It was ordinary people & human rights defenders who urged us on in the #COVID19 pandemic.— Amnesty UK (@AmnestyUK) April 7, 2021
Our report on the state of human rights in 2020 👇 https://t.co/okP4CVO9A7
A Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts bill was brought to parliament on March 16 2021, so did not fall in the remit of this report, but which Amnesty International notes in a statement threatens to “seriously restrict the right to peaceful protest.”
Meanwhile the report says that ethnic minorities have faced increased discrimination from police. “Data on fines issued for non-compliance with the COVID-19 related lockdown revealed that Black and Asian people were disproportionately fined,” Amnesty notes.
2. No inquiry into COVID-19 deaths
Amnesty slams the UK for having one of the highest death tolls from COVID-19 in Europe and criticises the delays in getting essential personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline health workers.
It also says that the “right to health and right to life” of older people in care homes was violated by failing to provide PPE and testing, and by discharging infected patients from hospitals to care homes.
Meanwhile, an official report in June 2020 found that people of Black and Asian ethnicity were disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and health workers from ethnic minorities were dying more from the virus.
In light of these issues, the report criticises the government’s decision to refuse a call from 70 organisations to immediately launch an independent public inquiry into the handling of COVID-19.
3. Roll-back on progress for transgender people
On LGBTQ+ rights, the fact that same-sex marriages took place in Northern Ireland for the first time in 2020 was praised by Amnesty International, after legalisation in 2019.
However, it notes that the government’s decision to amend the Gender Recognition Act (laws intended to make it easier for trans people to legally change their gender identity) fell “short of human rights standards” amid growing transphobic rhetoric in the media.
4. Women facing rising gender-based violence
Women were failed by an initial failure to respond to rising domestic violence, the report says.“The government lacked a fully coordinated plan to tackle the foreseeable risk of domestic violence during the pandemic and failed to provide sufficient and timely emergency funding for frontline services,” it explains.
Migrant women are excluded from most government benefits and so they were particularly vulnerable to domestic violence, and not being able to access support.“The Domestic Abuse Bill lacked provisions to ensure safety and access to justice for migrant women,” it added.
5. Arms deals that undermine global human rights
Last July, the UK resumed issuing licences for military exports to Saudi Arabia, the report notes, following a temporary ban that had been put in place because of fears the weapons could be used against civilians in Yemen. The ban was lifted despite those ongoing fears.
The conflict in Yemen was ranked as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” by the International Rescue Committee in January 2020, as some 24 million Yemenis — about 80% of the population — rely on humanitarian aid to survive.
As of 2020, at least 7,700 civilians had been killed since 2015, according to the UN — 60% of those were killed by bombing raids by the Saudi-led coalition, and other monitoring groups believe the death toll to be higher.
In addition, Amnesty International, some MPs, and other human rights organisations had called on the UK government to suspend the sale of tear gas and rubber bullets to the US, after scenes of excessive force against Black Lives Protesters there last summer. However, the government refused, saying there was “no clear risk” of misuse of these crowd control weapons.
6. Lack of protection for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers during the pandemic
Amnesty International says that immigration policies were not “adequately modified to safeguard public health” in 2020.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, asylum seekers awaiting removal from the UK were still kept in detention centres, in close living quarters, despite the increased risk of infection spreading and despite obstacles to the process of removing people on time due to the pandemic.
On top of this, migrants remained excluded from access to work, welfare, and health care — which, the report says, which “undermined their ability to protect themselves from the virus.”