Human rights issues hit closer to home than you think

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Guantanamo Bay protests have appeared all over the world, including Lancaster (Photo by Keith Ivey)

The State of Affairs: Human Rights in the UK

Think human rights abuse in developed countries is a thing of the past? Think again.

Loathe though I am to admit it, the phrase ‘human rights’ is generally not one to bring the British populace to the forefront of my mind. No. Though it may conjure forth images of repressed women in distant lands and terrified civilians under threat of cruelty and torture, I confess that I rarely bear thought to human rights abuses right here: in the UK. However, in light of the coming of LGBT History Month and with V-Day 2012 fast approaching (Vagina Monologues returns bigger than ever), now seemed more appropriate a time than ever to consider our constitutional and common human rights, as well as those within a country we have been said to possess a “special relationship” with: the USA. Whether or not you consider these countries to be as civilised as they are generally perceived, the results of my findings may shock you.

Terrorism, Torture and Trafficking

May 2011 marked the 50th birthday of Amnesty International, a British-born human rights organisation stemming from a single event in the 1960’s, which now makes claim to more than “3 million members in over 150 countries”. Though Amnesty International actively engages in campaigns throughout the globe, a number of human rights concerns associated with the UK have been expressed since the 60’s to this very day. Several of these are still related to the climate of terror initiated by the 9/11 attacks in 2001, with allegations of UK involvement in torture and “other human rights violations” with individuals held overseas, including at the infamous Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.

The arrival of James Yee to Lancaster University on Wednesday 1st February 2012 (Falsely accused ‘Terrorist Spy’ visits campus) proved a poignant reminder of this notorious camp, highlighting the abuse of human rights in the USA particularly, in addition to illustrating that outright discrimination and an insidious manifestation of patriotism are still used as weapons with which to attack and condemn innocent members of society. Yee, previously condemned by the US Government as a “terrorist spy” and even described by one federal investigative branch as a “Chinese Taliban”, was threatened with the death penalty following a secret arrest stimulated by a flurry of false accusations. Although later fully exonerated of his charges, Yee’s further accounts of insight into the infamous Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, where he formerly served as a US military chaplain, were as chilling as they were condemning.

Yee served at Camp Delta, where he was of the few to possess “authorised unrestricted access” to what the US military referred to as “detainees” of the camp: a term utilised in lieu of ‘prisoner’ to avoid complications with rights legally obliged to prisoners, Yee believes. Relaying reports of “sexual  humiliation”, “exploitation” and severe religious discrimination from the detainees he interacted with (of which “not one could be directly linked to the attacks of 9/11”), Yee discussed the animalistic conditions of the camp, commenting that it was “very clear” that detainees were “being abused, being mistreated and being tortured”. Although Yee was not aware of any British involvement in the general operation of the camp, he expressed an awareness of the interaction of British intelligence with specific detainees. Leaked files from Guantanamo Bay have provided further weight to speculations of a British connection with the camp, while in 2011 The Guardian reported a document indicating the use of torture as an information extraction technique for MI5 and MI6 agents involved with overseas investigations.

Back in the UK, another priority for Amnesty International in recent years has been human trafficking within Britain, including believed increases in child trafficking for sexual exploitation purposes in Scotland. Home Office figures estimate that over 1000 cases of human trafficking occur within the UK each year, with the trafficking of women and under-age girls of particular concern. In 2005, the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings was opened for the first time in the hope of addressing issues associated with trafficking. Despite this, however, trafficking is still described as a major concern within the UK and abroad.

Discrimination

During James Yee’s visit to campus this month, the outspread discrimination of Muslim individuals and ethnic minorities in the USA was expressed, with politicians and certain prominent media figures being of particular notoriety. The religious discrimination mentioned during the course of the evening has also previously affected members of the audience with whom I discussed the matter.

Discrimination and hate crimes targeted towards members of the LGBTQ community, ethnic minorities and travelling communities is also still of concern in the UK. Amongst LGBTQ-identifying individuals, the charity Stonewall has previously published research findings that suggest “one in five of LGB people say they expect discrimination from the police when reporting a homophobic hate crime”, while as many as 1 in 8 gay individuals experienced some form of hate crime in 2008.

Regarding the travelling community that was forcefully removed from Dale Farm in late 2011, Amnesty International is said to be “outraged at Basildon Council’s decision” and “the human rights impact of these evictions”. Meanwhile, the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) is “calling on parliamentarians to support an amendment the Health and Social Care Bill” in the hope to prevent  discrimination against elderly individuals in care homes.

Human Rights: Lancaster

Although sleepy, rainy Lancaster is hardly teeming with human rights abuses, our very own campus at Lancaster University provides a home to the Lancaster University Amnesty International Society, which has been involved in a variety of different human rights campaigns since its establishment.

Mark Bevan (Ethics, Philosophy, and Religious Studies), President of the society, has commented that the reason Amnesty International is important to him relates to the fact that “researchers go into places others wouldn’t dream of in the hunt for injustice where people’s fundamental human rights are violated, so they can bring it to light and let the world know”, essentially allowing “ordinary people” to help. Meeting each Monday at 6pm (Furness Lecture Theatre 3), the society aims to “raise support and awareness amongst students”, and is interested in “bringing in guest speakers” as well as organising events and gigs.

With so many human rights violations occurring throughout the world – even within the UK –  such networks of societies within universities may provide a vital resource of awareness and aid to improving the overall global and national human rights picture.

Here, I’ve skimmed what may be merely the very tip of the iceberg. Whether or not you’re similar to me in regards to the phrase ‘human rights’, however, it is perhaps significant to remember that human rights abuses really do happen right here: in the UK.

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