Shrinking the Space for Human Rights - A Look Back on 2020
A raft of new laws, Home Office measures and government proposals attempt to restrict the legal accountability of state actors, including ministers, while removing legal protections from those who need them most. In this IRR News long read, Frances Webber examines the various threats to human rights over the last year. In the year since Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won the election with an impregnable majority, the man described by the media as a ‘libertarian by instinct’ has, under cover of the pandemic, pushed through the most authoritarian, draconian emergency powers seen in peacetime.
Meanwhile, his home secretary has overseen an immigration policy which threatens to breach the Refugee Convention as well as international obligations on rights to dignity and health and the rights and welfare of children, drawing the wrath of several senior officials, who have resigned, and the condemnation of official monitors and the courts. The government’s legislative programme has included Bills which break international law – not only the EU Withdrawal Bill but one which authorises informants and spies to commit any crime with complete impunity, and another which time-bars prosecution for murder and torture by British forces abroad.
At the same time as creating impunity for law-breaking by informants and soldiers, the government is seeking to develop its own impunity. The possibility of leaving the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and replacing the Convention (ECHR) by a British Bill of Rights is being mooted again, and moves are afoot to limit courts’ powers to hold ministers to account, through restrictions on judicial review and curtailing the powers of the Supreme Court. Critical reports from parliamentary committees, government-appointed inquiries and reviews, and even court judgments, have been ignored. And even investigative journalists have been blocked by a secretive Cabinet Office unit.
Read more: Francis Webber, Insitute of Race Relation, https://is.gd/Ropjy6
Home Office Floats Automatic Deportation After Six-Month Sentence
The Home Office may cut the minimum prison sentence required to trigger automatic deportation from 12 months to six months, it emerged over the holidays. The Mail and Times appear to have been briefed independently on the idea, with the former reporting that “the measures are likely to form part of the Sovereign Borders Bill, which is due to be published within the next few months”.
How big a change would this be? On the one hand, a significantly higher proportion of criminal sentences would now be caught by the automatic deportation rules. Around 10,000 people in England and Wales are jailed for between six and 12 months every year, which is 12-13% of all those sent to prison. Those figures are not broken down by nationality, but as around one in ten people currently serving a prison sentence is a foreign national, a back-of-the-envelope reckoning suggests that perhaps 1,000 people a year could be newly subject to automatic deportation.
Read more: Freemovement, https://is.gd/Wwc2c2
Comment: Lords Must Act Now to Protect Migrant Survivors of Domestic Abuse
Following years of discussion and consultation, the government’s draft Domestic Abuse Bill was eventually published in January 2019. Now, nearly two years later, the bill comes before the House of Lords on Tuesday 5 January. Campaigners and survivors alike know that this so-called “landmark” legislation continues to fall short— specifically when it comes to protecting migrant victims. Given the implications of Brexit, these shortfalls will likely impact even more victims going forward.
Before the pandemic, domestic abuse had already reached epidemic proportions in England and Wales, with two women losing their lives each week as a result of this heinous crime. During the first lockdown, and in the months following, domestic homicides have been on the rise. Between March and May 2020, calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline increased by 66%. Whilst the government has since pledged additional funding to frontline domestic abuse organisations, this funding is unlikely to make any real difference to migrant survivors, many of whom have no recourse to public funds, and are therefore barred from accessing vital support and services.
Read more: Freemovement, https://is.gd/MIJOwc
The Problem With “Simplifying” Immigration Law
Immigration law is complicated. This will probably not be a surprise to readers of this blog. There has, over the last couple of years, been a concerted effort to simplify it. This is a good thing. But has it been successful? Different types of complicated Immigration law can be complicated in two ways: Legal complexity – the legal provisions are difficult to understand: .Procedural complexity – the application process is unduly expensive, cumbersome, inflexible, misleading, and/or bureaucratic.
We have two different systems of immigration law: One for EU nationals and their family members who entered the UK before 31 December 2020 – the EU Settlement Scheme. Another one for everyone else – the “new” Points Based System (which may or may not be “Australian style”, I’ve lost track). The EU Settlement Scheme is procedurally simple, but legally complex. The Points Based System is legally simple, but procedurally complex. Both are frequently portrayed by the government as simple and user-friendly. In truth, as we shall see, neither are.
Read more: Freemovement, https://is.gd/hq8Krl
Women Fight to Help Families Torn Apart by ‘Racist’ Deportation Policy
The Home Office is refusing to review the forced separation of black British families caught up in the criminal justice system, a practice that campaigners say is systemically racist and legitimises child cruelty. Under a 13-year-old law, individuals who are not British citizens and receive a prison sentence of more than 12 months are automatically targeted for deportation. This policy has seen hundreds of people, mainly men, put on charter flights to Jamaica, leaving their British children behind in the UK. Despite evidence of significant harm to children, the Home Office has ruled out officially investigating the impact on minors and families when considering deporting a parent. Now a group of mothers, wives, partners, sisters and aunts, including members and descendants of the Windrush generation, has been formed to campaign for the effect on children to be formally assessed in cases of mandatory repatriation.
A statement from Families for Justice, submitted to the Home Office before the most recent deportation flight to Jamaica in December, says: “Our children have been professionally neglected and inexplicably made to feel unwelcome in the country we call home. Our children’s British birthrights have been disregarded. We are saddened about the systematic disregard for the mental health of our children and the unassessed separation they are put through.” By the wording of the 2007 UK Borders Act, families wanting to overturn a deportation order need to demonstrate that the impact of separation on a child would be “unduly harsh”. The Home Office interprets this to mean “excessively cruel” – a threshold campaigners say is too high.
Read more: Mark Townsend, Guardian, https://is.gd/OCMZPh
10 Conflicts to Watch in 2021
Despite small but important advances in peace talks, a lot could go wrong for Afghanistan in 2021. After almost two decades of fighting, the U.S. government signed a deal with Taliban insurgents in February. Washington pledged to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in return for Taliban commitments to forbid terrorists from using the country for operations and to enter talks with the Afghan government. Afghan peace talks took time to get underway. The government stretched out for six months a prisoner exchange the U.S. had promised to the Taliban – the release of 1,000 government troops or officials held by the Taliban in return for 5,000 Taliban fighters – which Kabul saw as lopsided. The insurgents, who had initially reduced suicide bombings and assaults on cities and towns, responded to delays by stepping up attacks and assassinations.
On 4 November, Ethiopian federal forces began an assault on Tigray region after a deadly Tigrayan attack and takeover of federal military units in the region. By November’s end, the army had entered the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle. Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leaders abandoned the city, claiming they wished to spare civilians. Much remains unclear, given a media blackout. But the violence has likely killed thousands of people, including many civilians; displaced more than a million internally; and led some 50,000 to flee to Sudan. The Tigray crisis’s roots stretch back years. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 after protests largely driven by long-simmering anger at the then-ruling coalition, which had been in power since 1991 and which the TPLF dominated. Abiy’s tenure, which began with significant efforts at reforming a repressive governance system, has been marked by a loss of influence for Tigrayan leaders, who complain of being scapegoated for previous abuses and warily eye his rapprochement with the TPLF’s old foe, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Abiy’s allies accuse TPLF elites of seeking to maintain a disproportionate share of power, obstructing reform, and stoking trouble through violence.
3. The Sahel North Africa
The crisis engulfing the Sahel region of North Africa continues to worsen, with interethnic violence increasing and jihadists extending their reach. 2020 was the deadliest year since the crisis started in 2012, when Islamist militants overran northern Mali, plunging the region into protracted instability. Jihadists control or are a shadow presence across swaths of rural Mali and Burkina Faso and are making inroads in Niger’s southwest. Intensified French counterterrorism operations in 2020 dealt the militants some blows, pummeling the local Islamic State affiliate and killing several al-Qaeda leaders. Combined with jihadist infighting, they appear to have contributed to a decline in complex militant attacks against security forces. But military strikes and killing leaders have not disrupted jihadists’ command structures or recruitment. Indeed, the more foreign militaries pile in, the bloodier the region seems to become. Nor have government authorities been able to reclaim rural areas lost to militants. Even where military pressure forces jihadists out, they tend to return when operations subside.
Yemen’s war has caused what the UN still deems the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. COVID-19 has exacerbated the suffering of civilians already stalked by poverty, hunger, and other diseases. Top humanitarian officials are again warning of famine. One year ago, there was a window of opportunity to end the war, but the belligerents squandered it. Houthi rebels were talking through back channels with Saudi Arabia, the main outside sponsor of the U.N.-recognised Yemeni government led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The Saudis were also mediating among anti-Houthi factions that were squabbling over the status of Aden, a southern city that is the government’s interim capital and which has been controlled by the secessionist, Emirati-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) since August 2019. Combined, these two negotiating tracks could have served as building blocks for a U.N.-brokered political process. Instead, fighting has escalated, particularly in Marib, the Hadi government’s last urban stronghold in the north. It took a year of bad-tempered negotiations before anti-Houthi factions agreed on how they would divvy up security responsibilities in the south, move their forces away from front lines, and form a new government. The negotiations will likely face further roadblocks over relocating the cabinet to Aden. UN peacemaking efforts have also hit a wall.
Nearly two years have passed since the Venezuelan opposition, the US, and countries across Latin America and Europe proclaimed legislator Juan Guaidó interim president of Venezuela and predicted incumbent Nicolás Maduro’s demise. Today, any such hopes lie in tatters. A U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign – entailing sanctions, international isolation, implied threats of military action, and even an abortive coup – has not toppled Maduro. If anything, these actions have left him stronger, as allies, including in the military, have rallied behind him fearing his fall would endanger them. Venezuelans’ living conditions, devastated by the government’s ineptitude, U.S. sanctions, and COVID-19, have hit rock bottom. If Maduro remains entrenched, his adversaries could see their political fortunes collapse. The basis for Guaidó’s presidential claim lay in the parliamentary majority that opposition parties won in 2015, combined with the argument that Maduro’s May 2018 reelection was a sham. Now the opposition is weak, divided, and with barely a toehold in the National Assembly. The government won December’s legislative elections, which all but a few small opposition parties boycotted, with a thumping majority.
Elections are looming in Somalia amid bitter disputes between President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (also known as“Farmajo”) and his rivals. The war against Al-Shabaab is entering its 15th year, with no end in sight, while donors increasingly chafe at paying for African Union (AU) forces to help keep the militants at bay. The mood ahead of the elections – parliamentary elections were scheduled for mid-December but have been pushed back, and preparations for a presidential vote planned for February 2021 are also lagging – is fraught. Relations between Mogadishu and some of Somalia’s regions – notably Puntland and Jubaland, whose leaders have long been rivals of Mohamed and fear his reelection – are tense, largely due to disputes over the allocation of power and resources between the center and periphery. Such discord tends to pit Somalia’s communities against one another, including at a clan level, with increasingly bitter rhetoric employed by all sides.
Rival military coalitions in Libya are no longer fighting, and the UN has restarted negotiations aimed at reunifying the country. But reaching lasting peace will still be an uphill struggle. On 23 October, the Libyan National Army (LNA) – led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar and supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia – and the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al-Sarraj, signed a ceasefire formally ending a battle that had been raging on the outskirts of Tripoli and elsewhere since April 2019. The fighting had killed some 3,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. Turkey’s direct military intervention to aid Sarraj in early 2020 reversed what had been Haftar’s advantage. Front lines are now frozen in central Libya.
In January 2020, the U.S. killing of Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani brought U.S.-Iran tensions close to a boiling point. In the end, Iran’s response was relatively limited, and neither side chose to escalate, though the temperature remained perilously high. The new U.S. administration could calm one of the world’s most dangerous standoffs, notably by returning to the 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But doing so quickly, managing relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel – both bitterly opposed to Iran – and then moving to talks about broader regional issues will be no mean feat. The Trump administration’s Iran policy has entailed what it calls maximum pressure. That has meant exiting the JCPOA and imposing harsh unilateral sanctions on Iran in the hope of forcing greater concessions on its nuclear program, tempering its regional influence, and – some officials hoped – even toppling the government in Tehran.
Russia and Turkey are not at war, often in cahoots, yet frequently backing opposing sides – as in Syria and Libya – or competing for sway, as in the Caucasus. They often see one another as partners, compartmentalise discord on one issue from discussions on others, and cooperate even as their local allies battle it out. Yet as Turkey’s 2015 downing of a Russian jet near the Turkey-Syria border and the 2020 killings of dozens of Turkish soldiers in airstrikes by Russian-backed Syrian forces show, the risk of unexpected confrontations is high. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, so far have proved adept at managing such mishaps, any falling-out could exacerbate the conflicts in which they are both entangled. The contradictions of Ankara-Moscow relations are clearest in Syria. Turkey has been among President Bashar al-Assad’s fiercest foreign antagonists and a staunch backer of rebels. Russia, meanwhile, threw its weight behind Assad and, in 2015, intervened to decisively turn the war in his favour. Turkey has since given up on ousting Assad, more concerned with battling the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against Turkey for nearly four decades and which Ankara (and the US and Europe) considers a terrorist organisation.
10. Climate Change
The relationship between war and climate change is neither simple nor linear. The same weather patterns will increase violence in one area and not in another. While some countries manage climate-induced competition well, others don’t manage it at all. Much depends on whether states are governed inclusively, are well equipped to mediate conflicts over resources, or can provide for citizens when their lives or livelihoods are upended. How much climate-related violence 2021 will see is uncertain, but the broader trend is clear enough: without urgent action, the danger of climate-related conflict will rise in the years ahead. In northern Nigeria, droughts have intensified fighting between herders and farmers over dwindling resources, which in 2019 killed twice as many people as the Boko Haram conflict. On the Nile, Egypt and Ethiopia have traded threats of military action over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, partly due to Cairo’s fears the dam will exacerbate already serious water scarcity. For now, Africa arguably sees the worst climate-related conflict risks, but parts of Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East face similar dangers.