The UK government appears to be “increasingly antagonistic” towards human rights, Europe’s watchdog has warned.
Dunja Mijatović, human rights commissioner at the Council of Europe, warned that British government policies were causing “anxiety about the direction of human rights protection in the UK”.
Ms Mijatović says she found a number of areas of concern during a fact-finding mission to the UK over the summer.
The commissioner cited the government’s plan to repeal the human rights act, its new anti-protest laws, and regression of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers as particular area of concern.
She also warned that the UK was developing a “toxic” public discourse around trans people, and said the government needed to take more action to deal with child poverty.
“Both the overall system for protecting human rights, and the rights of specific groups, are currently under pressure in the United Kingdom. The authorities should spare no effort to reverse this trend,” she said.
“The report reflects the anxiety about the direction of human rights protection in the UK that I encountered during my visit.
“This anxiety is fed by what appears to be an increasingly antagonistic attitude towards human rights by the UK government, and especially by recent and proposed changes to laws and policies.”
The Council of Europe is distinct from the European Union, and Britain is still a member – along with most states in Europe other than Russia and Belarus.
The organisation is the basis of the European Court of Human Rights, which enforces the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Britain is a founding signatory.
In her report Ms Mijatović said the governments plan to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights would “weaken rather than strengthen human rights in the UK”.
She also specifically cited the impact of the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, “especially its chilling effect on the right to peaceful assembly” – and said this would be made worse if the government’s planned Public Order Bill is adopted.
Problems with the bill include the de facto criminalisation of the nomadic lifestyle of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, she said.
On the rights of refugees, the Commissioner noted “a significant regression in the observance of the UK’s international obligations to uphold the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, including through the expansion of inadmissibility rules for asylum claims, the pursuit of removals to Rwanda, and the criminalisation of asylum seekers arriving irregularly”.
She also called for “steps to counter the toxic public discourse towards trans persons, which risks reversing the progress made in the UK in combating discrimination against LGBTI people”, and reiterated a call not to allow the extradition of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange “due to the impact this step would have on media freedom more generally”.
Ms Mijatović also took aim at Britain’s frayed social safety net, calling for “urgent measures to combat child poverty, including by developing comprehensive strategies and establishing binding targets”.
She called for the need to address “structural elements of the welfare and benefits system” that were undermining the rights of children, as well as specific steps to tackle food insecurity among children
These could include the universal provision of free school meals and improving inadequate housing stock, she said.
She also criticised the use of stop and search powers against children, including the practice of strip-searching, and raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to bring it in line with international standards.
The commissioner also said the government’s Northern Ireland legacy bill should be scrapped “in view of the widespread opposition in Northern Ireland and the serious issues of compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights it raises”. The bill is a de facto amnesty for crimes committed during the troubles.
Responding to the commissioner’s report, a government spokesperson said: “The government is committed to protecting human rights and will continue to champion them internationally and at home.
“The bill of rights will strengthen human rights such as freedom of expression, while the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act improves the balance between the right to protest and the rights of others to go about their business.”