December 10 is Human Rights Day, a date which celebrates the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year’s theme is reducing inequalities and advancing human rights.
In Britain, poor human rights are widely regarded as an issue that other nations face rather than a domestic issue. David Cameron declared in 2012 that Britain had a long history of respect and advocacy of human rights, citing the Magna Carta and referencing British involvement in Libya as further evidence of British support for human rights.
This widespread perception of human rights as a solely foreign issue fails to confront the fact that Britain is not, either currently or historically, a paradise for human rights. Cameron referenced abolition of slavery as evidence of Britain’s respect of human rights, neglecting to mention Britain’s extensive role in the slave trade and history of colonialism, both of which can be considered to be such extreme violations of human rights that they continue to have devastating impacts to this day.
Modern day Britain also is the site of repeated human rights violations. Refugee and migrant rights in Britain, especially the right to freedom of movement, have been repeatedly undermined by the British government. Home secretary Priti Patel is currently planning to ‘pushback’ refugees on small boats in the Channel, a policy which if it takes place will arguably violate the refugee convention. The Immigration Act, passed in November 2020, ended free movement and created a points-based immigration system.
Human rights violations are also evident in the British police force. Discrimination in policing is rife, with Covid-19 lockdown fines disproportionately targeting Black and Asian Britons.
In May 2020, London police carried out nearly 44,000 stop and searches related to Covid lockdowns, of which 10,000 were aimed at young black men. Black people in Britain are not only more likely to be stopped and searched, but they are also significantly more likely to be victims of police brutality, with black people eight times more likely to have a Taser used against them than white people in 2018 and 2019. The British government is not only guilty of allowing and causing human rights violations domestically, but also abroad. £17 billion of UK arms were sold to human rights abusers over the past decade, including the sale of £9.3 million of rifles to Libya, and the sale of over 50% of the combat aircraft used by Saudi Arabia against Yemen. This figure does not include the sales of arms to nations which are British allies, but which have also used these arms to commit human rights abuses, such as the American use of British arms to use excessive force against Black Lives Matter protestors.
While the UN Human Rights Council visited Britain and criticised racial discrimination in 2019, this criticism has seemingly been the full extent of the UN’s action. The UN’s recommendations for action on racial discrimination have not been enforced. Nor has there been any substantive effort from the British government, who are sometimes the perpetrators of human rights violations, to improve the nation’s human rights record. The British government has failed to challenge perceptions of the UK as a human rights haven, or confront its own complicity.
On Human Rights Day (and always), it is vital to challenge any understanding of human rights which does not acknowledge that human rights abuses can occur anywhere, and can be committed by governments who may view themselves as proponents of human rights abroad. Human rights abuses can take place close to home, and we need to recognise this in order to truly support human rights globally.