UN lashes out at Britain’s human rights record

UN lashes out at Britain’s human rights record
The UN’s torture watchdog has hit out at the British government for human rights abuses. In its harshest criticism yet of the British government, the panel warned that urgent action is needed for the country to meet international standards.

The UN Committee against Torture focused on human rights abuses during the so-called war on terror and the mistreatment of prisoners in British custody in Iraq. It also flagged up some 40 separate incidents on which the UK government must act.

The findings highlighted the British governments actions following 9/11 and the commission urged the British government to quickly establish an inquiry into whether detainees held overseas were ill-treated or tortured by British officials.

The report reads that the committee is “deeply concerned at the growing number of serious allegations of torture and ill-treatment, as a result of the state party’s military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The UN team also slammed what they called “an escape clause” in the Criminal Justice Act (1988), which allows British officials to escape prosecution for inflicting severe pain or suffering if they can show that they had “lawful authority, justification or excuse” for doing so.

Another legal loophole the committee voiced concern about is the Intelligence Services Act (1994), which effectively insures that intelligence officers cannot be prosecuted within the UK once a warrant giving them lawful authority has been signed by a government minister.

The panel was disappointed at the failure to date to prosecute anyone for the torture of Iraqi prisoners and in particular the failure to convict anyone for the murder of Baha Mousa who died in British custody in 2003. Only one soldier received a one-year sentence for admitting inhumane treatment.

There was also concern with the government’s planned introduction of secret court procedures in July for issues that may affect national security under the Justice and Security Act. Closed Material Procedures as they are known make it easier to use hearsay evidence or evidence obtained through torture, the committee maintains. The system of Special Advocates – lawyers who are vetted and chosen by the government – “have a very limited ability to conduct a cross-examination and cannot discuss full content of confidential materials with their client thus undermining the right to a fair trial,” the report reads.

Failed Sri Lankan asylum seekers deported from Britain exit the airport following their arrival in Colombo (AFP Photo / STR)The watchdog also urged the UK government to halt the deportation of failed asylum seekers to Sri Lanka. The deportation of failed Tamil asylum seekers has led to their torture or ill-treatment on return and the UK government hasn’t changed its policy on the issue despite a ruling by the High Court in February ordering them to suspend deportations.

The government was criticized in its handling of the case of Shaker Aamer, the last remaining UK resident in Guantanamo. The committee regretted that despite the “best endeavors” of the UK to try and get him released “there are no encouraging signs of this happening soon”.

There were also accusations against the UK government on several issues connected with Northern Ireland.  The Northern Irish justice system must abolish all non-jury trials the report concludes, adding that historical investigations into past misconduct, particularly of military officials, must not be delayed or suspended.

The committee asked that police officers only use tasers when they face “a real and immediate threat to life or risk or serious injury”.

There was also unease that the age of criminal responsibility in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has not been raised from 10-years, despite calls by more than 50 organizations for this to be done.

Further concerns were raised about the steady increase of the prison population over the past decade and the problem of overcrowding.  To help rectify the issue the committee urged the government make wider use of non-custodial sentences.

In a further blow, committee members accused the UK delegation of being evasive when questioned about Britain’s human rights record during a two-day hearing in Geneva last month.

The British government was given a year to explain how it could improve its human rights record in 4 key areas: overseas torture, getting Shaker Aamer out of Guantanamo, stopping the forced deportation of Sri Lanka asylum seekers and setting up inquiries into past abuses in Northern Ireland.