2020: A year in review

Tomos Owen & Robert Wilcox

To say that 2020 has been an unusual year is an understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the package of government measures introduced in response, continue to dramatically impact our day-to-day lives. Even the most ordinary activities are subject to myriad restrictions and we find ourselves consciously weighing up the potential risks that even the simplest acts pose to others. In these respects, the pandemic has highlighted issues that form the crux of debates concerning human rights and civil liberties. To what extent can a person’s choices about how to live be permitted to interfere with the choices of another? How far can a government go in imposing restrictions on individual liberties, even for a legitimate purpose? This would seem to be quite enough to be getting on with, but the pandemic has also shone a much-needed light on the social injustices and levels of inequality that persist in what are conventionally regarded as civilised nations.

It was against this background that we finally launched Write for Humanity. The blog had a long period of gestation; we first discussed setting it up over a year ago in light of our shared commitment to human rights and a recognition that their continued existence depends on individuals being willing to publicly advocate for them. However, our increasing alarm in relation to the current government and the depraved turn in political rhetoric left us feeling that we had to “do our bit” sooner rather than later. It is not without irony that the increased time afforded to us as a result of being required to work from home meant that we could give the blog the attention that it warranted. And, sadly, despite focussing on the UK alone, we have not been short of issues to write about.

Since we launched the blog on 15 June 2020, we have posted 22 articles – covering a range of important issues, from unaccompanied child refugees to cronyism in government. The blog has received almost 2,000 views from people in 25 countries during that time. We have also been directly contacted by a number of individuals expressing their support and saying that they have used the resources made available on the website to take action themselves. Ultimately, that is the aim of Write for Humanity: to facilitate action by people who recognise that, in the immortal words of Martin Luther King, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. We are extremely grateful to those who donated when we hiked the South Wales Three Peaks in September, helping us to raise over £750 for Oasis Cardiff, a charity which supports asylum seekers and refugees to integrate and engage with their new community.

If anything, the blog has made us realise how much more we need to be doing to fight for human rights, democracy and social justice here in the UK. There is this persistent narrative, often invoked by modern day demagogues, that somehow the UK should seek to return to “the good old days”, to reclaim its past when it truly was “Great” Britain. Of course, the UK’s contributions to the advancement of human rights, such as its role in the liberation of Europe and in helping establish the European Convention on Human Rights, should be taught and celebrated. But the story is incomplete.

Most people are unaware of the Black War, a conflict between British colonists and the Aboriginal Australians of Tasmania, which resulted in the latter’s near extermination. It is not widely known that the British used concentration camps during the Second Boer War, where conditions were so abysmal that over 26,000 civilian Boers died, in addition to at least 15,000 separately held black Africans. Who, in school, was taught that India suffered 12 famines during British occupation or that, in 1919, the British Indian Army sealed peaceful protestors of British colonial rule within the walls of the Jallianwala Bagh and then proceeded to gun them down? And who could possibly disregard the tens of thousands of Kenyans that were placed in concentration camps by the British during the Mau Mau Uprising, where they were regularly tortured and sexually assaulted? These are but a few examples; the list could go on.

These bloody episodes should not be relegated to the annals of history. The failure to grapple with the truths of our past have consequences for the present. It results in a dangerous cocktail of ignorance and arrogance that explain many of the human rights challenges that we face today. British colonialism cannot be disentangled from systemic racism. It is not merely coincidence that black people living in the UK are faced with a lower life expectancy, lower incomes, worse health outcomes, worse education outcomes and longer prison sentences than white people. Those who responded to the Black Lives Matter movement by asserting that “all lives matter” have completely misunderstood the situation; all lives should matter but it is entirely naïve to suggest that they do matter when black people still face widespread discrimination.

The atrocities committed by members of the British military during past conflicts should have led Parliament to reject the government’s Overseas Operations Bill which, according to Human Rights Watch, will make it more difficult to prosecute genuine war crimes. It seems that there is no room for nuance in political debate anymore; the debt that we owe to soldiers risking their lives to protect ours cannot be overstated, but that should not extend to absolving them for inflicting gratuitous pain and suffering, especially on civilians. Yet, the government’s Bill easily passed; in fact, the Labour Party imposed a whip on its MPs to abstain and sacked three shadow ministers when they voted against it.

Few people will have missed the increasingly inhumane rhetoric surrounding asylum seekers and refugees this year. These are people fleeing war and persecution, torture survivors, and victims of sexual assault and human trafficking. The UK has legal obligations to such persons, and rightly so. Yet politicians continue to deploy dehumanising language to describe these victims of circumstance. They peddle a false narrative that asylum seekers and refugees drain the UK’s resources and threaten our culture, as if that could possibly justify the harsh treatment that they are met with. The truth is quite different from what they would have us believe. Asylum seekers live off just £5.39 a day. They are banned from applying for the right to work until a year has passed from when they make their asylum application. And far from being an “invasion”, just 0.26% of the UK’s total population is made up of asylum seekers and refugees; time would, perhaps, be better spent looking at other causes for our allegedly diminishing culture.

As this information is readily available, it begs the question why such harmful attitudes persist. One is forced to conclude that it is a fear of ‘otherness’. This transcends the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees; it is the root cause of all prejudice. There is good reason to think that the more prevalent this fear is within a community, the more we will witness other forms of discrimination. Indeed, the rise in hate-filled rhetoric in the public sphere has seen an increase in incidents of homophobic hate crime.

Rather than combatting negative attitudes towards human rights, the current Tory government has fuelled them. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has reduced the number of legal routes for asylum seekers to enter the country and made it her mission to make crossing the English Channel “unviable”. She has devised plans for the Royal Navy to push boats back out to sea and considered sending asylum seekers to an island in the South Atlantic. Together with the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, she has also criticised “activist lawyers” who are simply attempting to force the government to comply with its legal obligations. This rhetoric is widely believed to have inspired a far-right attack at the Harrow office of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, a firm which specialises in immigration work. The government continues to indefinitely hold immigrants, including children, in poorly-equipped detention centres, with serious consequences for their physical and mental wellbeing. It also has repeatedly voted against the Dubs amendment, which would require the UK to continue to reunite unaccompanied child refugees with their families post-Brexit.

On the face of it, the Magnitsky legislation was a welcome development as it enables the UK to impose sanctions on human rights abusers across the globe. However, it seems that, once again, the need to safeguard human rights yields to political expediency; there are some glaring omissions from the list of those sanctioned (for example, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, himself described China’s mass incarceration and exploitation of the Uighur Muslim population as constituting “gross, egregious human rights abuses”). Even more shockingly, the government is alleged to have telephoned Saudi Arabia to apologise for including it on the sanctions list and laud praise on its international security work. Indeed, this summer, it announced that it would resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies, whom are undertaking a military campaign in Yemen, despite evidence of repeated breaches of international humanitarian law. The country is currently facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But the government has cut foreign aid by £4 billion, whilst increasing military spending by £16 billion. There is seemingly no end to its hypocrisy. Furthermore, the perpetual threat of the Tories watering down, or doing away completely, with the Human Rights Act 1998 hangs like a Damoclean sword over all our heads. This month the government launched a review into the legislation, which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights in domestic law.

Ultimately, what is most striking of all about this government, however, is its complete lack of integrity. It readily engages in the spreading of misinformation. But perhaps this should come as no surprise. One has only to look at how the Tories ran their General Election campaign; 88% of their Facebook electoral ads were found to be misleading. Cronyism is rampant. The government awarded Covid-19 contracts worth over £9 billion to companies, without competitive tender, and handed out important public health roles to those whom enjoy close personal connections with the Tory Party, without a proper recruitment process. It has also rewarded Brexit loyalists and party donors with peerages.

Ministers escape accountability with tiring frequency. Priti Patel remained in post despite an independent review finding that she had breached the ministerial code by bullying civil servants. Robert Jenrick stayed on as Housing Secretary despite it being uncovered that he had overruled a decision by the government’s planning inspectorate not to award a £1bn housing development contract to a former press tycoon because it did not provide enough affordable housing. The latter donated £12,000 to the Tory Party shortly after the decision; the conflict of interest should have been obvious. Boris Johnson himself has repeatedly failed to attend Parliamentary Liaison Committee meetings, the only committee which is able to put questions to the Prime Minister (when he finally did appear, he appointed his own chairman). He sat on the Russian Interference Report, which found that the government essentially ignored evidence of foreign interference in our democracy, for an unprecedented nine months. He even tried to shoehorn the former Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling (popularly known as “Failing Grayling”) into the role of Chair of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee; it was this committee which had the responsibility of publishing the report.

If one is in need of further evidence of why this government is of such concern, there were two issues this year which should leave no fair-minded person in doubt. The first issue was the need for enormous public pressure to force the government into U-turning, twice, in relation to its refusal to provide free school meals to eligible children during the school holidays. This is at a time when families are under huge financial pressure due to the pandemic. Unicef, the UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian aid to children globally, announced that it would be feeding children in the UK for the first time in its history, and Tory minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg responded by saying that the organisation should be “ashamed” of its offer to help and accused it of “playing politics”. The second was the government’s announcement to the world that it was willing to breach international law in respect of treaty commitments it had itself signed up to mere months ago; it concerned a deal that the Prime Minister himself declared to the British public was “oven-ready”. The Tories feeble attempts to defend the government’s actions saw them belittling the value of international law in a move that plays into the hands of despots across the globe.      

A country does not abandon democracy overnight. Nor does it immediately relinquish its commitment to human rights. It is a combination of a range of, often subtle, developments that cause a state to quietly slip into darkness. We each have a responsibility to ensure that does not happen. We hope that you will continue to support the work that we do to shed a little light on these developments and feel motivated to make your own voices heard. The dangers, some of which are already manifest, are very real; they will only grow if met with silent acquiescence.

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