Tag Archives: human rights

“Studying for a PhD at Birkbeck is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life!”

Zambia-born Kasoka Kasoka, who describes himself as a very proud ‘Birkbeckian’ alma mater, reflects on his time working on a PhD in Law at Birkbeck and his achievements since graduating in 2018.

Kasoka Kasoka at graduation

Kasoka Kasoka at graduation

Tell us about your education before Birkbeck

I am from Lusaka and Zambian. In 2007 I moved to the UK where I enrolled to study for a Bachelor`s degree through the University of London International Programmes. I obtained a Bachelor`s degree in Law in 2011. Upon the completion of my degree I was admitted to study at Maastricht University in the Netherlands where I studied for a Masters degree in Forensics, Criminology and Law. I obtained my Master`s degree in 2013.

Why did you choose Birkbeck?

Firstly, I decided to enrol here because of Birkbeck`s massive ranking as one of the best research universities in the World. And yes, it is! Secondly, I applied to study here because I was attracted to the College`s interdisciplinary research study approach. As a result, my research as a doctoral student cut across; law, human rights, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, bioethics, and public health. Engaging in an interdisciplinary research project afforded me a rare opportunity to become an interdisciplinary thinker, be open-minded, and embrace new ideas.

Thirdly, true to its name as a research-intensive university, Birkbeck comprises of academics and researchers who are renowned experts in their fields. Thus, my great former PhD supervisors, Professor Matthew Weait and Dr Eddie Bruce-Jones, are very respected researchers and authorities in their various fields. They are exceedingly knowledgeable and  down to earth. And finally, but not exhaustively, I decided to study here due to the supportive student and staff community at Birkbeck. I indeed received a lot of support during my study from fellow PhD students, academic and research staff, and administrative staff members.

What were your relationships like with staff and other students?

I loved the critical approach to study and work culture at Birkbeck. I found my fellow PhD students to be really smart, friendly and supportive – this was endearing. As if this was not enough,  both academic and non-academic staff were very approachable, attentive and supportive. I had a lot of academic staff who were not my PhD supervisors avail me with research insights and suggested various research material to read – as a goodwill gesture. This was priceless in my doctoral study journey!

Inevitably, I was sad to leave Birkbeck when my studies came to a conclusion,  to leave behind such a great community. Nonetheless, I am still happy that I have stayed in touch and maintained the various friendships and networks I had the privilege of forming while studying at Birkbeck. Indeed, “once a Birkbeckian forever a Birkbeckian”!

It was a great honour to forge  invaluable friendships and networks with students and staff members from diverse backgrounds. I consider Birkbeck to be one of the most diverse universities in the UK.

Did you use any of Birkbeck’s additional support and activities?

I had the opportunity to intuitively avail myself to various societies and student clubs at the University, including various PhD students` social groups. Birkbeck has a lot of societies and social groups with various activities.  So, I was always happy to retire from my studies to unpack my mind by joining fellow students for some good fun. I especially enjoyed playing football! As they say “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy”!

Can you tell us more about your research project?

The purpose of my research was to investigate and analyse the appropriateness of individual autonomy in the context of informed consent HIV testing requirements in Zambia, and sub-Saharan African countries by extension.

Tell us about your experience of living in the UK.

I really loved living in London. London is no doubt one of the greatest cities to live in. What I liked most about the city is the diversity of its population. Thus, I was privileged to meet many people from every part of the world who brought with them various rich cultures, including great cuisines! With such a profoundly rich experience I agreed with Robert Endleman (1963) who observed that human beings in terms of cultures “are vastly various and yet laughably alike”! I also loved English pub food! And the museums, wow! – museums were often my favourite place of respite whenever I needed to briefly divorce myself from the usual business of life and time-machine myself into the past to admire and converse with ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Persians, Africans, Americans, Europeans and Indians who had no internet! And behold, the British Museum is only about three minutes-walk from Birkbeck! London is also pregnant with breath-taking gothic cathedrals and other non-church buildings.

(I need to mention that there are much more things for one to see and enjoy in London than what I can enumerate – there is almost everything for everyone to see, smell, taste, hear, touch and enjoy. That`s the magic of London!)

However, living in London comes with its own downsides: especially the high costs of accommodation and transport. Food is surprisingly affordable!

Life after Birkbeck

Kasoka Kasoka at a United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) Session

It was sad saying goodbye to my community of friends and networks when my studies concluded. After completing my studies at Birkbeck, I was offered a scholarship by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland to study on an intensive postgraduate international human rights course at the Institute for Human Rights, Åbo Akademi University. Upon the completion of the course in Finland, I was an Intern at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Switzerland. Later I worked as a Legal Intern at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva. The experiences and illuminations I gained from these intergovernmental organisations are invaluable! I am a strong believer, follower and advocate that,

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Currently, I am writing a research paper for journal publication, as I keenly continue to follow my career goals, and seek to contribute, no matter how tiny, to improving the wellbeing of our common humanity, without prejudice or discrimination. Indeed, as it has been said before as human beings, we are all as weak as the weakest link (other human being whose rights are not respected, protected and promoted) living among us in our society. My study at Birkbeck (through its critical review approach) and experience at the United Nations has made me see this reality clearer than never before.

What advice would you give other people thinking of studying at Birkbeck?

I highly recommend Birkbeck, University of London! You will study at a university that is known for research excellence with renowned academics; you will study in a supportive environment, with quality teaching; at the end of your studies you will graduate with a prestigious University of London qualification, and not forgetting you will become a Birbeckian; and at the end of your studies you will not look at the world the same way!

As for me, studying for a PhD at Birkbeck is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, and I am a very proud Birbeckian alma mater.


Soldiers aren’t being harangued by lawyers – it’s a myth designed to discredit the Human Rights Act

This article was written by Dr Frederick Cowell from Birkbeck’s School of Law. It was originally published on Left Foot Foward

Theresa May’s government is pushing a narrow, meaningless conception of human rights


There has been some controversy over the government’s plans to use the emergency powers provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to exempt British forces from lawsuits.

Despite the bullish selling of the proposals it is worth noting they can’t exempt soldiers from being responsible for torture or allow them to use the death penalty. In these cases the Human Rights Act (HRA) could still be used to bring claims against British forces and they could still be subject to war crimes prosecutions under the International Criminal Court Act.

But it’s the tone of this announcement and the context in which it takes place which makes it worrying for the protection of human rights.

As Dr Marko Milanovic notes, there is little evidence of an ‘industry’ of ‘vexatious litigation’ against the armed forces, which is the stated rational for these proposals.

Yet, it seemed to provide the warm up to the Prime Minister’s speech at the Conservative Party conference where she promised to never again ‘allow left-wing human rights lawyers to harangue… our armed forces.’

Theresa May has been here before; in 2011 when she was Home Sectary she addressed the Conservative Party Conference claiming that there was an illegal migrant ‘who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat.’

Except, she was making it up. Taken alongside the wider drip feed of negative stories about the HRA, many of which are based on misrepresentations of the law, this appears to be part of a process of ‘monstering’ the HRA, designed to create the political conditions for its repeal.

The repeal of the HRA and its replacement with a ‘British Bill of Rights’ has been Conservative Party Policy since 2006. In 2007 the then Leader of the Opposition David Cameron said that a British Bill of Rights could enhance the protection of rights by including rights not included in the ECHR, such as the right to a trial by jury.

Later this was quietly dropped with the emphasis on HRA repeal focusing on criminals using the right to family life to avoid deportation. In 2012 the Commission on a UK Bill of Rights concluded that the HRA shouldn’t be repealed but noted there were ‘perceived problems with the Human Rights Act… largely caused by a lack of public education’.

Ironically the escalation of anti-HRA rhetoric came precisely at the time when the UK Government achieved a major victory on reforming the European Court of Human Rights, with the 2012 Brighton Declaration, which led to a reduction in its backlog of cases. In 2014 the government were able to change immigration rules to make it much harder for criminals to use the right to a family life to resist deportation, again addressing a criticism often levelled at the HRA.

There is a split in the Conservative party between those who think a Bill of Rights should be framed narrowly, to amend the HRA, and those who think it should lead to UK withdraw from the ECHR, in a form of second Brexit. The current Justice Secretary has confirmed that it is still government policy to introduce a British Bill of Rights, although since winning the 2015 General Election this has been subject to a series of delays.

In her Conservative Party leadership campaign in July Theresa May stated that she would not campaign to leave the ECHR as there was no parliamentary majority for such a move. This leaves the door open to withdraw the ECHR at a later date which is considerably easier to do following withdrawal from the EU.

The contents of a British Bill of Rights is as of yet unknown however, the tone of announcements seem to indicate a strong focus on who shouldn’t have rights and where rights shouldn’t be applied.

The 2014 Conservative Party paper ‘Protecting Human Rights in the UK’ contain some indications, such as references to preventing human rights being used in ‘trivial’ cases, that there are moves to distinguish between undeserving and deserving rights holders in a future Bill of Rights.

Repeated criticism by many leading figures in the government of the HRA being used to challenge welfare policy or immigration decisions has been framed in language pointing to an undeserving rights holder. This is also accompanied by claims that certain groups needing to be protected from human rights law, or where human rights law is used by those charged or convicted of a crime that human rights law needs to focus on the victims of crime.

When the recent announcement on the liability of the armed forces is seen in this context, it reads like a trailer to a much narrower, and potentially more meaningless, conception of human rights being pushed by the current government.


Cameron’s Human Rights Headache?

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy, lecturer in the Department of Politics

Human-RightsAs a newly elected Prime Minister, you wait around for one European problem then two come along at once. While David Cameron is trying to deal with his EU referendum promise, another ‘European’ problem has reared its head in the Queen’s Speech. The Conservatives promised to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a British Bill of Rights-see this full fact analysis for background. The Conservative manifesto stated that:

The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights

The Conservatives would draw up a new Bill of Rights that ended the controversial link with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, treating their rulings as advisory and giving power back to the UK’s Supreme Court. But it looks like the commitment has at least been slowed down – to a promise to consult rather than, as was suggested, to have proposals ready in the first 100 days.

What’s caused the re-think?

The Human Rights Act is surrounded by layers of myths and half-truths. The claim is that the Act creates a set of new rights (it doesn’t, it just adds them to UK law), that it allows judges, and particularly judges from the European Court of Human Rights, to challenge and change British law (it doesn’t really, just lets them declare it ‘incompatible’) and undermines Parliament’s power (which is actually preserves)-see this famous speech by Lord Bingham. This guide to the Act concluded ‘the Government also acknowledged that a series of damaging myths about the Act had taken root in the popular imagination’.

However, the Human Rights Act has become a symbol of ‘European’ interference in ‘our’ politics and abuse of laws designed to protect us. So David Cameron is trying to change something because of what people think it is doing rather than what it is.

So why has Cameron slowed down?

Like any good politician, Cameron has looked across the battlefield and foreseen what could happen. Let’s run a little thought experiment and imagine that he and Michael Gove can draw up a new Bill of British Rights and Responsibilities, one that better reflects British values (putting aside whether it breaks any treaty obligations etc). They can send it, at least in a draft form, to Parliament and repeal the Human Rights Act. At this point, the fun would begin.

In the House of Commons, his own party is deeply divided-and even invoking the classic ‘what would Winston Churchill say’ line hasn’t helped. Some Conservatives oppose any ‘reduction’ in human rights, with one ‘senior’ politician this weekend rumoured to be considering resigning and a group of influential conservative MPs ready to oppose anything they see as a ‘weakening’ of rights.

On the other side, his Eurosceptic [or Euroexit] MPs are keen for something very different that ‘breaks’ the ‘formal link’ with the ECHR and reflects UK values. So the new Bill would have to be a masterpiece that balances these two viewpoints – different from the old Act but not giving less protection.

The truce is fragile

Dr Ben Worthy

Dr Ben Worthy

Cameron’s party, for the moment, is holding off rebellions but the truce is fragile and one issue they do like rebelling about is Europe. Just to make things more tricky for a Prime Minister with a small majority, opposite his own party the new block of 56 SNP MPs, 8 Lib-Dems and the whole of the Labour party are all firmly against scrapping the Act.

Then we get to the House of Lords. Technically the House of Lords cannot block anything promised in a manifesto-but in this case it isn’t so clear cut. The government can’t rush them to any decisions and the Lords can block legislation for some time and even ‘filibuster’ (talk until legislation is dropped).

In the House of Lords the Conservatives do not have a majority and there’s a big healthy dollop of Labour and angry Lib-Dems (there’s only 8 Lib Dem MPs but 104 highly engaged Lib-Dem Peers). Added to this, it’s full of lawyers and experts who see themselves as protectors of civil liberties. The second chamber has already issued warnings that any repeal or new bill won’t get through.

Cameron’s headache may become a migraine

So, piloting this through the House of Lords and House of Commons is very tricky. It’s at this point that Cameron’s Human Rights headache may become a migraine. The Human Rights Act 1998 is deeply tied up in the devolution settlement to Scotland, Wales and, especially, Northern Ireland, where it is embedded in the peace process.

Legally, as Mark Elliot points out, it seems Westminster can just about push a new Bill of Rights across the UK. But politically it will be extremely difficult and it’s possible that Scotland may refuse to co-operate. The ultimate danger is that, as pointed out here, a British Bill, opposed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, could become an English Bill.

So what could Cameron do? Playing for time seems a good idea. How about a referendum?

 Find out more


Human rights plan will please eurosceptics but what’s in it for the rest of us?

This article was contribute by Frederick Cowell from Birkbeck’s School of Law. It was originally published on The Conversation.

David Cameron has nailed his colours to the mast by promising to create a British bill of rights. His intention is clear – the Human Rights Act will be abolished and the UK will abandon the European Convention on Human Rights.

Cameron seems to be using populist anger over the European Court of Human Right’s decision on prisoner voting to justify a power-grab in the form of a pro-state human rights instrument. Since UKIP has a clear line on withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights and the abolition of the Human Rights Act, this has the potential to be very popular among some voters.

But in its analysis of Cameron’s latest proposals, legal charity Justice notes that many issues, such as provisions to ensure only the “most serious cases” are heard, already exist.

Even more worrying is the promise that a British bill of rights will stop “terrorists” and “criminals” exploiting the system. This is an unambiguous statement that certain categories of people will be stripped of their rights under the Tory proposals.

This might be a popular move, particularly in the context of British citizens who join extremist groups, but it is important to remember that the home secretary has the power to designate people as terrorists without them even being convicted of a criminal offence.

In defence of the ECHR

The European Court of Human Rights is often criticised for being slow to tackle its backlog of cases. But the backlog has been steadily shrinking. The tabloid press has also labelled the court as anti-UK because it rules so often against it. In reality though, the UK only loses around 2% of all cases brought against it. The Court often allows states some considerable leeway in interpreting the convention through the margin of appreciation doctrine and only rules that a state should change its laws in the most serious cases.

Reform is perfectly possible too, as was shown by the 2012 Brighton Declaration which was actively supported by the current government. The current reforms don’t expressly remove the UK from the European Convention but they seem designed to engineer a series of confrontations between the Court and the UK. In the long term the direction of travel is clear; the withdrawal of the UK from the Convention. This would make Britain the first country to leave the Convention. Currently, Russia is the only other country entertaining such a move.

Suspect rhetoric

Cameron has been talking about producing a British bill of rights for nearly eight years. In 2007 he framed the proposal as the antithesis of the Human Rights Act when he blamed the latter for creating “an excessive sensitivity to the demands of criminals”.

But while he has long been crystal clear about what a Bill of Rights wouldn’t be, he remains vague about what it would contain that wasn’t already in the European Convention. When asked, Cameron has cited the right to trial by jury as example of a change. But this is already protected by Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the margin of appreciation doctrine.

Before the 2010 election, Cameron framed the issue as a matter of democratic trust but again failed to specify what would actually go in a British bill of rights. The political pressures of coalition led to the creation of the Commission on a Bill of Rights, which published a report in 2012 broadly in support of maintaining the status quo. The issue was effectively shelved and has only since been raised in the context of abolishing the Human Rights Act.

This fits into a broader reactionary trend in the Tory Party. In the late 1950s there was a large internal row about corporal punishment for offenders and until the 1980s backbenchers were openly calling for capital punishment to be reinstated. Abolishing the Human Rights Act is the latest manifestation of this trend. Some thinkers have criticised the plan as being illiberal and anti-conservative but senior politicians, such as Ken Clarke, who have often defended the Human Rights Act, were dismissed in the last cabinet reshuffle.

The plan is a perfect fusion of tough-on-crime rhetoric and Euroscepticism. It looks very much like an appeasement to the latest manifestation of reactionary Toryism. The justice secretary showed that perfectly when he described the proposals as an attack on foreign judges “deciding our laws”, while ignoring the details about rights restrictions. This appears to be law reform being done for short-term electoral gains against UKIP rather than enhancing the protection of rights.The Conversation

Frederick Cowell is also a Labour Councillor for the London Borough of Lambeth. This is written in his capacity as an academic at Birkbeck, University of London.


French burqa ban upheld: a victory for democracy and a setback for human rights

This post was written by Frederick Cowell, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s School of Law. It was originally published on The Conversation.

The European Court of Human Rights has upheld a French ban on the wearing of face veils in public. The French Senate voted on the ban in 2010 and people who wear the burqa or niqab in public risk being fined. The anonymous woman who appealed the ban argued she was making a free choice to wear the burqa, and that the law banning it infringed her right to privacy and her right to freedom of religion, under Articles 8 and 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The Court’s judgement held that whilst there had been an interference with her rights under Articles 8 and 9, this limitation of rights was necessary to protect the “rights and freedoms of others”.

Ultimately, the court sympathised with the French government’s position that seeing a person’s face whilst walking along the street was an essential part of “living together” in society.

A step too far

The court had previously ruled that the Turkish ban on the hijab in universities was not a violation of Article 9, reasoning that it was necessary to protect against extremist movements and promote secular education. The UK House of Lords followed this decision when a pupil at Denbeigh High School was expelled from school after she broke school uniform policy by wearing a jilbab, rather than the uniform-mandated hijab.

In 2009 the European Court held that the display of the cross in Italian classrooms violated a child’s right to a secular education. This decision caused a political uproar in Italy, where all school classrooms had been displaying the cross for decades, and the decision was later overturned in the Grand Chamber (the European Court’s appeals body).

There, it was held that the display of the cross was allowed in classrooms as it was an essentially passive symbol. This has led some commentators to surmise that the Court has a mildly secular leaning.

But the French ban goes much further than any of the above cases. It applies to any public space, not just an institution such as a school or university where there may be good educational reasons to limit religious freedom.

The European Court of Human Rights knows best?

Where the judgement is particularly problematic is in its treatment of the margin of appreciation doctrine, which holds that the court will not interfere where the state party is “best placed” to determine the appropriate limits of a particular right.

For example, if one country that is signed up to the court has lax laws on pornography and another country imposes tighter censorship, both laws can still be compatible with the protection of free speech provisions in the ECHR. However this is not a blank cheque; states have to show that any restrictions on rights are necessary for their society, and the court has frequently held that restrictions of rights in some countries go well beyond the margin of appreciation.

In the burqa ban judgement, the court held that the ban was within France’s margin of appreciation as it “constituted a choice of society”. It further stated that the democratic nature of the decision meant that different social interests had been correctly balanced. This in essence condoned the idea that a majority can legitimately remove minority rights under the aegis of democratic decision making.

This raises further questions about the relationship between democratic decisions and the protection of rights. In 2005, the court ruled that the UK’s blanket ban on prisoner voting was a violation of the right to participate in elections. But in 2011, the British Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to reject this ruling. In principle, if democratic decision-making is allowed to restrict one minority’s rights, there’s no reason it can’t restrict another’s.

“Living together”

In the burqua ban case, the court argued that the objective behind the ban – the promotion of “living together” – was a legitimate social aim. This is weak reasoning. The court has rejected many other cases involving seemingly nebulous social aims. For example it has consistently ignored claims from states that laws limiting the rights of the LGBT community are representative of the morals of society.

This case is symptomatic of a deeper problem with the court. When it was set up in 1950, it was designed to safeguard democracy against the external threats of totalitarian fascism and communism; the political consensus behind the court’s continued operation is based on the narrative of protecting democracy. This makes it politically difficult for the court to rule against states when they make democratic decisions restricting rights.

To make matters worse, along with other European institutions, the court is now the target of popular political rage and many Eurosceptics deride it as anti-democratic.

Upholding the burqa ban was a weak legal decision, but it will prevent a row between the court and the French government. After it’s row with the UK government over prisoner voting this may be a blessing in disguise.

The Conversation


Latin America is being transformed by a vision of post-human rights

This post was contributed by Dr Oscar Guardiola-Rivera of Birkbeck’s School of Law. It originally appeared on The Guardian.

In Latin America, as elsewhere, progressive governments of the centre and left struggle with a seemingly intractable dilemma: should the country exploit its natural resources to the fullest, no matter what the consequences – or consider ethical questions such as the wellbeing of the natural environment and future generations?

Countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil hope to benefit from the commodity boom in global markets, fuelled by demand in China and elsewhere. At the same time their constitutions, as well as the manifestos of progressive political parties, pledge allegiance to a whole new variety of non- and post-human rights – rights of nature, declarations of inter-generational justice, and the recognition of Amerindian cultures.

These cultures are being celebrated in Beyond El Dorado, an exhibition at the British Museum in London. It includes hundreds of gold objects excavated in the early 20th century; and ceramics and stone necklaces from the Museo del Oro in Bogotá – which has one of the best collections of pre-Hispanic gold in the world – and the British Museum’s unique collections.

The British public has responded en masse to the profound spiritual and aesthetic message expressed by the gold objects displayed in the museum. But now it is time to consider the ethical and political implications of that message: not as a relic of the distant past, but because it may contain some of the answers we desperately seek to the most relevant questions of our time. A discussion organised by the Guardian and the British Museum next month aims to do just that with the help of a distinguished panel.

These big questions – climate change, food security, equality – are already being discussed in Latin America thanks to the social movements that are helping to remould politics and political discourse. In these countries both the electoral survival of progressive parties and the continuity of crucial processes of reconciliation and democratisation depend on the support of increasingly active social movements. These often include rural as well as urban campaigners, concerned about the social and environmental devastation caused by global market forces.

In this respect, social movements in the Americas display an attitude that cannot be dismissed simply as backwards or anti-business. They demonstrate a legitimate critical attitude towards the contradictions inherent in processes of globalisation. And rather than withdrawing into some fantasy zone, these movements seek to engage actively with the state and transform the relationship between the state and the people from within.

The concept that explains this interdependence between social movements and progressive parties in government goes by the name of “dual power“: the underpinning of vertical state-citizen relations by horizontal social movements, ready to criticise the decisions of the parties they elect on the basis of a commitment to a progressive agenda. This is how the protests that rocked the politics of countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Chile and Bolivia last year must be understood: as manifestations of dual power, and expressions of the terms of a new social contract – one that includes nature not only as a reservoir of resources but as an agent of politics and of the wellbeing of society.

As far as these movements are concerned, democracy and ethical politics go hand in hand. They discuss the big questions of our time – climate change, food security, the role of commons, the rights of nature, equality – in a political arena that until recently appeared to offer no alternative to the “one size fits all” view of globalisation and the market.

Crucially, in most Latin American countries such dogmatic views were imposed by sheer force, either military – as in Chile, Brazil, Argentina or Bolivia –or paramilitary, as in Colombia. To most Colombians it is now clear – a matter of indisputable record – that the paramilitary violence that engulfed the country with peculiar intensity during the last decade and a half, with the leading intervention of the United States, was part and parcel of an economic project rather than solely a counter-insurgency exercise.

The model still in place depends on the unbridled extraction of natural resources from parts of the country that have traditionally sustained peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian ways of life, and is the result of such violence. Because of this, as far as the social movements are concerned, any peace process worthy of the name must also consider the serious ethical questions posited by climate change science, food security and so on.

According to the information provided by climate science, as well as from anthropology and the humanities, it is no longer possible to keep human history separate from the history of the planet. We have become geological agents, capable of affecting and even destroying nature as a whole. We do this through the very processes that we considered to be at the heart of freedom in the 20th century – chief among them free trade. What we need now is a new politics, not only a politics of freedom, but one of post-human rights and cosmopolitics.


Commonwealth hamstrung to fight abuse in Sri Lanka

This post was contributed by Frederick Cowell, a lecturer and researcher in international law in Birkbeck’s School of Law. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

The list of crimes alleged to have been perpetrated by brothers Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa – respectively the president and defence minister of Sri Lanka – are truly horrifying. During the last few months of the civil war in 2009, the Sri Lankan army was alleged to have deliberately shelled civilian areas and since the ceasefire, as the Sri Lanka justice campaign has detailed, there have been numerous extrajudicial killings and incidents of torture.

Rather than being treated as international pariahs, though, the Rajapaskas are hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this week, attended by representatives of more than 40 governments from around the world.

Since 1965 the Commonwealth has been an independent intergovernmental organisation, with its own headquarters and secretariat. From 1971 it took a leading role in facilitating negotiations over ending white minority rule in Southern Africa.

Sincere commitments at the organisational level, however, did little to affect the Commonwealth’s membership. Military regimes and dictatorships were prominent members of the Commonwealth throughout the 1980s. When the Commonwealth broadened its focus to the protection of human rights with the passage of the 1991 Harare Declaration, committing Commonwealth member states to the protection of “fundamental human rights” and democracy, it was clear a more robust enforcement mechanism was needed if the declaration was to have any meaningful effect.

Suspension is easy

Article 3 of the 1995 Millbrook Action Programme allows states to be suspended from the organisation when they were clearly “in violation” of the Harare Principles, “particularly in the event of an unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected government”. This was the first instrument of its kind and was a radical move. At the time the UN Human Rights Commission didn’t even have an instrument for suspending serial human rights abusers or illegal governments.

In 1995 Nigeria became the first country to be suspended from the Commonwealth after General Abache’s regime rejected the results of the 1993 elections and went onto commit series of human rights abuses including the execution of activist Ken Saro Wiwa. This was followed by the suspension of Pakistan in 1999 and Fiji in 2000, both following military coups.

The Millbrook action programme also allowed the appointment of ad-hoc groups of high level officials. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002 after a troika of officials, including then Australian prime minister John Howard, concluded Robert Mugabe’s re-election that year had been “marred by a high level of politically motivated violence”. This led to Zimbabwe withdrawing from the organisation a year later. The most recent suspension was Fiji in 2009 after the government refused to accept a domestic court ruling that a 2006 coup was illegal.

Human rights play second fiddle

The focus of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), the decision making body of the Commonwealth, has been largely on the overthrow of democratically elected governments. This has led to the relative relegation of the protection of human rights, effectively turning Article 3 into an anti-coup instrument. And even as an anti-coup instrument, it has been applied inconsistently. When Maumoon Abdul Gayoom took power unconstitutionally in the Maldives in February 2012, CMAG issued a statement urging the government to hold fresh elections, but little action has been taken since.

It is also increasingly unclear what suspension is actually for. Fiji has been suspended for nearly four years, during which time it has made scant progress towards returning to constitutional government. Fiji’s government has covered the shortfall in development aid it suffered by receiving aid from China.

Anti-coup instruments have been adopted in several other international and regional organisations including the African Union. The problem is that they can easily become mechanisms that protect governments rather than human rights.

An anti-coup mechanism is also a barrier to gaining international recognition for a new government that comes to power through a coup. This can help deter future coups, which benefits exiting governments. This is why the Millbrook Action plan has received so much support from Commonwealth members. Commonwealth states have resisted attempts to create an independent Commonwealth Human Rights Commissioner, meaning that the decision to suspend states still rests with diplomats from member states.

The situation in Sri Lanka has split opinion among Commonwealth governments about the best way to respond to the human rights abuses taking place in Sri Lanka. Until a strong independent mechanism is brought in to assess suspension, Sri Lanka will remain a Commonwealth member, despite the atrocities that occur on its soil.


Torture prevention in Uzbekistan: my return visit

This post was contributed by Professor Bill Bowring of Birkbeck’s School of Law

In March 2012 I travelled to Uzbekistan for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to lecture to practising defence advocates on torture prevention. In October 2013 I was invited back, and in this blog I explain Uzbekistan’s global significance, its paradoxical engagement with United Nations treaties and mechanisms, and my own activities.

This was not my first visit to this Central Asian country of some 28.5 million people. It is about the size of California, which has a population of 38 million. I have visited several times from the 1990s, carrying out human rights training.

The population of the capital, Tashkent, is nearly 2.5 million, the largest in the region, and more than twice the size of Britain’s second city, Birmingham. Having been largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, it is a modern city. Tashkent has been named the “cultural capital of the Islamic world”, and has the earliest written Qur’an, as well as a beautifully decorated three line metro system, and since 2012 a high speed train line to Samarkand. Tourists know Uzbekistan for the Silk Road, and for the gorgeous historical cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. But Tashkent is the business, industrial and educational powerhouse.

Uzbekistan is a very serious and ambitious regional power. It has the largest population of the Central Asian states, double the population its nearest rival, Kazakhstan. There are substantial Uzbek minorities in its neighbours: 3% in Kazakhstan, 5% in Turkmenistan, 14% in Kyrgyzstan, and 15.5% in Tajikistan. In Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum leads the Uzbek minority, about 10% of the Afghan population; and the most effective military force in the country, never defeated by the mujahedin or the Taliban. Uzbekistan sees itself as the regional leader. Uzbek is a Turkic language and there is substantial Turkish investment and involvement. I stayed in a hotel which is part of a Turkish chain, though I was able to enjoy some delicious traditional plov, rice with lamb, herbs and spices, in an enormous House of Plov.

As The Guardian reported on 9 October, British universities are, controversially, moving in. Westminster has set up a campus in Uzbekistan and at least five others, Cambridge, Bath, East Anglia, the London College of Fashion and London Metropolitan University, have partnerships with colleges in Uzbekistan.

That Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state is beyond question. 75 year old President Islam Karimov has been in power since 1989 when he became First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party. He has been elected President three times by overwhelming majorities in elections which have been condemned as unfree and unfair.

According to the United States State Department’s Country Report for 2012 on human rights practices in 2012: “The most significant human rights problems included: torture and abuse of detainees…; denial of due process and fair trial; restrictions on religious freedom; … incommunicado and prolonged detention; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; on civil society activity;  and on freedom of movement; violence against women; and forced labor in cotton harvesting… human rights activists, journalists, and others who criticized the government [suffered] harassment, arbitrary arrest, and politically motivated prosecution and detention.”

That is, egregious violations of human rights, carried out by a strongly centralised regime, under a president for life, in which rights are subordinated to development.

Yet Uzbekistan participates energetically in UN human rights mechanisms. In 1994, after the collapse in 1991 of the USSR, Uzbekistan acceded to the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, and in 1995 to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and – the Convention Against Torture (CAT).

In 2006 the UN created the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism, in which the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States are reviewed by the UN’s Human Rights Council. On 24 April 2013 the Council considered Uzbekistan’s second report – the first was in 2008 – and over one hundred recommendations were made by member states.

And on 30 October 2013, immediately after my visit, Uzbekistan defended in Geneva, in a public hearing which may be seen on You Tube, its Fourth Periodic Report to the UN Committee Against Torture. Its representative, Professor Akmal Saidov, Chairman of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan (NHRC), described this as a “fiery dialogue”.

Indeed, it was Professor Saidov and his Centre who invited me this time, and the British Embassy in Tashkent which paid for my visit. I had four engagements in my three days in Tashkent – with a ten hour journey via Istanbul overnight each way. It was made very clear that I was not representing the UK or the Foreign Office, but was in Uzbekistan as an independent expert.

On 24 and 25 October I attended an international conference organized by the NHRC with Uzbek and foreign experts to discuss human rights in Uzbekistan and international best practice. I gave a presentation on UK legislation and institutions for the protection of human rights. I also participated in a meeting between the NHRC and various UN agencies on the implementation of recommendations following Uzbekistan’s recent UPR report to the UN Human Rights Council.

I also spoke, on the morning of 25 October, to a large audience at the Training Centre for Lawyers. I gave a lecture on the British judicial system and the training of legal professionals in the UK, to future judges, practising lawyers, government officials and academics. There was tremendous interest and many questions.

On 26 October I visited the Uzbek Human Rights Ombudsman, Mrs Rashidova together with the British Ambassador, George Edgar, and Professor Saidov. I gave a presentation on the UK experience since 2009 in establishing a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) under the CAT. Uzbek officials and legal experts discussed the establishment of an Uzbek NPM and Uzbekistan’s implementation of the CAT in the context of the hearing in Geneva on 30 October.

That evening I attended the inaugural event of the British Alumni Network, with over 40 graduates of Master’s degrees in the UK, many supported by Chevening and other scholarships.

Was my visit simply an opportunity for attempted window-dressing by Uzbekistan?  I argue that Uzbekistan’s engagement with international human rights, the enormous effort put into writing reports and defending them in Geneva, and the internet publicity which does not go unnoticed by Uzbek civil society, do indeed bear fruit. As Professor Saidov emphasised in Geneva, Uzbekistan has recently abolished the death penalty, reduced its prison incarceration rate to the level of the UK, and begun to introduce habeas corpus.

But most importantly, Uzbeks become ever more conscious of the yawning gap between their country’s proclaimed compliance with international standards, and its actual practice. I think I have made a very small but significant contribution to this process.