ANALYSIS: Human Rights Day gives time to reflect during a volatile year in British politics
The parties’ attention will be on the election end game as campaigning enters its final week, but 10 December also marks Human Rights Day as a chance to look back at a bitterly polarised Britain in 2019.
If the last month is anything to go by, headlines have been dominated by alleged racism from a raft of candidates vying to represent the country in Westminster. Both Labour and the Conservatives have been forced to apologise for anti-semitism and Islamophobia within their ranks as experts fear daily discourse is becoming increasingly toxic.
Human Rights Day is observed every year to mark the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights being adopted at the United Nations in 1948, listing all the rights every human being is entitled to regardless of race, sex, religion, political opinion and more.
In any other year when an election does not typically fall in December, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) would use Human Rights Day to send a poignant message on the state of affairs in the UK.
This year, restricted under pre-election purdah, the watchdog’s chair David Isaac has spoken in his role as chair of the Commonwealth Forum of Human Rights Institutions to stress that protecting freedom of expression is now more important than ever.
“This right does not provide us with licence to abuse it, and we must, of course, all take responsibility for our choice of words,” he said.
“Discourse on issues including race and religion, immigration, sexual orientation and gender identity, and even climate change has progressively become more toxic.
“Threats of death, rape and violence have become more common within daily discourse, as has the resurgence of rhetoric that stokes fear of difference.”
He added: “In the face of unprecedented change, Human Rights Day is an opportunity for us to consider how the right to Freedom of Expression is applied, protected and upheld in the 21st Century.”
The EHRC is currently investigating anti-semitism within the Labour party, past pay discrimination against women at the BBC and the effectiveness of legal aid in getting justice.
Earlier this year its submission to the Grenfell Inquiry also showed the tower’s residents were denied their right to life and adequate housing by authorities before the devastating fire killed 72 people in 2017.
Campaign group Liberty has used the general election to call out the UK’s failings in its ‘alternative manifesto’.
Reflecting on the country’s status on human rights, it said: “Instead of receiving help, people are being fined, arrested and prosecuted simply for being homeless.
“People have been torn away from their families and friends and locked up in immigration removal centres without release dates. Essential public services pass information to immigration enforcement, leaving people too scared to send their children to school, report crimes and seek medical attention when seriously ill, with fatal consequences...
“Legal aid has been decimated, denying thousands of people access to justice, and Parliament voted to scrap the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights after Brexit.”
The Conservative manifesto has committed the party to policies that have prompted a backlash from pressure groups.
Campaigners fear its plan to update the Human Rights Act is a thinly-veiled bid to roll back protections, while the Tories' plan to introduce voter identification at elections has been criticised for being an “unprecedented risk to democratic access” that will hit marginalised groups the hardest.
Meanwhile, Labour's attempt to bolster its commitment to human rights through its ‘Race and Equality Manifesto’ was overshadowed by the ongoing controversy over its handling of anti-Jewish hatred by party members.
Amnesty International UK is using Human Rights Day to urge the next government to “do the right thing” on bolstering domestic abuse legislation for migrant women.
The watchdog called on MPs to follow through with reform to help survivors, as legislation continues to stall in Parliament despite being first introduced in 2017.
Reflecting on 2019, Amnesty International UK director, Kate Allen, told PoliticsHome: “The last 12 months have been challenging for human rights in the UK – but there are also many reasons to be positive as we approach the new year.
“At Amnesty, we’ve been working on two pieces of legislation that relate to immigration and domestic abuse. These vital issues represent an important opportunity for our next government to do the right thing and treat people with humanity.”
The Domestic Abuse Bill reached the second reading stage in Parliament before the election was called, and campaigners were pushing for further reforms such as committed funding to be added in finalised draft.
“Migrant women in abusive relationships are currently trapped and further victimised by their immigration status - excluded from financial support which often makes them reliant on their abuser, and threatened with deportation should they seek support from the police,” Ms Allen added.
“So far, proposed legislation on this issue has neglected to meet the specific needs of migrant women and will fail unless everyone who experiences this horrendous violence and abuse – regardless of immigration status – is offered safety and protection.”
Amnesty is also continuing to press the case for politicians to scrap strict refugee family reunion policies for those in the UK.
“For people who have survived war, conflict and persecution, being kept apart from loved ones who remain miles apart overseas can feel simply too hard to take,” she said.
“We are urging our politicians to act with humanity, and address both of these issues next year.”
Not to escape the dreaded B-word, but the UK-EU divorce has also drummed up a flurry of questions over human rights such as access to food, the Good Friday Agreement and the asylum system as uncertainty continues over a post-Brexit Britain.
The future of EU citizens’ rights in the UK have also been a focal point for fears that the group could face a similar “Windrush generation scandal" after Brexit.
But one historic milestone to be remembered this year is the legalisation of same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland, which was backed with overwhelming majority support from MPs in July.
Cuts to legal aid for separated and unaccompanied children were also reversed by the Ministry for Justice in October, marking a long-awaited victory by children's rights campaigners.
How policy plays out will be strongly swayed by the results of the 12 December election, so for now debate will be left to the election battlefield rather than in the House of Commons.
In the final two days of campaigning, Mr Isaac leaves political parties with some food for thought.
“Our words can inspire hope through shared experiences that unite us in our differences to transcend geography and generations. Freedom of expression is a right, a privilege and a great responsibility. How we choose to communicate, interpret and act on the words of others is important. Words Matter.
“This Human Rights Day, how will you use yours?"