The UK's Human Rights 'Report Card'

by | Oct 12, 2012

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The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) – the review of each UN member state’s human rights record – is a comparatively new process that has recently embarked upon its second cycle. With 100% participation of member states in its first cycle, expectations for the second cycle are justifiably high.

As one of the first countries to face the UPR, the UK has been eager to present itself as a model student at the HRC. At its second review in May this year, Lord McNally, Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice and head of the UK delegation, presented a comprehensive account of the current state of human rights in the UK. The national report also provides a context to the issues, highlighting what it considers to be important constraints.

The process resulted in a total of 132 recommendations, a significant increase on the 28 submitted in 2008 and a sign that states are indeed eager to strengthen this fledgling UN mechanism. While some member states took the opportunity to push particular agendas, many of the recommendations were substantive and thoughtful enquiries on issues ranging from stop and search policing powers to the extent of the jurisdiction of the UK’s human rights obligations.

Overall the UK’s human rights ‘report card’ paints a largely positive picture. The compilation of UN information provided by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which forms part of the review, showed that the UK has: ratified the majority of the core human rights treaties, holds ‘A’ status for all three national human rights institutions and broadly cooperated with reporting and other requests. The UK’s ‘score card’ at the European Court of Human Rights is similar: during 2011-2012 the UK lost just nine out of the 31 cases it was involved in.

However, there is always room for improvement and the UK seems to be making a concerted effort towards that end. As a candidate for a seat on the HRC for 2014-2016, the UK used its UPR response as a platform from which to set out its store on human rights. The UK accepted in whole or in part 91 of the 132 recommendations. Moreover, it voluntarily provided a 72-page addendum explaining its position on each recommendation. Off the Council, the UK is an active presence in Geneva, working to secure key resolutions.

So is the UK a force for good in human rights? It remains open for discussion. This picture may seem at odds with the skewed media coverage and political rhetoric of the domestic human rights debate. It is by no means clear as to whether this contradiction will be clarified by the UK Bill of Rights Commission when it reports at the end of the year. Overall the ‘report card’ seems to read ‘working well, could do better’. UNA-UK, for example, has urged the UK government to accept the recommendation to ratify the Convention on Enforced Disappearances. It is the role of civil society to ensure that the UK doesn’t fall behind in its human rights obligations.

Hayley Richardson is Administration & Policy Support Officer at United Nations Association – UK, the UK’s leading source of independent analysis on the United Nations

Editors’ note:  for further discussion and debate on the state of human rights in the UK see Colm O’Cinneide’s on ‘Human Rights and the UK Constitution’ and Francesca Klug and Amy Ruth Williams on ‘When is a UK Bill of Rights not a UK Bill of Rights?’.

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