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Editorial Britain has a long and sordid history of human rights abuse

THE conclusion by the UN torture watchdog that human rights violations by the British government have got worse since its last report six years ago is unsurprising.

Though no slouch when it comes to accusing foreign governments of bad behaviour, the Conservative-led administrations since 2010 have responded with breezy indifference when called out for their own crimes. 

They dismiss all criticism from the UN rapporteur on human rights’s finding that government had inflicted “great misery” on disabled people and failed to uphold their human rights while pursuing “reform” of the social security system. They shrug their shoulders at evidence that assaults in prisons have more than doubled since they came to power. 

Soaring homelessness has nothing to do with Tory policies, their housing secretary asserts. When confronted with proof that weapons we sell to the blood-soaked tyrants of Saudi Arabia and air strikes facilitated by British logistical assistance are being used to bomb hospitals, houses and schoolbuses in Yemen, ministers repeat with a straight face that our arms export controls are the strictest in the world.

Honesty is a quality so little valued in Westminster, where even ministers caught out lying to Parliament are no longer expected to resign, that government spokespeople don’t trouble to make their denials believable any more.

There are any number of specific issues raised in the submissions to the UN watchdog by 74 NGOs, civil society groups and individuals which require urgent redress.

Britain remains the only country in Europe which has no time limit on immigration detention. It jails more children than any European country. 

Detentions under the Mental Health Act have risen by over a third since 2010. The use of tasers on suspects has risen 43 per cent in five years.

The “hostile environment” deliberately constructed by Theresa May when she was home secretary in David Cameron’s government sees medical evidence that backs up asylum-seekers’ accounts of being tortured ignored — as Redress’s report on Britain’s implementation of the UN Convention on Torture notes, “Home Office administrators routinely reject expert medical statements produced in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol, preferring their own view, with the barest justification.”

Even so, the rot goes back further than the last decade. Mounting evidence that Britain’s involvement in the US extraordinary rendition and torture programme was deeper than previously acknowledged should see former foreign secretaries who indignantly rejected such claims, including Jack Straw and David Miliband, forced to come clean. 

Credible allegations that Britain was waterboarding suspects in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, continued use of the banned “five techniques” of interrogation — prolonged wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, and deprivation of food and drink — after being ordered to desist by the European Court of Justice in 1978 and then exported these forms of torture to Iraq following 2003’s US-led invasion of the country amount to a damning record of wrongdoing which parallels what we now know about the state’s illegal infiltration of trade unions, socialist and environmentalist organisations, collusion in blacklisting and falsification of evidence following the police riot at Orgreave during the miners’ strike.

Parliament continues to grant the state additional powers. GCHQ’s illegal hoovering-up of personal data from telecoms companies for over a decade didn’t merit even an apology from ministers or spymasters.

The Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 left government agencies’ ability to spy on everything we do less regulated than ever and even Labour is too willing too often to hand power to police or corporate censors as a solution to social problems raised by new technologies.

The light shone on the dark side of British state activity by this report and others is welcome.

A transformative Labour government will need the courage not only to halt the most egregious rights abuses occurring today but to force a cultural revolution at our security agencies to prevent abuses in the future.


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