Whilst the United Kingdom has been embroiled in significant political turmoil following the outcome of a referendum on its membership of the European Union on 23rd June, attention has been somewhat drawn away from the domestic human rights impact of recently implemented policy measures and legal reforms in the UK. The implications for human rights of a number of these has recently been examined by the International Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – the United Nations (UN) body responsible for overseeing the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Its latest conclusions on the UK [1] express some serious concerns at the negative impact that austerity measures, various welfare reforms and revision of legislation governing trade unions, have had on the enjoyment of human rights in the UK – particularly on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society.

Among the concerns expressed by the ICESCR are:

  • The Human Rights Act. UK Government plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. The ICESCR expressed concern that measures to adopt such a Bill of Rights may in fact lower the status of international and regional human rights standards.
  • Discrimination and social and economic rights. Austerity measures risk having a disproportionate adverse impact on the enjoyment of economic and social rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups in the UK. No comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact of such measures on the realization of economic and social rights has been undertaken and the ICESCR urged the UK Government to undertake such an assessment, in particular examining the impact of austerity measures on disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups, in particular women, children and persons with disabilities. This reflects the fundamental principle of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that the rights enunciated therein should be exercised without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Linked to this, concerns were also expressed that provisions of the 2010 Equality Act that are relevant for enhancing the protection of economic, social and cultural rights without discrimination, are not yet in force. These include those regarding the duty of public authorities to consider socio-economic disadvantage in decision-making processes.
  • Workers’ Rights. Various measures taken in the UK could have a negative impact on the enjoyment of the right to just and favourable conditions of work, enshrined in the Covenant. Specific forms of employment such as part-time work, precarious self-employment, temporary employment and the use of “zero hour contracts” – the prevalence of all of which has increased in recent years – was expressed as a cause for concern by the ICESCR. These concerns are compounded by the recent adoption of the Trade Union Act of 2016, which has introduced procedural requirements limiting the right of workers to undertake industrial action.
  • Impact of welfare reforms on rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living. Following the Welfare Reform Act of 2012, and the Welfare Reform and Work Act of 2016, the changes in entitlements and cuts to social benefits introduced have had an adverse impact on the enjoyment of rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living – in particular for the most disadvantaged groups of society, including women, the disabled, and low-income families. Among the specific reforms cites as a cause for concern by the ICESCR were the Bedroom Tax, the reduction of the household benefit cap, the reduction in child tax credits and the 4-year freeze on specific benefits.

Although the Concluding Observations of a UN Treaty Body don’t carry the same legal weight as a court judgement, they nevertheless represent important indicators of the toll that recently implemented legislative and policy changes in the UK have had on the most vulnerable sectors of society. Two of the overarching recommendations of the ICESCR in this regard were as follows: (1) to develop better indicators for monitoring and measuring the implementation of human rights in the UK; and (2) to disseminate information on human rights at all levels of society. These recommendations point to two of the UK’s biggest challenges in this area.

The role that National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) play in developing a more constructive and inclusive discourse on human rights is crucial, and must be strengthened. At present, the level of public knowledge about human rights and our role in the international human rights system is worryingly low. The UK needs more systematic and structured systems for human rights monitoring. National institutions, although they exist, must be strengthened and undertake more public outreach. NHRIs also have a critical role to play in systematic measuring the monitoring of human rights. The Equality and Human Rights Commission – An ‘A Status NHRI’[2] -has developed a Human Rights Measurement Framework. This is a conceptual framework and set of indicators to measure human rights in the UK containing structure, process and outcome indicators, that are intended to be disaggregated on various grounds of discrimination. This framework should be used to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the impact of austerity measures and other legislative changes expressed as causes for concern by the ICESCR.

However, there is a long way to go in ensuring adequate public knowledge of human rights, and institutions charged with overseeing it remain relatively marginalised in public discourse. Public discourse on human rights in the UK is challenging at best. At its worst, it is deliberately obfuscated, stigmatised and misrepresented – both by political ideologues who mislead public perceptions of human rights in order to promote discourse that stigmatises the most vulnerable in society, as well as by much of the UK’s media.

The tabloid media in the UK in particular has demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the importance of human rights and of the role of international bodies in monitoring their implementation. It has habitually reduced highly complex issues to simplistic slogans. It has also been widely criticised for its role in stigmatising the most vulnerable in society, and using xenophobic language, often approaching the parameters of hate speech.[3] This not only obstructs any meaningful and constructive discourse on the human rights impact of public policy, but it actively contributes to negative public attitudes to vulnerable groups, implicitly or explicitly advocating policies that prevent the fulfilment of specific human rights for specific groups in society. As a consequence of this and other factors, the lack of public awareness of human rights is a matter of extreme concern and needs to be addressed urgently.

[1] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICECSR), Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 14th July 2016, UN Doc. No., E/C.12/GBR/CO/6.

[2] An NHRI is an institution whose work and mandate complies with the Paris Principles relating to the status of national institutions.

[3] http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15885&LangID=E; http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=50675.

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