Photo courtesy of European Parliamentary Research Service Blog

The relationship between international bodies and national leaders can be tense. For instance, a United Nations official may produce a critical report on human rights violations. The government that was criticised may indignantly defend its record, backed by its allies in the media. Views in that country may be divided, while many people will not know whom to believe. The issues flagged up may be set aside – until the next such report, speech or resolution.

This is a familiar pattern to many in Sri Lanka but, in fact, applies to the United Kingdom (UK) and other countries too. Some people seem to think that only Asian, African and Latin American leaders come under such scrutiny and that critics represent “the West”. Yet Western governments can also face tough questions from international bodies about economic, social and political rights, especially for the poor and vulnerable.

Observations and reactions

In the UK, the head of state’s position is mainly ceremonial. More power is held by the prime minister and cabinet. At one time a major imperial power, the country’s status has declined. In recent years there has been a surge of nationalism, focused largely on winning a referendum to leave a regional alliance, the European Union (a policy nicknamed “Brexit”), although opponents have pointed out that, in reality, this would leave the country in an even weaker position.

Over the past decade there has been increasing concern about civil liberties and government ministers’ stance on workers’ and minority rights, housing, welfare and other issues. Various UN special rapporteurs (independent experts who specialise in particular aspects of human rights) have carried out fact finding visits. They have listened to people who have been harmed or neglected by those in power and reported on what they found.

For example Raquel Rolnik, rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, who is Brazilian, pointed to a housing crisis including overcrowding, insecurity and lack of affordable homes. Her findings, though welcomed by some in the UK, were condemned by the Daily Mail, a newspaper that backs the ruling Conservative Party. This expressed “Outrage as ‘loopy’ UN inspector lectures Britain”. The article quoted a government minister’s claim that “frankly her actions undermine the impartiality of the UN.”

Maina Kiai, rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, originally from Kenya, warned of the effects of various repressive measures. These included silencing non-governmental organisations in the run up to elections, making it harder for trade unions to call strikes, abuses by undercover police and a policy supposedly aimed at countering “extremism” that could end up boosting terrorism by alienating people, especially the Muslims who often felt unfairly targeted. The Mail on Sunday described this as “UN meddler tells us to go easy on terrorists.”

The devastating effects of austerity (involving cuts in public services and social security), including on disabled people, were explored by Philip Alston, UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, an Australian. “What right does the UN have to tell us what to do in our own country?” wrote Jeremy Warner, assistant editor of the pro-Conservative paper the Daily Telegraph, in response. But as well as assembling facts and figures, to those on society’s margins, to whom he had listened respectfully as they shared stories of struggle and loss, he had offered the dignity of recognition.

Zambian-born Tendayi Achiume, rapporteur on racism, looked into the mistreatment of immigrants and spike in hate crime as the UK moved closer to Brexit and harsh effects of austerity, especially on ethnic minorities and other disadvantaged groups. She described how “race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability status and related categories all continue to determine the life chances and well-being of people in Britain in ways that are unacceptable and, in many cases, unlawful.” “Fury as UN launches investigation into claims Brexit has made Britain a RACIST country,” another government-supporting newspaper, the Sun, had thundered, although in fact she made it clear that “Brexit has not newly introduced racism and xenophobia to the United Kingdom.”

Non-governmental human rights organisations, too, have from time to time picked up on UK human rights concerns, from preventing child refugees from reuniting with family members to attempts to rein back courts’ powers to hold ministers to account on behalf of citizens.

Shining a light on what governments would prefer to hide

Governments in the West, as elsewhere, may regard international human rights bodies as a nuisance although, to the most vulnerable, these may offer a chance of protection. This is not to say that politicians never use the language of rights in a cynical way and hypocrisy is common: leaders often fail to apply the same standards to themselves and their allies as they do to others.

Also people’s concern for their neighbours should go beyond basic rights: generosity and kindness matter too. Yet to people deprived of food, safety or shelter or unable to express themselves, an imperfect framework upheld for sometimes questionable motives is better than none.

In the UK, as in some other countries, when the UN or other organisations speak out, there is sometimes a local backlash. Government ministers (helped by their media allies) have had considerable success at making themselves out to be representatives of Britain. So criticisms of their decisions can be misinterpreted as slurs on the nation as a whole.

Yet this year the failings that such critics pointed out have become harder to ignore, having almost certainly contributed to high numbers of excess deaths during the pandemic. Sadly, it is likely that thousands of the people who previously brushed off human rights concerns have lost loved ones partly because such violations created conditions where the virus could more easily spread. Other freedoms too are at risk and increased US dominance, as ties with European neighbours weaken, may further damage public health.

As people have discovered throughout the world, if any section of the population faces human rights abuses, ultimately nobody is safe. However if solidarity can be deepened at a local and wider level, people of diverse communities and backgrounds can thrive.