In a previous issue, Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, shared her vision of a world in which human rights would be respected and upheld, no matter the challenges – war, fuel crisis, mass migration or a deeply-embedded patriarchal structure.
In the second of two exclusive interviews she has given to Geneviève Talon for West England Bylines, she discusses the role of institutions such as the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), where she served as a special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions from 2018 to 2021. She also takes the British government to task for planning to replace the Human Rights Act (HRA) and distancing itself from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). War and war crimes in particular have cast a shadow over Agnès’s life. One of the most formative experiences of her youth was the annual commemoration of the execution of her grandfather, a member of the French Résistance, who died at the hands of the Nazis in the Maquis du Vercors on 15 August 1944. This memory has fed into her personal and professional commitment to the rule of law and the protection of human rights.
In conversation with Agnès Callamard
Geneviève Talon: You have first-hand experience of working with the United Nations Human Rights Council, the body within the United Nations system made up of 47 states responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights. How effective is the Council in protecting those rights?
Agnès Callamard: The Council is as effective as member states want it to be. It is like the General Assembly of the UN: if member states are courageous they will create a strong, impactful Council. Member states that are not courageous will result in councils that, for example, are unable to act on China’s crimes against the Uyghurs or to stand up to Russia. Historically, the Human Rights Council is an important body. It is the only international, inter-governmental body whose mandate is to prevent human rights violations and to support the implementation of human rights obligations around the world.
The Council has taken a number of positive steps. It set up a commission of enquiry on Yemen, sadly closed now but there’s a new commission of enquiry on Ukraine. Action has also been taken on other conflicts, on freedom of expression and on a range of other questions. On China, however, the record is bad. The Council has lacked in courage and failed to set up a commission of enquiry on the treatment of the Uyghurs.
The commission of enquiry on Ukraine was an essential, crucial step for which Amnesty advocated. We also demanded a special rapporteur to focus on Russia, which has also been adopted. In Russia itself, many people are imprisoned, silenced, or having to leave the country. In addition to its aggression in Ukraine and its war crimes against the people of Ukraine, Russia’s treatment of Russians should also be a target for the Council. We need to keep demanding that member states of the Council are prepared to stand up to the most powerful states and to adopt resolutions which may not be popular but are important.
Frankly, when I look at the state of the world, I cannot imagine a worst period for humanity. We are entering a perfect storm: climate change, the rise in international and civil wars, increasing inequality which is a huge source of conflict, and the current food crisis. We cannot afford to lament the weaknesses of the Council. We have to continue to push, advocate, encourage and demand that it delivers its mandate. The Council is the only multilateral body responsible for human rights, and we need global governance on these rights. Irrespective of whether the Council is working perfectly, we need to make it work as best we can. This, of course, includes reform if required. The world right now cannot afford a weak Human Rights Council.
The UK and the Human Rights Act
Geneviève Talon: The relationship between the UK, the EU and the Council of Europe has become tense, even fractious. How damaging would it be to the cause of human rights in the UK if the British government was to abolish the Human Rights Act (HRA) and replace it with a bill of rights?
Agnès Callamard: It would be very bad for justice, for accountability and for the rights of British people. The HRA is the single most powerful tool that people have at their disposal to challenge abuses of power by government, unfair treatment, and so on. From the Hillsborough families to those challenging the way they have been treated by the police because of their race or gender and workers fighting unfair dismissal, the HRA is everywhere and it protects so many rights that are important to people’s daily lives. It is the HRA that enables us to act and behave as citizens because we are protected against abuse.
Geneviève Talon: But isn’t the government’s intention to replace it with a bill of rights?
Agnès Callamard: The proposed bill of rights, from what we know, will restrict access to human rights in the UK. It will use a much narrower definition of human rights that conflicts with the European Court of Human Rights. It will, for example, breach the Good Friday Agreement and hence threaten peace in Northern Ireland. The proposed bill of rights will definitely not advance people’s rights – it’s another Brexit, pretending to do something that it cannot achieve.
At the moment, the HRA creates what is defined as positive obligations for public authorities. It’s not just about what the government should not do but what it should do. For instance, it should ensure that disabled people can access all kind of public buildings. That’s called a positive obligation. It must take action to enable the realisation of that right. The proposed bill of rights will not include positive obligations. So, the bill represents a major shrinkage of the government’s obligations as far as people’s rights are concerned.
Another example of a positive obligation is that the government has a duty to investigate crimes and human rights violations. When it fails to do that, people can have recourse. But under the bill of rights, that is likely not to be the case. Similarly, the police’s failure to investigate the serial sex offender John Worboys, who went on to attack 105 women, is a human rights violation under the European court, under the international system, but it will likely not be under the bill of rights. This, of course, is not meant to say that the government will stop investigating serious crimes. But if it fails to do so effectively, there will likely be no recourse under a bill of rights as currently conceived.
European Convention on Human Rights
Geneviève Talon: Suella Braverman, when she was attorney general, said she was contemplating pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) altogether.
Agnès Callamard: I find that idea crazy. It would be a terrible step backward. It’s like saying the UK will not need to be part of the Genocide Convention or the Convention against Racial Discrimination. We have spent 70 years building up human rights protection for the citizens of this country and the European Convention plays a big part in this. Why would you want to weaken your protection as a human being? It makes no sense to me.
Through the UK’s ratification of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Racial Discrimination, the Convention on Genocide and many others,UK citizens benefitted and it made the UK a much stronger country globally. It was the same when the UK ratified the ECHR. It’s a fantastic instrument for British people and the European Convention is one of the key models for international human rights protection. It’s the best developed and most sophisticated one, with the most jurisprudence. So why on earth would you want to get rid of it for the UK?
Geneviève Talon: What do you make of the arguments that the likes of Suella Braverman are putting forward? The need to prevent alleged terrorists from challenging their deportation? The ECHR being at odds with British culture?
Agnès Callamard: This is so backward! Who would want to get rid of 70 years of human rights protection because of one or two persons who are alleged terrorists? They’re proposing to completely destroy the human rights protection of every citizen of the UK. It simply doesn’t make sense to dismantle a whole system because of a handful of marginal cases.
With regard to the cultural argument, it’s just not grounded in reality. The European Court of Human Rights [which makes decisions related to infringements of the ECHR], for good or for bad, has done something that no other court has done. It has adopted the notion of ‘margin of appreciation’ which means that, in deciding cases, judges will consider the fact that governments may have a greater understanding, particularly regarding sensitive cultural issues, than European judges. There is a range of questions over which there is no strong European consensus, for example around religion. When it comes to those issues, the European court has determined that they will not take a universal stand but will devolve the decision-making to, say, British judges.
Footnote from Geneviève Talon (January 2023): As this article goes to press, we hear that Rishi Sunak has again refused to say whether the UK would have to leave the ECHR to deliver his government’s plan for removing asylum seekers who arrive illegally. In fact, we urgently need the arguments brought to the fore and clearly debated. Thank you, Agnès, for your clear and impassioned contribution.
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