On Human Rights Day, A Call for the US to Close Guantánamo, and for the UK to Defend the Human Rights Act


Eleanor Roosevelt holds up a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Roosevelt, the wife of the former US president, who had a deep interest in the rights of refugees, was chosen to chair the UN Human Rights Commission, when it was established on February 16, 1946 to draft a Declaration of Human Rights.

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Over 60 years ago, in the wake of the horrors of World War II, when people with power and influence were determined to do whatever they could to prevent such barbarity from taking place again, the United Nations was established, the Geneva Conventions were rewritten, and representatives of 17 countries drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly exactly 67 years ago, on December 10, 1948. Human Rights Day itself was established 65 years ago, on December 10, 1950.

A powerful attempt to establish “a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations,” the UDHR set out, for the first time, and in 30 articles, fundamental human rights that were to be universally protected.

These include protection from torture and “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” protection from “arbitrary arrest,” and the right to “a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” The UDHR also stated, “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”

I mention these articles in particular (Articles 5, 9, 10 and 11), because they seem very much to apply to the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which is still open nearly seven years after President Obama first declared that he would close it within a year. A legal, moral and ethical abomination, Guantánamo is still used to hold people without proper rights. For the most part, the men still there (currently 107 men) are held indefinitely without charge or trial, even though holding people indefinitely without charge or trial isn’t supposed to happen in countries that claim to respect the rule of law, and the only acceptable way to deprive anyone of their liberty is as a criminal suspect, or as a convicted criminal after a trial, or as a prisoner of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions.

Some years ago, the BBC World Service ran a feature on the UDHR, with links to each of the articles, choosing Guantánamo for Article 10, Right to fair public hearing by Independent tribunal, and last year Vice News published the Universal Declaration of No Human Rights, written by Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, which I cross-posted and wrote about here.

Last December, We Stand With Shaker, the campaign I co-founded with Joanne MacInnes, worked with students in London to make a film featuring excerpts from Shaker’s Universal Declaration of No Human Rights, featuring Juliet Stevenson and David Morrissey, and I’m posting that video below as a reminder of how disgracefully human rights have been jettisoned at Guantánamo.

What you can do now

To remind President Obama of the need for Guantánamo to be closed, call the White House on 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414 or submit a comment online.

Save the Human Rights Act

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the inspiration for the European Convention on Human Rights, drafted in 1950 by the Council of Europe, founded in 1949, which promotes human rights, democracy and the rule of law in its member states (10 originally, and now 47, representing 820 million people in total). In turn, it led to and led to the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights.

It’s important to note that the Council of Europe is an independent body, and is not to be confused with the European Union, although membership of the Council of Europe is a requirement for EU member states.

An offshoot of the ECHR, in the UK, is the Human Rights Act, which, as Bella Sankey, Liberty’s director of policy, explained in a recent article for the Huffington Post, “was passed in 1998 with overwhelming cross-party support and Tory leadership endorsement,” and “was a long-held ambition of the Society of Conservative Lawyers.”

Now, however, the Tories under David Cameron want to repeal the Human Rights Act, an act of idiocy, intended to pander to tabloid editors and the vindictive streak that runs through the Party, unchallenged, largely to suggest — wrongly — that we can and should be free to deport whoever we want, under any circumstances, when our leaders want (in the cases of alleged terror suspects, it should be noted). In fact, the HRA is essential for all of us, because it protects us from abuse by the state.

As Liberty states:

Our Human Rights Act protects every one of us: young and old; wealthy and poor; you and your neighbour. Our HRA has already achieved so much. It’s held the State to account for spying on us; safeguarded our soldiers; and supported peaceful protest. It’s helped rape victims; defended domestic violence sufferers; and guarded against slavery. It’s protected those in care; shielded press freedom; and provided answers for grieving families.

My in-depth analysis of why the Tories’ plan to repeal the act — and replace it with a British Bill of Rights — is so stupid was published back in May, just after the General Election. My article wa entitled, “What Does It Say About the Tories That They Want to Scrap Human Rights Legislation?” and in it I wrote the following about how, in order to repeal the HRA, we would need to withdraw from the ECHR:

[W]ithdrawal from the Convention would mean withdrawing from the Council of Europe, and … EU membership requires CoE membership. Are we to see a ridiculous situation whereby a referendum on leaving Europe, which David Cameron doesn’t even want, goes ahead and is promoted by the Tories, with ruinous effects on British business, simply because the Tories don’t like some of the minor constraints on their actions that are enshrined in human rights legislation?

To understand quite how ridiculous this is, it’s worth pointing out how the current situation actually gives the UK more, not less influence over the European Court of Human Rights — providing yet more confirmation that the Tories’ plans are idiotic, designed to appeal to legally illiterate right-wingers, and demonstrating how much this particular batch of Tories hates being told what it cannot do.

On Human Rights Day, Shadow Human Rights Minister Andy Slaughter and Shadow Foreign Office Minister Diana Johnson have written an article for the Daily Mirror, stating, “Michael Gove should celebrate Human Rights Day by dropping plans to scrap the Act.” The Guardian reported on December 2 that Michael Gove has in fact delayed announcing detailed changes until next year, but that is not enough, as former Attorney General Dominic Grieve made clear in an article in June, and law professor Philippe Sands made clear in an article in October.

What you can do now

See Liberty’s pages on the HRA here, their mythbuster here, and their campaign page here. Also see Amnesty International’s campaign pages here and here.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ is available for download or on CD via Bandcamp — also see here). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign, the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

4 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Today is Human Rights Day, marking the 67th anniversary of the newly-created United Nations adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a benchmark in the struggle to secure basic rights for everyone. To mark the day, I point out how ‪Guantanamo‬, which is an affront to the UDHR, must be closed, and how, in the UK, the Tory government needs to drop its idiotic plans to repeal the Human Rights Act.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. Human Rights Day is such an important day – like the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, on June 26 – and yet it is also one that is scandalously overlooked by most world leaders and most of the mainstream media.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Angie Graham wrote:

    Well said Andy. People need to wake up to this. So far they have been prevented but they won’t stop unless we raise awareness and fight it.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for being aware, Angie. I’m glad there has been high-profile opposition to the proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act, from MPs, peers and lawyers, but clearly the government is not to be trusted – on this, as on so many things. People can email their MPs via Liberty’s campaign page if they want to know where they stand, which is obviously useful: https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/campaigning/save-our-human-rights-act-0

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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