Category Archives: UK Human Rights

Challenges to the absolute ban on torture in the 21st Century: a brief outline of the UK Government’s use of the ‘Memorandum of Understanding’


The European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) was signed after World War II in 1953. Europe was in ruins, and crimes of humanity had led to calls for a document that set in stone new levels of human rights protection. Article 3 recognises positive and negative duties on states to protect an individual’s fundamental right to be free from “torture, inhuman & degrading treatment.” Its inclusion as a core human right (one that cannot be ignored at any time) was never questioned, and no nation in the world holds a ‘pro-torture’ stance. In this case it must be asked: why are you mentioning such an uncontroversial right? The answer is that in the aftermath of 9/11 there have been attempts to avoid legal duties, in the climate of hysteria created. I am looking to increase awareness of the UK Governments specific attempts to deport terrorists using the ‘memorandum of understanding’ with foreign states lacking effective human rights protection.

The ‘memorandum of understanding’ is essentially a political agreement, without legally binding force. The UK has attempted to create agreements for deportation with countries that previously would have been outlawed from doing so, as they have a poor human rights record, and the suspect may not have a fair trial, or may be tortured further for evidence or confessions when sent there. The courts in legal proceedings have stressed that no suspected terrorist should be deported where they face a ‘real risk’ of torture, yet in 2008 they first accepted that a memorandum of understanding with a foreign country could remove this risk. This leads to the question: why would a piece of paper without legal significance be acceptable? In reality, once the individual is sent from the UK there is little media coverage of what happens to him, and as a result if a country breaks the ‘memorandum’ few will realise.   The High Commissioner for Human Rights takes a similar position, stating the memorandum’s have an “acutely corrosive effect on the global ban on torture”.

These political assurances have come as a result of public pressure and a climate of fear around terror suspects in the UK, however it must be remembered that human rights serves to protect the most vulnerable in society. Torture can reduce a human to a screaming animal, and a government looking to take a hard line on criminals shouldn’t breach the fundamental rights of a human being to satisfy a hysterical media. These memorandums reflect a popular modern view that “if the stakes are high enough then torture is permissible. Nobody that doubts that should be in a position of responsibility”. Often the “ticking bomb scenario” is debated, where if a bomb is hidden somewhere that will potentially kill hundreds, and one person knows where it is, then they should be allowed to torture them to gain the information. I argue that this case is so rare, that a hypothetical scenario should not allow justification for breaching one of the cornerstones of modern society. The fact that despite substantial opposition, the UK government has aggressively pursued memorandums of understanding with states that have dubious human rights records is a regrettable trend that one can only hope will be halted by public protest.

Robert Hart

This video shows US TV host ‘Mancow’ being waterboarded (an interrogation technique used in Guantanamo Bay in the USA) in an attempt to prove that it is not a form of torture. He soon realises how mistaken he has been.


Out of Sight, Out of Mind?


Speaking at Greenbelt festival in August, former prisoner, journalist and writer Erwin James delivered a challenging and thought provoking talk on his experience of life inside and reflections on UK penal system.

Key to Erwin’s message was a call for increased public awareness and involvement. Highlighting the tendency of to publicise atrocities while hiding from the challenge of rehabilitation, Erwin stressed how sentences rarely equate to life and therefore preparing prisoners for life outside of prison need be of pressing concern to us all. Former convicts are our future neighbours; who do we want living next door?

Statistics of post-prison re-offence are widely available as are figures showing the extent of overcrowding. Both of this point to the urgency of public debate over the purpose and practice of prison, and the need to buck the trend of repeat offending.

Erwin’s talk captivated the audience as he drew on personal experience of life behind bars and from his post-prison involvement in reform of the penal system. Following his mother’s death while he was aged seven, Erwin was sleeping rough to escape from his abusive father when he received his first criminal conviction aged ten.  After being caught breaking into a sweet shop Erwin was taken into care where he stayed till 15. Erwin spoke of persistent knocks to his self worth giving an account of when he pleaded to the policeman not to tell his father as, ‘he will kill me’, to which the policeman responded, ‘but you deserve to be dead’.

Erwin meeting former Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke

On leaving care Erwin drifted from sofa to sofa, relying on extended relations and shifting between various precarious jobs. He often ending up sleeping rough and became increasingly involved in petty and occasionally violent crime. His life on the periphery ricocheted from one disaster to the next until he was eventually sentenced for murder.

Erwin’s well balanced yet critical account of life behind bars highlighted both the problems and the potential in the British penal system. Highly aware that his own course through prison was the exception not the norm, Erwin spoke of how in 1984 he faced a life sentence as an uneducated, troubled and disenfranchised individual yet left prison in 2004 as both a graduate and a journalist. Erwin’s first article was published in The Independent in 1994, the start to a career which was simultaneously encouraged and discouraged by prison officers. Overcoming multiple setbacks, by 2000 Erwin was publishing a weekly column in The Guardian. A collection of these came to form his first book, A Life Inside: A Prisoner’s Notebook, published in 2003. Yet while Erwin was able to turn his life around above and beyond his own expectations, the same cannot be said for the majority of his fellow inmates. Erwin gave accounts of many cases of suicide he’d seen during his 20 years inside, and the difficulties of building the self worth so critical to cultivating a life after prison. For Erwin, acting as prison scribe gave him a positive role in his harsh environment and an outlet for his creativity. For many others, overcoming the weight of negative formative experiences and the reality of prison life was less of a possibility.

What can prisons do to help rehabilitate and support their inmates? 

Following his release in 2004 Erwin has dedicated his time to penal reform working as a trustee for the Prison Reform Trust and The Alternatives to Violence Project Britain, and as a patron to the charities CREATE, Blue Sky and The Reader Organisation.

Listening to Erwin’s captivating speech left me challenged to engage with these questions both so relevant yet so often eclipsed from our daily lives. Eager to find out more, I purchased A Life Inside which has proved an equally engaging read that I would well recommend.

Bronwen Moore

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We all know that the trebling of university tuition fees has sparked anger, riots and a decline in university applications amongst current and prospective students but what does it mean in terms of human rights? The £9,000 cap is preposterous and has implications of extreme long-term debt for students starting university in autumn 2012 and will limit who can afford to apply to university in the first place. It is not, therefore, farfetched to suggest that the rise in tuition fees is denying some people’s right to higher education and this is exactly why two teenagers are taking action and bringing a judicial review to the high court against the government, on grounds of a violation of human rights.

Katy Moore and Callum Hurley, both 17, began their legal challenge on 1st November 2011 and aim to prove that the rise in tuition fees is a breach of the Human Rights Act 1998 and also violates the Race Relations, Sex Discrimination and Disability Acts. Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers, who specialise in human rights cases, is representing the students in the judicial review. He argues that the rise of fees is in direct conflict to the right to education set out in the Human Rights Act 1998. Whilst the act does not concern itself directly with higher education, it does place infringements upon things that limit access to higher education, in this case the scandalous price that the government are putting upon students and the diversion of funds away from subsidising a university education. Secondly, Shiner argues that the promotion of equality of opportunity was not given sufficient “due regard” by the government, which is required under the aforementioned discrimination acts.

The right to an education is one of the most important as it can be life-changing and to deny it has serious implications. Higher education should not be selective and no one, of any age (as this fee rise will affect mature students as much as teenagers), should feel that they are being pressured into turning away from the possibility of further education. Knowledge is a powerful tool and the right to it, is vital. The very fact that the human rights lawyer bringing the case to court on behalf of Moore and Hurley needs a degree to do his job, proves what a university education can do in terms of the fight for human rights and contributing to the domestic and global community.