Is the UK Turning Away from Democracy? – Daily Brief – Human Rights Watch

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In today’s Daily Brief: Is the UK Turning Away from Democracy? Beyond Qatargate Where Is Sombath? Take Note: Other Key Stories Listen: Guinea Quote of the Day: South Africa
Amid a deep economic crisis, widespread discontent, and unprecedented strikes by critical workers, the UK government is reaching for authoritarian tools.
Britain is in the grip of the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades. Inflation is at a 41-year high. Food and energy bills have skyrocketed in the last few months. Millions are struggling to cope.
Today, tens of thousands of nurses from the National Health Service are on strike, for the first time in their union’s 106-year history. After years of stagnant wages and a growing pay squeeze, they say they are left with little choice.
Rather than address the nurses’ complaints, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is instead promising “tough” new laws to limit strikes.
But workers’ right to strike, a cornerstone of any functioning democracy, is not the only fundamental right targeted by this government. There’s also a host of legislation aimed at criminalizing people’s right to protest.
The new Public Order Bill currently going through Parliament is aimed at turning protesters into criminals. It reintroduces several anti-protest measures, and, like a new law in Australia we’ve discussed previously, it seems targeted at climate protesters specifically.
If it becomes law, merely attending a protest could result in punishment. For exercising your right to peacefully protest, you could be served with a “serious disruption prevention order.” That would limit who you could associate with, what you could do online, and where you could go.
The bar for punishment is both abusively low and absurdly vague. You could be served with an order if, twice within the past five years, you “carried out activities related to a protest that resulted in, or were likely to result in, serious disruption to two or more individuals, or to an organization.”
But neither “serious disruption” nor “activities related to a protest” are defined. And breaching the order can carry a 51-week prison term.
Like the government’s threats to the right to strike, this bill’s assault on the right to protest is chilling. Neither has any place in a democracy.
The “Qatargate” scandal continues to shake Brussels. It seems all anyone here is talking about. Piles of cash found in police raids on politicians’ home and offices have a way of doing that.
Still, the scope of the discussion seems too narrow. Yes, alleged EU corruption involving Qatari influence should be investigated. Absolutely.
But “Qatargate” is hardly the only scandal in this town.
It’s long past time to look at the broader picture: the EU’s reluctance to address human rights violations across the entire Gulf region.
All countries in the region are notorious for abuses: repression of journalists, activists, and critics; restrictive laws undermining women’s and LGBT people’s rights; the death penalty; and abuse of migrant workers. And don’t forget likely war crimes by the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition in Yemen.
In April, Human Rights Watch urged the EU Commission to adopt human rights benchmarks in relations with Gulf countries. But our recommendations were ignored.
Instead, the Commission unveiled in May its vision for a “strategic partnership with the Gulf,” going to great lengths to applaud purported human rights progress in several Gulf countries, while failing to identify serious shortcomings. The European Parliament and EU member states welcomed the approach.
As Qatargate unfolds, the EU and its member states will need to reassesses all these partnerships if they want to achieve any kind of credibility on the region.
Exactly ten years ago today, police stopped Sombath Somphone at a checkpoint in Vientiane, Laos. Within minutes, he was forced into a vehicle and driven away.
He has not been seen since.
Sombath was a pioneer in community-based development and youth empowerment in Laos. His high-profile case has drawn attention not just to his own fate but also to other enforced disappearances in the country.
Numerous UN member states and UN rights monitoring bodies have repeatedly expressed their concern, including UN human rights experts, Universal Periodic Reviews at the UN Human Rights Council, and UN Special Rapporteurs.
But the Lao government only ever responds with denials, negligence, and cover-ups. They’ve shown zero political will to effectively investigate Sombath’s enforced disappearance.
To mark today’s grim anniversary, dozens of human rights groups around the world have united to ask a simple and straightforward question to the Lao government: “Where is Sombath?”
(compiled by Emily Palomo)
Thirteen years after Guinea’s security forces massacred peaceful protesters in a stadium, those accused of being responsible went on trial. Experts discuss the case in this Twitter Space conversation at 14h00 CET today (in French).
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