As I approach the end of my term as Chair of BHRC, I write to share what an immense privilege it has been to lead this organisation, and its committed Executive Committee, members and staff through a turbulent period for human rights across the world.
As the pandemic has devastated individual lives, so too has it brought cover for a raft of repressive measures in an increasingly febrile environment for human rights defenders, civil society and journalists around the world. The expertise, impact and commitment to human rights of our Committee has never been in higher demand.
A key feature of our work across 2020-21 has been in relation to atrocity crimes. In 2020, we produced and published a High Level Briefing on the responsibility of governments under international law in relation to the widely reported severe ill-treatment, repression and abuse of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims by China, to inform diplomatic and foreign policy in the UK and more widely.
Subsequently, we have built on that in different ways including through the provision of written and oral evidence to the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. As I write, a judgment of the Uyghur Tribunal has been published in which a finding of genocide, crimes against humanity and torture has been delivered which we hope will encourage governments to actively engage with their obligations.
We are involved in other legal work relating to atrocity crimes in different parts of the world, and our advocacy efforts have included attempts to persuade the United States to withdraw coercive measures against the International Criminal Court imposed by the previous administration which gravely undermine work that is vital in the pursuit of ending impunity for the gravest of crimes.
The task of human rights defenders over these recent years has been grim, made harder by the hostile environment created both by authoritarian governments and by some liberal democracies, particularly where populist and nationalist agendas also promote a regressive approach to human rights. Journalists, civil society and defenders are increasingly constrained – also arrested and detained – through targeted financial regulations, the over-zealous use of anti-terrorism or national security provisions, and, in 2021, the Pegasus spyware scandal revealed how many such individuals were potential targets for phone hacking.
BHRC has sought to bear witness, respond and intervene to the growing challenges posed to peaceful assembly as well as the shrinking space for civil society around the world. We support human rights lawyers, judges and defenders through international human rights training, legal interventions, advocacy and events designed to draw attention to and share knowledge. Our collaborative efforts with our partners across South and Central Asia, China, Hong Kong, Turkey and across the MENA region as well as closer to home in Hungary and Poland allow our work to be more effective, considered and impactful.
Although we have become used to navigating the pressures of a pandemic world, as an international organisation we have been faced with insurmountable difficulties by our inability to travel and resume some of our most important work, including on our trial observation programme. We had just started our programme of observations in Guantanamo Bay when the pandemic hit and, amongst other work around the world, it has not yet been possible to resume those in-person observations.
We have sought creative ways to monitor trials – including in Turkey and Egypt where egregious violations in the cases of human rights defenders Osman Kavala, Selahutin Demirtaş, Alaa Abd El-Fatteh and Mohamed El-Baqer are emblematic of the profound crisis in respect for the rule of law and fundamental human rights in both Turkey and Egypt. Last year, I described the Hong Kong’s National Security Law as an “invitation to capricious rule”. BHRC continues to monitor, as far as possible, the deteriorating human rights situation in Hong Kong which has seen the government impose a very swift and clinical clampdown on protest, freedom of expression and other fundamental rights.
As I step away from the Executive Committee after a decade of commitment to it, I pass the baton to Steve Cragg QC and a new Executive Committee, to whom I wish the very best of luck. I would like to thank each member of our current Executive Committee for their own hard work and dedication, especially during the difficult times of the pandemic, and the Bar Council for their support.
I am reminded that there is still reason to see light, despite the dark challenges that lie ahead. This year, BHRC has celebrated its 30-year anniversary. In that time, there have been markers of progress, such as in equality rights, as well as a growing acceptance that human rights law must inform and form part of the international norms, engagement and order in which States operate.
That is down to the courage and commitment of those who work to bring dignity, equality and freedoms. For 30 years BHRC has sought to support that courage and commitment. I know it will continue to offer a voice to those who have none and to those who has been silenced. Please join us as part of this community that keeps on raising its voice. We have a long and proud history of doing so.
Schona Jolly QC
Chair of BHRC (2019-2021)