A European human rights watchdog has warned the UK of ‘backsliding on human rights’ and called the high number of children living in poverty ‘a serious human rights problem’. ‘Legal reforms should not weaken human rights protections in the UK,’ said the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, in the wake of a five-day visit to the country earlier this month.
According to the CoE, the proposed replacement of the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights would ‘affect the human rights of everyone in the UK’. and make ‘significant changes’ to the way in which people can bring cases to UK courts and have their human rights enforced ‘widening the gap between the protection of those rights by the UK courts and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights’. ‘It is worrying that the proposed legal reforms might weaken human rights protections at this pivotal moment for the UK, and it sends the wrong signal beyond the country’s borders at a time when human rights are under pressure throughout Europe,’ said Mijatović. She placed the reforms in the context of other proposals ’such as the right to freedom of peaceful assembly or concerns about the rights of specific groups such as refugees, asylum seekers and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. The CoE also flagged concerns over Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. ‘It is crucial that this foundation is not undermined as a result of the proposed human rights reforms,’ she added.
The report focuses on children’s rights especially in the context of the pandemic and the rising cost of living crisis on them. ‘The high number of children living in, or at risk of, poverty is a serious human rights problem affecting every other aspect of their safety and well-being,’ said the commissioner. The CoE flagged the impact of the ‘no recourse to public funds’ policy on the rights of children from migrant families which it said ‘must be addressed urgently’. Further support to mental health services is essential to protect the rights of children to the highest attainable standard of mental health. More action is also needed to tackle air pollution, and especially its impact on children in the most deprived communities, to secure their right to a healthy environment.
Other children’s rights issues requiring attention are children’s interactions with the police and the justice system, the protection of children from violence, and the need expressed by children and young people for better human rights education and Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE). Strengthening the involvement and meaningful participation of children and young people in decision making is also essential for the full realisation of their rights.
The Commissioner was concerned about the impact of an ‘increasingly hostile public discourse’ supported by some politicians and by certain parts of the press. ‘Contrary to what some are trying to suggest, protecting women’s rights and the rights of trans people is not a zero-sum game,’ the Commissioner said. The Commissioner’s report on her UK is forthcoming.