One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

As we usher in the New Year we bring with us hope that it will not only be a good year for us, but also a good year for the human rights of all of the world’s people. We are less than a week into 2011 and already there have been some victories. Unfortunately, there have also been some set-backs which may set the tone for the year to come.

As we reported about a month ago, the UK Government was coming under increasing pressure by the European Court of Human Rights to bring its laws regarding prisoners and their right to vote into line with Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Today, some movement from the Government has finally been seen as the Justice Minister, Crispin Blunt, announced that 28,770 prisoners will be given the right to vote. Although this number is less than half of the UK prison population it is a positive step forward for the rights of this neglected part of society who are regarded as troublemakers who can be ignored, regardless of the legitimacy of their argument. Although under the proposed law only prisoners serving sentences of less than 4 years will be eligible to vote it is still compatible with the European Court judgments of Hirst v United Kingdom and Frodl v Austria and is a positive platform of which to launch increasingly progressive electoral reform. Although this reform is coming under serious opposition, primarily from eurosceptic conservatives, it is unlikely that the Coalition Government will decide to retain the voting ban under the antiquated Forfeiture Act of 1870 because of the European Court ultimatum passed down in the judgment of Greens and MT v United Kingdom. As we reported in our previous blog the Court gave the UK a 6 month deadline to reform its electoral law or they would leave themselves open to thousands of claims for damages and a number of sanctions would likely be imposed.

Although human rights won a big victory in the UK and Europe they took a rather large hit elsewhere. Today, the Israeli Parliament voted by a huge margin of 41-17 to start a formal inquiry into the foreign funding of human rights groups who exposed alleged violations in the West Bank and Gaza. Establishing this inquiry has been based on the idea that these groups have damaged the legitimacy of the Israeli armed forces by branding them as war criminals. In a statement from hard line party Yisrael Beitenu these human rights groups were accused of aiming to “deter the Israeli military in its fight against terrorists and weaken the resolve of soldiers in their defence [of Israel]”. Setting up such inquiries is completely unacceptable regardless of what accusations are made. It stifles dissent and strangles democracy. One of the groups to be included in the inquiry B’Tselem illustrated this point best when they replied to the accusations by saying that “Persecution and attempts at silencing will not stop us. In a democracy, criticism of the government is not only legitimate – it is essential”.

Although the year has not started in the most positive way, it would only be in a perfect world where we could only expect victories. All we can hope for this year is that we win more human rights battles than we lose.

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