Human Rights in Europe - Review of 2019 - United Kingdom [EUR 01/2098/2020]


Counter-terrorism laws continued to restrict rights. Full accountability for torture allegations against UK intelligence agencies and armed forces remained unrealized. Northern Ireland made significant progress on abortion and same sex marriage.

Legal, constitutional or institutional developments

The second draft Political Declaration on the future relationship between the UK and EU, published in October 2019, included less robust assurances around membership of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) than the first version. The Government confirmed that it intends to derogate from the ECHR before significant future military operations where deemed appropriate.

The Scottish government built on its commitment to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, promising to bring forward legislation to incorporate UN treaties into Scots Law.

Counter-terrorism and security

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 created new criminal offences that give rise to serious human rights concerns. These included entering or remaining in a “designated area” overseas; expressing an opinion or belief supportive of a proscribed organization, if reckless as to whether that encourages another person to support them; publishing images of articles or clothing in a way which suggests you are a member or supporter of a proscribed organization and the mere viewing of “terrorist related” material on the internet. Further, it created a new “Schedule 3” border security power which permits suspicion-less detention and searches based on the vague concept of “hostile activity”.

A statutory review of the PREVENT programme was established. However, several NGOs objected to both the lack of impartiality of the chosen reviewer, and the scope and approach of that inquiry. The reviewer was subsequently stood down.

The government removed British citizenship from people who had travelled to Syria and Iraq and were allegedly associated with the armed group calling itself Islamic State, including against at least one woman who had left the UK for Syria as a child.

Death penalty

In January, the High Court rejected a challenge to the Home Secretary's decision to agree to a Mutual Legal Assistance request from the USA to transfer evidence in the case of El Sheikh, without requiring assurances against the use of the death penalty. This was in contravention of the long-standing policy of seeking assurances to remove the possibility of the death penalty.


The UK still did not conduct a human rights compliant inquiry or introduce other accountability measures for alleged abuses perpetrated by the British Armed Forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) continued its preliminary examination of these war crimes claims. In July, the Ministry of Defence consulted on proposals for a presumption against prosecution of armed forces personnel for alleged offences committed in

the course of duty outside the UK more than ten years ago, as well as restricting the Courts’ discretion to extend the time limit for bringing compensation claims for personal injury and/or death in relation to historical events outside the UK.

Torture and other ill-treatment

In June, the UN Committee Against Torture was critical of the government’s continuing failure to meet obligations in the Convention.

In direct contradiction of previous promises, the government announced in July that it would not establish the long anticipated independent judge-led inquiry into allegations of complicity in torture and other ill-treatment of detainees held by other countries in counter-terrorism operations overseas since 2001.

A review of the revised “Consolidated Principles” governing torture, other ill-treatment and broader detainee issues did not result in significant policy improvements sought by NGOs. The re-named and rewritten “Principles” continued to leave room for ministerial discretion to authorize activities where a real risk of torture existed. A freedom of information request subsequently uncovered a separate, secret, Ministry of Defence policy permitting intelligence sharing where there is a “serious risk” of torture “if Ministers agree that the potential benefits justify accepting the risk and the legal consequences that may follow”.

In September, the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland dismissed an appeal by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) of a ruling against a police decision to end its investigation into the torture of the 14 “Hooded Men”, who were abused while in detention by the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1971. In November, the Court of Appeal further dismissed the PSNI’s application for leave to appeal this decision to the UK Supreme Court. The PSNI retained the right to apply directly to the Supreme Court.

Northern Ireland – legacy issues

The government released funds to address a backlog of more than 90 conflict-related coroners’ inquests, although the 2014 Stormont House Agreement was still not implemented and more than a thousand killings from the decades-long conflict were still waiting for new investigation processes.

In February, the UK Supreme Court found that the official investigation into the 1989 killing of Belfast solicitor Patrick Finucane was ineffective and failed to meet human rights standards. In September, his family announced they would continue to appeal for an independent public inquiry.

In November, legislation was passed to provide redress for thousands of children who had suffered abuse in residential institutions in Northern Ireland during the period 1922 to 1995.

Sexual and reproductive rights

On 3 October, Sarah Ewart and Amnesty International won their legal challenge at Belfast High Court which found that Northern Ireland’s abortion law was incompatible with the UK’s human rights obligations under the ECHR.

That month, legislation came into force decriminalizing abortion in Northern Ireland and all pending criminal proceedings were dropped. Regulations to enable access to abortion including in cases of risk to the woman’s health, serious or fatal foetal anomalies, and pregnancy resulting from gender-based violence was due by end of March 2020. In the interim, the government will fund travel and healthcare costs for women from Northern Ireland to travel to England.


A government compensation scheme became available in April for people who had been affected by the so-called “Windrush scandal”. However, the full extent of the injustice had not been acknowledged by the government and the racism that underpinned the laws and policies at the heart of this scandal had not been addressed. In many cases, people who had settled in the UK prior to 1973 and their dependents had been treated as if they had no permission to be in or return to the UK despite their being entitled to stay indefinitely after entering the country as British nationals.

In October, new legislation came into effect which will legalize same-sex civil marriage in Northern Ireland from January 2020. The government had yet to respond to a consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act in England and Wales which concluded in October 2018.

Women’s rights

The CEDAW Committee’s Concluding Observations on the UK’s eighth periodic report highlighted inconsistent implementation of CEDAW’s provisions across the country due to devolved administration. The periodic review process shed light on the disproportionate impact of austerity policies on women, in particular women from ethnic minority backgrounds and women with disabilities.

In July 2019, a Domestic Abuse Bill was introduced to Parliament without provisions to ensure safety and access to justice for migrant women, despite recommendations from parliamentary committees.

Women's rights organizations and press exposed a crisis of justice for victims of rape in England and Wales. Crown Prosecution Service figures show a marked decrease in prosecutions against an increase in reports. Civil society organizations exposed a practice whereby the police asked victims of sexual assault to hand over their phones, suggesting that open ended consent to access their data was required in order for investigations to move forward, even where perpetrators are strangers or the abuse historic. This practice is under investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Right to life

In October, the public inquiry into London’s Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 published its first report. The report answered some questions about the immediate cause and actions during the fire, in which 72 people died and dozens were injured. The inquiry continued and was due to explore the decision-making regarding the building and the broader context they were taken in, as well as the support the authorities provided to the community in the aftermath of the fire. The fire raised questions concerning the authorities’ and private actors’ compliance with their human rights obligations and responsibilities, including protection of the right to life and guaranteeing an adequate standard of living, including the right to adequate housing.

Economic, social and cultural rights

In his report on the UK issued in May, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights strongly criticized the country’s austerity policies, finding that they have resulted in around 14 million people living in poverty with almost 1 in 2 children affected.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

Considerable uncertainty persisted concerning post-Brexit immigration policy and practice.

The UK’s restrictions on family reunion continued to prevent many refugee families from being together. The rules do not allow adult refugees to be joined by their children who are over 18 and the UK is one of the only countries in Europe in which unaccompanied child refugees do not have the right to be joined by even their closest relatives.

There was increased concern about the post-Brexit future of arrangements whereby refugee and asylum-seeking children could be transferred to the UK from EU Member States, including children with family in the UK. Meanwhile, 2019 saw a rise in the number of people attempting to reach the UK by boat and at least two people were known to have drowned in the attempt. In November, 39 people from Vietnam were found dead in a refrigerated trailer on an industrial estate in Essex. The government responded by calling for more focus on tackling human traffickers and other criminals. However, it failed to address warnings about the lack of safe and legal migration channels, or the role of immigration policy, practice and rhetoric in driving people to undertake dangerous journeys.

Corporate accountability

In June, the High Court declared that a Prisons and Probation Ombudsman investigation into serious mistreatment and abuse of detainees at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre by officers of the private security firm G4S was inadequate for lack of power to compel witnesses. The judgment said that unless the terms of reference were extended to include that power, it would not comply with UK government’s investigative duties under Article 3 of the ECHR (the right not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment). The Home Secretary announced in November that the investigation would instead take the form of a statutory inquiry.

Arms Trade

In a judicial review brought by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and joined by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Rights Watch UK, the Court of Appeal ruled that the UK government’s decision to continue licensing exports of military equipment to Saudi Arabia was unlawful. The case will be heard by the Supreme Court in early 2020 and Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Rights Watch have applied to intervene.

Freedom of assembly

In February, anti-deportation activists known as the “Stansted 15” were convicted under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990, a terrorism-related law, and given non-custodial sentences for chaining themselves around an immigration removal flight at Stansted Airport. In August, the Court of Appeal granted them leave to appeal against their convictions. However, concerns remained about the use of terrorism-related laws to prosecute activists engaged in non-violent direct action.

In October, the Metropolitan Police issued a Section 14 order under the Public Order Act imposing a blanket ban in London on protests by “Extinction Rebellion”. In November, the High Court ruled that the ban had been unlawful.

Freedom of expression

Julian Assange was arrested in April 2019 in the premises of the Embassy of Ecuador after the Ecuadorian government arbitrarily withdrew his nationality. He was sentenced to 50 weeks for skipping bail. The US submitted an extradition request on the grounds of 17 charges under the Espionage Act and one charge under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. In the US, he would face real risks of serious human rights violations. The charges relate to the release of disclosed documents and his publishing activities with Wikipedia. At the end of the year, the extradition procedure was pending.