Notes from the Chair

From the Chair

Dear Friends,

I hope you have had a relaxing holiday and I wish you all a happy and prosperous 2017.

For human rights, 2016 was a year of trial and turbulence. The fear of “others” dominated the political debate in the UK and in the US, when historic decisions were made. On both sides of the Atlantic, xenophobia and intolerance are on the rise. While men, women and children continued to arrive in Europe in search of shelter, few courageous politicians welcomed them. One of them paid with her life; we will never forget the spirit and the legacy of Jo Cox, MP.

At the heart of an increasingly opulent Europe, refugees continued to live in the Jungle, an inhumane and degrading squalor, ravished by disease and despair, until the camp was demolished. Thousands drowned on their way to Europe while Brussels looked on. In the asylum system, the culture of disbelief reigned and returns under the Dublin Regulation were temporarily halted to certain EU Member States due to the abuse of the asylum seekers at the hands of the authorities.

Carnage continued in Syria while the United Nations and the international community failed, yet again, the pledge of “never again”. In the face of evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity, no tangible action was taken to ensure accountability. The total destruction of Aleppo will go down in history as one of the bloodiest assaults on human life and civilization.

In the UK, laws restricting right to privacy and freedom of expression were promulgated, while the debate about repealing the Human Rights Act continued.

Throughout 2016 the Human Rights Lawyers Association tackled issues affecting the lives of ordinary people. In March the HRLA held an event to discuss what is now the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 and the relationship between the right to privacy and cyber surveillance. States face the dual challenge of protecting and respecting the right to privacy online, while having to carry out surveillance fit to keep us safe. The extent of powers the Act grants the police and other authorities is unprecedented, and to an extent unchecked. Victims of breach of their right to privacy do not have effective remedy; in increasingly internationalised data surveillance operations those accountable for such breaches are difficult to identify and hold to account.

In March, the HRLA also held an event on the proposal to repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998 and introduce the British Bill of Rights. Introduced in the Queen’s Speech on 27 May 2015, the Conservative Party had published proposals already in October 2014 to “make fundamental changes to the way human rights laws work in the United Kingdom”. While no concrete proposals of such changes emerged during 2016, anxious debate about pros and cons of British Bill of Rights continued in anticipation of the first draft of the Bill. In my view it is fair to say that among the human rights community there is a consensus that the proposals that have been made carry a significant risk of doing great, manifold damage while the stated benefit of the repeal remains an enigma.

In collaboration with Article 19, the HRLA held in May an event to discuss the Counter-Extremism Bill. The proposed Bill would outlaw vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. The Bill would also introduce legislation to combat groups and individuals who reject our values and promote messages of hate. It was clear from the debate that reconciling such broad definitions with freedom of speech and expression is very difficult, if not impossible. While the Bill has been announced twice, no draft was made available again in 2016.

Human Rights Lawyers Association hosted in September an event with Baroness Helena Kennedy QC in discussion with the newly appointed director of Liberty, Martha Spurrier. The event was the first public appearance by the new director, after taking over from Shami Chakrabarti. In the wide ranging conversation between the two distinguished legal minds dissected the most pressing human rights concerns of today, Martha Spurrier highlighting in particular the importance to campaign against the repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998, the dangers of Brexit in this particular context and the need to fight for legal aid. She noted in particular the need to fight abuse of state power in the context of prisons, the police and mental health institutions. She told the audience that Liberty will be focusing on the Counter Extremism Bill and the Investigatory Powers Bill, noting that the Counter Extremism Bill appears to be “an Orwellian attempt to police thought”. There can be no doubt that Liberty will remain at the forefront of protection and promotion of human rights under the leadership of Ms Spurrier.

During my first year as the Chair, I set in motion a number of organisational reforms. We have reviewed significant parts of our constitution, aiming to focus and streamline our work. We have reformed the way we run events, our communications strategy and our internal working structures. Last but not least, we have overhauled our website to make it more informative and user-friendly. These were the goals I set for myself for my first year as the Chair.

In 2017 I aim to build on the work that has been done during my first year; the new structures should enable the Human Rights Lawyers Association to grow in size and influence.

My first year at the helm of the HRLA has been absolutely fantastic; I have enjoyed every meeting and each event. However, I have decided that 2017 will be my final year as the Chair. Next year will be time for me to step aside and make way for fresh ideas and renewed leadership. For ever, I will remain a dedicated member.

Human Rights Lawyers Association is only as strong as its membership. During the time of tumult and tempest, organisations such as HRLA hold fort. There is no better time to join the Human Rights Lawyers Association than today.

Best wishes,

Eeva Heikkila

Human Rights Lawyers’ Association hosted on 13 September an event with Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and the newly appointed director of Liberty, Martha Spurrier. In the wide ranging discussion the two eminent legal minds dissected the most pressing human rights concerns of today, Martha Spurrier highlighting in particular the importance to campaign against the repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998, the dangers of Brexit and the need to fight for legal aid. She noted in particular the need to fight abuse of state power in the context of prisons, the police and mental health institutions. She told the audience that Liberty will be focusing on the Counter Extremism Bill and the Investigatory Powers Bill, noting that the Counter Extremism Bill appears to be “an Orwellian attempt to police thought”. There can be no doubt that Liberty will remain at the forefront of protection and promotion of human rights under the leadership of Ms Spurrier.

On 3 May 2016, HRLA and Article 19 co-organised an event on the effects that the UK’s Extremism Bill could have on freedom of expression. In today’s political climate, it is difficult to see a topic that would be more pertinent. The proposed Extremism Bill would outlaw vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs; and introduce legislation to combat groups and individuals who reject our values and promote messages of hate. From the debate it is clear that the terms contained in the Bill are deemed too vague and its scope too broad. It was suggested that while the measures proposed in the Bill may not only be counterproductive, but also unlawful, other, more effective, avenues remain to tackle the ills of hate speech and extremism.

On 9 March the Human Rights Lawyers Association held an event to discuss the right to privacy and the increasing government surveillance. The debate this evening revealed the astounding challenges the governments face in keeping our data protected while at the same time maintaining the ability to intercept our private communications and data to stave off threats to security. We heard how bulk surveillance is not a guarantee of safety; targeted, good quality surveillance is. The judicial standards of interception, oversight and accountability must be set higher than where they are now. The role of the legal community is to make sure the investigatory powers reach only as far as they must. There is not a more dangerous breach of security than wanton trespassing into the lives of private citizens.

Eeva Heikkila

Eeva Heikkila

Elected Chair of the HRLA

Eeva is a human rights lawyer practising internationally and domestically. She has represented a number of clients at the European Court of Human Rights and at the United Nations mechanisms, and regularly challenges INTERPOL Red Notices. Having previously worked at the Council of Europe, the UN and the European Parliament as an adviser on human rights, Eeva is also an expert on international human rights policy work