Today is the UN’s Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland, has been a long time supporter of Amnesty. Last night he spoke to Amnesty Groups in Glasgow about the imprisonment of journalists in Egypt, about why we should bother about human rights, about how we should be tackling torture, about the impact Scotland makes as part of the UK and about what the Coalition Government is doing on human rights.
The edited highlights of his speech are over on Liberal Democrat Voice, but I felt that the whole thing needed to be out there, so, in full, here it is. And here is a smart looking Alistair:
It is a real pleasure to be here in Glasgow – and I am grateful to Siobhan for that kind introduction.
Today’s event provides a fantastic opportunity to meet with many of the Scottish Amnesty groups.
The last few months have been particularly busy for Amnesty in Scotland:
The AGM was held in Edinburgh this year and you published your own ‘rights referendum’ report back in March.
A few weeks ago I was pleased to be part of an action day with my own local group in Orkney, which coincided with the visit to the county of our director Kate Allan. To draw attention to the plight of prisoners of conscience I was locked in a cage for half an hour on Albert Street in Kirkwall.
I certainly got the attention of local people even if some of the tourists off a visiting cruise liner did look a little bemused.
As I said then, it would have been nice if a few more of my constituents had even pretended to look surprised at seeing their member of parliament in handcuffs and behind bars.
It is great to see the Scottish wing of this international organisation leading the way and shaping policies that benefit us all.
This is an organisation that I have long had a close personal association with and one whose work tirelessly champions the rights and freedoms of people at home and abroad.
I want to share some of my own experiences with you this evening as well as talking about worldwide human rights issues and the role that the United Kingdom can play.
Why care about human rights?
But first – it never hurts to deal with the blindingly obvious: why care about human rights?
Our human rights are the most precious things we have in common worldwide – and it is the responsibility of us all to do what we can to protect and nurture our shared humanity.
The UN universal declaration of Human Rights may often seem to us to be a little high level and possibly esoteric. Last year when I was volunteering with a local legal aid NGO in Cameroon, however, I found that declaration on the wall of every lawyer’s office that I visited. To them it is not high level or esoteric. For many people in Cameroon and elsewhere it is the most robust and meaningful protection that their human rights can have.
We should be proud to share that declaration with them – that is why the universality of human rights matters.
We come together to talk about human rights at a particularly challenging moment in history: in recent months we’ve seen events unfold in Ukraine, in Syria, Egypt and Iraq,– and they are still unfolding.
Speaking of Egypt, let’s take a moment to think about Baher Mohamed, Peter Greste and Mohammed Fahmy, the three al-Jazeera journalists sentenced to seven years in prison for their crime of doing their job.
I am shocked and appalled by the unacceptable procedural shortcomings during the trial process and the guilty verdicts handed down to the journalists. As a former Procurator I find it deeply disturbing and unsettling that key prosecution evidence was not made available to the defence team.
Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of a stable and prosperous society and restrictions of freedom of expression is an issue the UK Government has raised repeatedly with President Al Sisi, the Egyptian Foreign Minister and wider authorities in Egypt.
The Foreign Secretary and the UK Government will continue to urge that this case be reviewed.
As individuals, as members of organisations like Amnesty, as government, we have a common goal – to see a better present and future right across the world.
So it is a particularly important time for us to consider what role we can play by working together.
Much of my own campaign work with Amnesty has centred on abolition of the death penalty. In fact, it was over 18 months ago now I spoke at an Amnesty event on this very matter just down the road from here at the Sikh Temple on Otago Street.
I recognise the terrible crimes that some of those on death-row have committed, and to campaign against the death penalty is not belittle or play-down the pain and hurt that they have caused to others.
It is, however, to assert that for a state to have the authority to punish its citizens is not merely a question of legality but also of morality. The use of capital punishment robs a state of that moral authority. If it is wrong for one person to kill another (and it is) then it can be no less wrong for the state to kill a person.
That is why it is a longstanding policy of the UK to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances.
The death penalty undermines human dignity. It is inhumane and dehumanises all communities that resort to its use.
There is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value.
And of course any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is completely irreversible and irreparable.
I have spent time with prisoners on death row – so I’m well aware of the reality – not just the rhetoric.
I have seen the impact on the individuals and on their families.
In 2009 I travelled to the US state of Georgia with Amnesty International to meet Troy Davis, on death row- I’m sure you all remember this case.
It was a humbling and sobering visit – to see a man who had lost his life- before he had even been executed- having spent so many years on death row.
He told me that in the eighteen years he had lived with the death sentence he had only once stood on grass – when he had been removed from his cell block to go to hospital.
In fact when I left the prison where Troy was being held, I took a few blades of grass from the garden in the car park. I still have them today – a reminder of the brutality of a system that brutally killed a man I was proud to have met.
Despite years of campaigning, Troy Davis was executed in 2011. He died, still pleading innocence and urging his family and others to ‘continue to fight this fight’
In 2009 I also travelled to Japan to lobby for the release of Hakamada Iwao.
Believed by Amnesty to be the longest-serving death row prisoner, Hakamada was arrested in 1968, questioned for 20 days without a lawyer and later found guilty of murder based partly on confessions allegedly coerced from him by police interrogators.
No-one should be sentenced to death in this day and age and as I said at the time it is mind-boggling to think that Hakamada had been on death row since the time of the Beatles and the first moon landing.
In March this year – 48 years after he was first imprisoned he was released from death row
I met Hakamada’s sister and local supporters in Japan. I can tell you that they were empowered and motivated by the knowledge that people in Amnesty groups around the world were supporting their efforts. If you did anything to support Hakamada then I can tell you – you made a difference
History and contribution of the UK
The death penalty is something that I feel particularly strongly about – but it is by no means the only part of our Government strategy on human rights.
Before I talk about the action that we are taking today – I want to spend a few moments reflecting on the role that the UK has played to date in strengthening the rule of law, supporting democracy and protecting human rights around the world.
In recent living memory, Scotland, as part of the UK, has been a driving force behind many human rights advances.
Together, as part of the UK, we drafted the European Convention on Human Rights in the 1950s and helped to create the UN Human Rights Council in 2006.
With a seat at the top table in the UN, Scotland as part of the UK is able to help shape the human rights agenda.
For example, in 2013, we were elected for another 3 year term to the UN Human Rights Council where we have pledged to focus on upholding freedom of religion, preventing sexual violence, and promoting business and human rights.
In fact, last year we were the first country to publish its own Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. We coined it Good Business- symbolizing our promise to protect the human rights of workers in UK businesses, all over the world.
Crucially, however, we have delivered these achievements by working in partnership.
Partnerships between the countries that make up the United Kingdom.
Partnerships between Government and grassroots organisations and NGOs.
Partnerships with countries across the world.
Together, we have been able to promote our shared values of peace, justice and dignity through the top-seats of international institutions, and also through our extensive diplomatic network with 267 embassies and consulates around the world in over 100 countries.
And together as a United Kingdom, our political weight and international standing has made our involvement so effective.
On human rights, we can speak truth to power without fear or favour, confident our stature on the world stage means our voice will be heard.
In short, we can make a difference.
What the UK Government is doing now
This Coalition government is playing a leading role in the fight against global poverty – and we have become the first G8 country to spend 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income on aid – even in challenging economic times – because it is the right thing to do to meet the international obligations we signed up to.
Through the Human Rights and Democracy Programme (HRDP) we last year allocated £6.5 million of funding specifically to support 83 projects to support human rights around the world. Most of these projects are delivered by civil society working in coordination with the local British Embassy or High Commission
And we can respond quickly to humanitarian crises. In Syria, we committed £600 million to humanitarian aid, representing our largest ever contribution to a single humanitarian crisis.
As part of the UK, Scots, Welsh Northern Irish and English together all made this substantial and potentially transformational aid contribution possible.
More recently, the Coalition Government launched an initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict.
We used our international clout to show leadership on an issue that has been long considered taboo and ignored.
We used the platform created by the UK’s Presidency of the G8 in 2013, as well as the UN, to secure commitments from international partners to bring about a change in attitude towards sexual violence.
Just two weeks ago in London, William Hague and Dame Angelina Jolie co-hosted a global summit on ending sexual violence in conflict
This was ground-breaking stuff: the largest ever gathering on this subject, bringing together civil society organisations, students and members of the public with policy makers from all over the world.
We created, what we hope, is irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict and intend to translate it into practical action that impacts those on the ground.
International Day in Support of Victims of Torture
It is particularly poignant to speak to you all on the eve of the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture.
Thirty years on from the original signing of the Convention.
Torture is an abhorrent violation of human rights and human dignity and the role of civil society and groups like yours remains crucial to the continued fight against it.
Amnesty have been leading this fight for over 50 years, and a lot of progress has been made – 155 countries have now signed up to the UN convention against torture – but as we all know there is still much more to do.
The launch of Amnesty’s worldwide ‘stop torture’ campaign takes this to the next level – aiming to fulfil the promises made in the UN Convention Against Torture.
It’s focus on specific countries like Nigeria will highlight cases such as that of Moses Akatugba who in 2005 at the age of 16 was arrested by the Nigerian army says he was shot in the hand, severely beaten and then charged for stealing mobile phones. He then says he was transferred to the police who tortured him again – including by pulling out his fingernails and toenails with pliers – forcing him to sign ‘confessions’.
Much of the evidence of his case was based on these confessions. After eight years in prison he was sentenced to death, he remains on death row today and his claims of torture have still not been investigated.
The UK has consistently and unreservedly condemned the practice of torture, continuing to work with national and international NGOs and through the UN on torture prevention initiatives.
For example this time last year my colleagues at the FCO launched a campaign for increased ratification of the Convention Against Torture and its Optional Protocol.
The UK Government is also working with other countries and organisations to prevent torture by funding projects to make criminal justice systems fairer and developing national organisations that can effectively monitor places of detention.
2014 presents new challenges and new injustices against human rights.
The challenges of persistent global poverty, of continued torture, and repression of the right to belief, the right to protest, require a united and unwavering response.
We must continue to work in partnership – across the UK, with organisations like Amnesty, and with other international organisations – to continue to tackle the roots of global poverty and human rights abuse.
The United Kingdom has achieved a great deal – and together we can continue to achieve a great deal; using our role on the international stage to raise the difficult issues; challenge our partners around the world to protect human rights; and provide support – be it in terms of economic, political or humanitarian – to help make a better future for all.