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UK Politics

Britain's human rights record attacked in EU report

Britain's human rights record has been heavily criticised in an EU report which calls on the government to sign key international conventions before lecturing other nations on their failings.

Tony Blair's government is singled out for not falling into line with international commitments on efforts to curb human trafficking, on the protection of migrant workers and concerning child soldiers.

The timing of the European Parliament's annual review of human rights is sensitive, after Mr Blair's public hints that the Human Rights Act should be amended in view of the threats from terrorism and organised crime.

Richard Howitt, the Labour MEP and author of the European Parliament's report on human rights, said the debate in Britain could undermine criticism of foreign regimes practising torture and oppression. He said: "It is time to say that threats may change, but rights are inviolable."

The Government has yet to implement the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. This gives victims of trafficking a minimum of 30 days to recover and escape from the influence of criminal gangs, providing them with a breathing space when they can decide whether to co-operate with the authorities.

Though the UK has signed up to the United Nations optional protocol to the convention on the rights of the child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, it has entered one key reservation. This concerns recruitment of soldiers from the age of 16, although it says that normally no one below the age of 18 will be sent into battle.

And people in Britain are not protected by the UN's international convention on the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and members of their families. That gives basic rights when working abroad.

The European Parliament report says: "To have credibility on the international stage, EU member states need to be firm in setting dates for the ratification of all key human rights conventions and their optional protocols."

It adds: "Many agencies suggest that EU policies to address illegal migration have moved so far as to curtail the ability of asylum seekers to exercise their human rights".

The document praises the stand taken by the UK over the death penalty during its six-month presidency of the EU last year. But it says that the Government failed to push that agenda on child soldiers.

"The attitude of the presidency that, 'It is not its role to tell its partners what to do' was worrying." Overall, the EU is, it says, "better at issuing statements than in following them up".

A British official said: "The UK takes human rights very seriously in the European Union and is proud of the achievements in this area during the UK presidency. The report gives credit to the UK as well as highlighting some concerns. When we sign up to a convention we implement and aim to instigate a rights culture. We do not simply sign up to agreement and then put them on the shelf to gather dust."

The European Parliament targets the EU's timid stance on human rights abuses in Chechnya, and suggests "that the EU has one rule for small countries and applies a different one for large countries". The report criticises the bloc's failure to put human rights dialogue at the heart of bilateral trade and political contacts.

It pointed out that, on the insistence of Beijing, officials meeting in the EU-China human rights dialogue did not have simultaneous interpretation, and had to read statements to each other.

The document calls for a unified EU human rights report identifying an annual list of countries of concern. It also wants a sliding scale of sanctions against countries that abuse human rights, agreed without national vetoes.

Speaking in the European Parliament, where the report won the backing of 522 MEPs, Mr Howitt said: "Those responsible for terrorism, violent crime and child abuse may have committed morally repugnant acts, but our own morality is questioned unless we accord them a fair trial, proper conditions of imprisonment and protection on release."

He went on: "Let me refer to the debate raging in my own country this week, on how human rights can be reconciled given the changed threats of terrorism, people trafficking and organised crime. It is time to say that threats may change, but rights are inviolable."

What UK has not signed up to

The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings

This entitles victims of trafficking to medical treatment, counselling and information as well as appropriate accommodation. They have at least 30 days to recover and escape from the influence of the traffickers and to decide whether to co-operate with the authorities. A renewable residence permit may be granted if their circumstances merit or if they need to stay so they can co-operate in a criminal investigation.

The United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict

Countries must take all "feasible measures" to ensure that those under 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities. Nations that recruit those below the age of 18 must lay down a series of limited safeguards including the informed consent of the person's parents or legal guardians

UN's International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families

This spells out the basic rights of all workers including equal pay rights and that they "shall not be held in slavery or servitude". It also obliges the host country to apply basic standards if criminal charges are levied against a migrant worker. These include the right to be informed in a language they understand of the charge against them; to have adequate time and facilities to prepare their defence; to be tried without undue delay; and to be tried in their presence and to defend themselves in person or through legal assistance of their own choosing.