Amnesty International Report 2015/16 - United Kingdom

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Head of state: Queen Elizabeth II
Head of government: David Cameron

Plans to repeal the Human Rights Act were confirmed. The government continued its opposition to participation in EU efforts to share responsibility for the increasing number of refugees arriving in Europe. Criticism of surveillance laws gained momentum.


In May, the Conservative Party won the general election and formed a majority government. The new government confirmed its plans to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Committee, among others, raised serious concerns that repealing the Human Rights Act could lead to the weakening of human rights protections in the UK.[1]

In July, the government published a Trade Union Bill. If passed, the Bill would place more legal hurdles in the way of unions organizing strike action, significantly restricting trade union rights.


In August, the UN Human Rights Committee raised concerns about the adequacy of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) as a mechanism to investigate alleged UK complicity in the torture of detainees held in counter-terrorism operations overseas. Concerns about the ISC's independence and the power of the government to prevent the disclosure of sensitive material led the UN Human Rights Committee to call on the government to consider initiating a full judicial investigation into the allegations.

On 30 October, former UK resident Shaker Aamer was released from the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and returned to the UK. Shaker Aamer had been detained without charge or trial in Guantánamo since February 2002.

In November, hearings began in the Supreme Court concerning the civil claim of married couple Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar, who alleged that they were victims of rendition, torture and other ill-treatment in 2004 by the US and Libyan governments, with the knowledge and co-operation of UK officials. The UK government argued that the "act of state" doctrine should prevent the case from going ahead, because UK courts should not judge the conduct of foreign states (who were involved in the alleged rendition) for actions undertaken in their own jurisdictions.


Broad counter-terrorism powers continued to raise concerns.[2] In February, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 came into force, introducing new powers, including restrictions on the travel of people suspected of involvement in terrorism-related activity and exclusion from the UK of certain citizens or others with a right to live in the UK who reject government-imposed conditions on their return home. It also introduced a statutory duty, known as the "prevent duty", on certain bodies, including schools and local councils, to have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism". NGOs and civil society raised concerns about the potentially discriminatory impact of the duty.

In October, the government introduced a new "counter-extremism strategy". The strategy included plans for an Extremism Bill that would introduce new powers to tackle what it characterizes as extremism, including bans on certain organizations, restrictions on specifically identified individuals, and restrictions on access to premises used for the support of extremism. The proposals caused concern that these new powers could lead to the violation of people's rights to freedom of assembly, association, speech and privacy.

In September, the Prime Minister announced in Parliament that on 21 August a Royal Air Force (RAF) drone strike was carried out in the area of al-Raqqa in Syria, killing three persons said to be members of the armed group Islamic State (IS), including two British citizens. The government resisted calls from NGOs and parliamentarians to make public the legal guidance on which the air strike was authorized.

On 30 July, the Court of Appeal in Serdar Mohammed v. Secretary of State for Defence ruled unlawful the detention of an Afghan detainee by British armed forces for almost four months. The Court found that the detention was arbitrary and therefore in violation of this person's right to liberty under Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which also applies to overseas detention.


Criticism of the UK's surveillance laws gained momentum over the year, with the UN Human Rights Committee, among others, expressing concerns and calling on the government to ensure that the interception of personal communications and retention of communications data are done in conformity with human rights law.

On 6 February, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled, in a case brought by Amnesty International and nine other NGOs from four continents, that the government's procedures for the "soliciting, receiving, storing and transmitting by UK authorities of private communications of individuals located in the UK, which have been obtained by US authorities" violated the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.[3] However, the IPT said such an intelligence-sharing regime was now lawful due to government disclosures made during the legal proceedings.

Following the findings of the IPT, Amnesty International and the other nine claimant NGOs brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the UK law governing various aspects of communications surveillance violated the country's human rights obligations, including in relation to the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.[4]

In July, the IPT notified Amnesty International that government agencies had spied on the organization by intercepting, accessing and storing its communications.[5] The IPT found a breach of Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on account of the fact that the intercepted communications were retained for a longer period of time than foreseen under the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) internal policies. The IPT also found a breach of internal policies in respect of the South Africa-based Legal Resources Centre.

On 17 July, the High Court ruled that Section 1 of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 was unlawful under EU law pertaining to the right to respect for private life and to protection of personal data under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

In November, the government published a draft Investigatory Powers Bill for consultation. The Bill provides for wholesale reform of surveillance and data retention laws. NGOs raised concerns that the Bill did not contain adequate human rights protections and provided for practices that threaten human rights.


On 26 June, the Belfast High Court upheld as lawful the government's decision not to hold an independent inquiry into the 1989 killing of Belfast solicitor Patrick Finucane.

The Northern Ireland Assembly failed to introduce marriage equality legislation, making it the only UK region that failed to do so. Two court challenges to the ban on same-sex marriages were heard in the courts in Belfast in December.

The government, along with Northern Ireland political parties and the Irish government, failed to agree legislation that would have established new mechanisms to investigate deaths attributed to the conflict in Northern Ireland, as had been promised under the Stormont House Agreement.


Access to abortion in Northern Ireland remained limited to exceptional cases where the life or health of the woman or girl was at risk.[6] In June, the Justice Minister was reported to have submitted a draft paper to the Northern Ireland Executive on reforming the law on abortion in Northern Ireland, to allow access to abortion in cases of fatal and severe foetal impairment. This followed a consultation on legal reform which had concluded in January.

In August, the concluding observations of the UN Human Rights Committee called on the government to amend the country's legislation on abortion in Northern Ireland with a view to providing for additional exceptions to the legal ban on abortion, including in cases of "rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality". The Committee also called for access to information on abortion, contraception and sexual and reproductive health options.

In November and December, the High Court in Belfast ruled that the existing abortion law in Northern Ireland was incompatible with domestic and international human rights law, as it prevents access to termination of pregnancy in cases of fatal foetal impairment, rape or incest.


The government continued its opposition to full participation in EU efforts to share responsibility for the increasing number of refugees arriving in Europe. It exercised its option not to participate in the EU's relocation scheme of 160,000 Syrian, Eritrean and Iraqi refugees present in Greece, Hungary and Italy. However, in September, following mounting public pressure, the Prime Minister announced that the country would expand its Syrian resettlement programme from a few hundred over three years to up to 20,000 places over the next five years. With respect to the situation in Calais, France, the government maintained its position of contributing financial resources primarily to secure the perimeters of the port and Channel Tunnel, while declining to accept any of the Calais refugees and migrants into the UK asylum system [see France entry].

In March, Parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which increases enforcement powers to monitor and tackle slavery and human trafficking. The government was criticized by NGOs for its earlier decision to remove protections in the immigration rules that helped overseas domestic workers to escape situations of slavery in the UK. In response, it commissioned a review of the overseas domestic worker visa which resulted in a recommendation to reintroduce the option for these workers to change employers.

In October, a new Immigration Bill was published and included provisions to further establish what the government characterized as a "hostile environment" for undocumented migrants. If passed by Parliament, it would permit the removal of support for families who were refused asylum in a final decision and remove local authorities' duties to provide support to children leaving care at 18 on grounds of immigration status; extend the range of people who despite retaining a right of appeal may be removed from the country before the appeal has been heard; and transfer significant power from tribunals to the Home Office over decisions on whether to grant immigration bail and/or on what conditions.

Independent inspectorates continued to highlight grave inadequacies in the use of immigration detention. In March, a report by a cross-party parliamentary group found that immigration detention was used excessively.

In July, the Minister for Immigration suspended the Detained Fast Track – a process whereby many asylum-seekers are detained and have very little time to instruct lawyers or gather evidence to support their claim – following a High Court ruling, confirmed by the Court of Appeal, that the process was structurally unfair and therefore unlawful.


In May, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women issued her report on her visit to the UK. It concluded that while the government had declared violence against women to be a national priority, and had a number of strategies and action plans at a national level, in most cases initiatives had resulted in isolated pockets of good practice. The report indicated that this was due to the lack of a consistent and coherent human rights-based approach in the government's response to violence against women.

Amendments made to legislation through the Serious Crime Act 2015 included a new mandatory reporting duty for female genital mutilation (FGM), which came into force on 31 October, requiring regulated health and social care professionals and teachers in England and Wales to report known cases of FGM on girls under 18 years of age to the police.

On 29 December, a new domestic violence offence of coercive and controlling behaviour came into force, carrying a maximum of five years' imprisonment, a fine, or both.

In response to concerns raised by domestic violence organizations regarding cuts to funding for specialist women's domestic violence services, the government announced a £3.2 million domestic abuse fund in August. However, the extent of cuts to funding of specialist violence against women services remained a major concern.

[1] UN Human Rights Council: Oral Statement under Item 4 on the UK Human Rights Act (IOR 40/1938/2015)

[2] United Kingdom: Submission to the UN Human Rights Committee (EUR 45/1793/2015)

[3] UK: "Historic" surveillance ruling finds intelligence-sharing illegal (News story, 6 February)

[4] Amnesty International takes UK to European Court over mass surveillance (News story, 10 April)

[5] United Kingdom: British government surveillance programmes and interception of Amnesty International communication (EUR 45/2096/2015)

[6] United Kingdom: Northern Ireland: Barriers to accessing abortion services (EUR 45/1057/2015)

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.