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Bristol Kill the Bill protests 11
a sign at a Kill the Bill protest in Bristol which reads 'no rights do make a wrong.'Photography Alice Poole

It’s official: the UK is in its human rights flop era

‘Hostile’ and ‘authoritarian’, Britain has dropped several rankings in a global index of civic freedoms

It’s a cheerful news day in the UK: our life expectancy is growing at a slower rate than other comparable economies; we are on track for a ‘disastrous decade’ of income stagnation; and now we have received official confirmation that the country is becoming more authoritarian. 

The Civicus Monitor, an international body that analyses the democratic health of 196 countries, has downgraded Britain in its annual index of civic freedoms, stating that the government has created a “hostile environment” for charities, campaigners and other civil society groups.

The report cites anti-protest laws which have increased police powers, including the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Act and the Public Order Act, now passing through Parliament, which is intended to curb ‘guerilla’-style protests in the vein of Just Stop Oil. The latter bill sets an extremely low bar for what can be considered ‘serious disruption’, allowing the police to stop and search people without reasonable grounds for suspicion and quash protests before they even begin. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, this legislation risks “inhibiting protests and leading to unnecessary criminalisation of peaceful protesters”. Protests have to be at least somewhat disruptive in order to have an impact, so there’s not much difference between banning ‘disruptive’ protests and banning them outright.

The Civicus report provides a number of further examples of the government’s erosion of civil rights; including the Strikes Bill, which would severely curtail trade unions; the growing attacks on migrants and asylum-seekers, which exhibit a flagrant disregard for international law; Rishi Sunak’s choice to overturn Scotland’s democratic decision to reform Gender Recognition; and the Online Safety Bill, which risks increasing censorship and limiting freedom of expression. It also points to a growing distrust of the police, referencing Sarah Everard’s murder, the thousands of cases where serving police officers have committed domestic or sexual violence, and a number of incidents they have been caught exchanging homophobic and racist messages.

This is not the first time this year that the government has been criticised by international NGOs. In its 2023 global report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that the Tories have “repeatedly sought to damage and undermine human rights protections”. According to Yasmine Ahmed, the charity’s UK director, 2022 saw the worst assault on human rights in Britain in decades.

If that wasn’t enough, the UK has also dropped several rankings when it comes to corruption, which continues a significant years-long trend. According to Transparency International, we face significant problems with bribery and the abuse of public office, and the government has overseen a major decline in standards and controls over the use of taxpayers’ money. In the past five years, there have been a significant number of breaches of the ministerial code which were never investigated; wealthy Tory party donors have been awarded with positions in the House of Lords and, during the early stages of the pandemic, there were major problems with PPE funding being allocated to companies with government ties.

Of course, a number of campaigners and groups have been raising the alarm about all of this for years, usually being dismissed as alarmist and hysterical. Will this report change anything? Probably not – the government welcomes the opportunity to position itself against meddling human rights groups and “leftie lawyers.” But it’s good to have added confirmation: if you feel like something is going seriously wrong with Britain, it’s not all in your head.