Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

The Winter Olympics kicked off in Sochi this week, with Russian premier Vladimir Putin declaring them open at a majestic ceremony on Friday. The Games cost £30 billion, making them the most expensive in history, and a large part of Friday’s Opening Ceremony was designed to show how Russia has moved into the modern age.

Yet the country’s social conservativism, particularly when it comes to gay rights, continues to be a source of anger and controversy as the Winter Olympics begin in earnest. International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach used his address to the stadium in Sochi to celebrate The Games as an embrace of “human diversity and unity”, and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon also condemned Russia’s record. Putin’s speech to the crowd was in the end notable for its brevity, although a section of the ceremony designed around the theme of traditional marriage was seen by some as a show of defiance.

In June of last year Russia’s government introduced laws limiting so-called “propaganda” about homosexuality – supposedly to “protect minors” from exposure – and they have persistently condoned anti-LGBT statements by public officials while banning and breaking up gay pride events. American firm AT&T, who are sponsoring the Winter Olympics, have condemned Russia’s human rights record, but other sponsors – including McDonalds, Visa and Coca-Cola – have thus far refused to follow suit. Michael Cashman MEP, my friend and colleague at the European Parliament and a lifetime campaigner on gay rights, took the radical step of cutting up his Visa card in Strasbourg last week, in protest at this. It was a bold step, showing the strength of his feeling on the issue, and was one which I fully support.

I wish all the UK’s athletes the very best of luck at the Winter Olympics. I hope we’ll see a wonderful competition and a fantastic spectacle, and that in the long term the event will serve to highlight the treatment LBGT people are still subjected to in Russia and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, yet another rainy week saw The Thames reach its highest level ever, putting at risk an unprecedented number of homes to the west of London and in Kent. COBRA met regularly throughout the week, and by Sunday the Environment Agency had 175 flood warnings in place across the UK, and the Ministry of Defence had drafted in military personnel to provide support for communities.

As the flooding continued some looked to make political capital out of the situation, with David Cameron suggesting on Friday that “the pause in dredging that took place in the late 90s” was to blame. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles criticised former Labour Minister and head of the Environment Agency Chris Smith, accusing them of lacking humanity and expertise. To give him a modicum of credit, Pickles refused to stoop as low as Ukip, who used the crisis as a means of attacking Britain’s International Aid commitments – “Charity begins at home,” as Nigel Farage put it – yet Pickles’ attack still rankles many trying to deal with the problem at the sharp end. In his response, written for The Guardian, Smith said, “I’ve never in my life seen the same sort of storm of background briefing, personal sniping and media frenzy getting in the way of decent people doing a valiant job trying to cope with unprecedented natural forces”.

With much of the flooding happening close to my own constituency in London, I wish the very best to the people who have been affected. I hope, as the weather gets worse this week, that those in charge start pulling together to help those who are suffering. Chris Smith was 100% right – this is not the time for playing politics.

Prison Break

Labour Party

Yesterday David Cameron was given six months to honour the coalition Government’s pledge to give prisoners the vote. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had previously ruled that a blanket ban on all serving prisoners losing voting rights is in breach of their human rights.

Voting is a basic human right, and if we agree that prisoners are entitled to other basic human rights then disenfranchisement is a contradiction of this view.

The ECHR has now twice ruled that losing voting rights is a breach of prisoners human rights and the court twice decreed the UK’s total ban to be illegal.

Despite this nothing has been done. In addition, the waters have been somewhat ‘muddied’ as a result of how the ECHR has enforced this ruling because member states have been given discretion in how they regulate any form of ban. This complicates matters and allows for avoidance of any such assurance that those incarcerated will have the right to vote.

For example the ECHR said it now accepted the UK government argument that ‘each state has a wide discretion as to how it regulates the ban, both as regards the types of offence that should result in the loss of the vote and as to whether disenfranchisement should be ordered by a judge in an individual case or should result from general application of a law.’

The problem this creates isn’t just an unecessary level of bureaucracy but also it encourages class lines to be drawn if, for example, those who commit white collar crimes and/or who have a suspended sentence are expmpt from disenfranchisement then rightly further issues arise. In addition any ruling would need to be consistently and fairly used therefore a ruling by a judge on a case by case basis will create further problems.

The right to participate in free elections, like the right to freedom from torture and degrading treatment, freedom of forced labour or the right to an education are all basic human rights exercised in the UK. If any of these rights and freedoms are breached, you have a right to an effective solution in law.

The UK was given nine months to introduce at least partial voting rights for some prisoners in November 2011, but has not done so. A new six month deadline was triggered by yesterday’s ruling- now it really is the time to get this right and allow prisoners the opportunity to exercise their basic human right.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, summed it up perfectly when she said: ‘People are sent to prison to lose their liberty, not their identity.’

The European Court of Human Rights is Fit for Purpose.

Labour Party

Ken McDonald’s opinion piece in the Times today is quite simply wrong. Far from measures being needed to reduce the reduce the scope of its jurisdiction, the ECHR is one of Europe’s success stories.

McDonald’s main argument as to why the court is “no longer fit for purpose” is that is now has a backlog of 150,000 cases growing at 20,000 per year. While this is not perhaps an indication of an organisation fully in charge of its workload, it does show just how popular the court is with the people of Europe. Surely it is obvious that the solution to an oversubscribed service is to expand the service rather than curtail it? Surely that would be more beneficial than restricting people’s access to justice because the violations of their human rights weren’t really “serious enough”?

 Politicians and journalists frequently complain about the democratic deficit of the EU and how the structures of governance are not accountable to the people. The ECHR however, is actually a body that is reachable by all citizens of the EU and its role is to respond to their most fundamental of needs, the upholding of their human rights.

 This leads me to McDonald’s next argument, that the court is now overstretching itself in terms of the breadth of cases it is willing to hear. What he forgets, however, is that much as the rights to not be killed, tortured or imprisoned without trial are extremely important human rights they are not the only ones. The European Declaration of Human Rights is far more expansive than that. In order to properly uphold the law of the EU, the Court is actually obliged to consider all cases brought to it in which the claimant believes their rights to have been violated according to that law.

 Finally, the author also argues that the ECHR is in the impossible position of trying to apply the same law to former Soviet dictatorships as to the ‘nice, friendly’ countries of the West. This is a gross misrepresentation of the state of affairs within Europe. While the UK certainly has better human rights standards than other parts of the continent it is by no means exemplary. Consider for instance the deporting of victims of trafficking, the discrimination against same-sex couples and the slow erosion of civil liberties in recent years. The number of cases brought against the UK government in the ECHR (443 judgments since its creation) shows that the UK is also in need of an impartial overseer in matters of human rights protection.

Human Rights are dictated by moral reasoning – on this point Europe has reached legal agreement. It is right that all of Europe should be judged by the same standards of justice. That is the purpose of the ECHR and one for which it is fit.

I am appalled at the populism of London councils in evicting families of rioters

Labour Party

Having been contacted by constituents and Labour Party members, I have decided to speak out against those councils in London who wish to evict the rioters and their families from local authority accommodation. Labour Party members in the London Borough of Greenwich are, I know, extremely concerned by a press release put out by the Council, as evidenced by this on-line piece written by two members in Greenwich West Branch .

Of course what happened during the riots was terrible but not unprecedented – think of the race riots of the 1980s. Perhaps more to the point, the aftermath of the riots highlighted the strength of the community spirit in London and other parts of the country where people came out in “broom armies” to clear up the damage. This reaffirmation of community solidarity was, sadly, undermined by an appallingly populist and opportunist response by politicians.

Whilst the attitude of referring to the poor communities of Britain where the rioting took place as the “feral underclass” and postulating the solution of “lock them up and throw away the key” might be expected from the Tories, it is very concerning when this attitude is adopted by Labour politicians as well.

This is not to say that those accused of serious crimes during the riots should not be severely punished as of course they should. However, the actions that councils have taken in attempting to evict the families of the rioters is not only totally out of proportion it is counterproductive, futile and vengeful.

There are a variety of reasons why this is a terrible idea. Firstly, it is deeply unfair that simply by sharing the same roof as someone convicted as a criminal offence you should be forced to lose your house. This is in total violation of the values and principles of a civilised society.

Secondly, such action violates the Human Rights Act whereby people have a right to housing.

Thirdly, in many cases these households contain other children and/or vulnerable adults whom the council would be forced by law to re-house. There has been in a noticeable case in Wandsworth where a family who have an eight year old daughter have been served with an eviction notice. As this blog on the issue mentions; “in Britain in the 21st century we do not see eight year olds sleeping in the street. There are reasons for this.”

It is of course within the rights of a council to evict tenants should they pose a danger or a nuisance to their neighbours. The rioters who have been sentenced to jail have de facto been evicted from their council house or flat. To punish the innocent families of the rioters is a violation of everything Britain claims to stand for.


Human Rights, Turkey

Having already written a letter to the Turkish Prime Minister and blogged on it HERE, I have just put my name to an open letter to David Miliband calling on the British government to use its influence on Turkey. Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish parliament, has been convicted for up to ten years in prison for speeches she allegedly made in the UK and elsewhere.

Her affront to the Turkish state has been to speak up for peace between Kurds and Turks – a far cry from the supposed promotion of pro-terrorist language she is accused of. She has previously served ten years in jail for fighting for Kurdish rights. Famously, upon entering parliament she called for brotherhood between the Kurdish and Turkish peoples. The offence there? To make this call in her native Kurdish language.

Her earlier trial was found to be unfair and unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights, and her struggle has long been recognised in Europe: in the 1990s Amnesty recognised her as a prisoner of conscience, and the European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov Prize for human rights.

The letter calls on the UK government to hammer the message home that Turkey must honour its commitments under the Copenhagen Criteria if it is to join the European Union. Freedom of speech and association are universal human rights, and must be respected as such.


Read more on Leyla Zana HERE, and on the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign HERE


Berlusconi, Far Right, Fear, Fingerprinting, Gypsy, Italy, Jewish, Maroni, Roma

On the 13th of May a woman in a suburb of Naples in Italy alleged that a young Roma girl had broken into her apartment and tried to kidnap her baby. Within hours of the accusation a local mob of several hundred Italians attacked the Roma camp throwing Molatov cocktails, scattering the inhabitants and burning the place to the ground.

Far-right governments have a grand tradition of blaming ‘the other’ particularly in times of economic hardship and stagnation as we find in Italy today. This tactic is being used to full effect in Italy by the right-wing government led by Berlusconi and including the far-right, anti-immigration Northern League.

Since they arrived in power the government and the (Berlusconi owned) media have been whipping up a storm of controversy and rumour around the Roma gypsies. Blaming them for a rising crime rate and suggesting that the ordinary Italian is ‘living in fear’. As a result the minister of the Interior Roberto Maroni has declared a ‘security emergency’. The first part of tackling this emergency came in early May when the police began a series of mass expulsions of Roma from their camps at the edges of the major Italian cities.

However, worse may be yet to come as a law is being proposed that will allow the Italian government to keep a fingerprint database of all of the Roma- including children. This is nothing short of an ethnic catalogue. Not since the 1930s have such blatantly racist policies been seen in Europe.

Mr Maroni says that the register will help protect Roma children who are not always sent to school, but as UNICEF Italy state that if that was really case that they would treat ALL Italian children in the same way not just the Roma.

High profile figures from the Italian Jewish community such as Riccardo Di Segni, chief Rabbi of Rome and Amos Luzzatto from Italy’s Union of Jewish Communities have registered their protest against the policies. As Di Segni puts it “We have to be on the alert, not only because of what is happening but because of what could happen. First one group is singled out, then another. This must be stopped.”

These Italian policies are in clear violation of the EU anti-discrimination rules and respect for fundamental rights. As a mark of my protest against the activities of the Italian government I have added my signature and fingerprint to a letter of protest to Mr Berlusconi here at the Parliament. I will also be voting to ask the European Commission to take action against the Italian government if it decides to proceed with these plans.

And if anyone thinks that such a horror could not happen in Britain may I please refer you to the manifesto of the BNP.


Aids, Conservative, Oversea's Aid

Last plenary session we voted on a report on sexual health of women and girls in developing countries, which included a section on providing money for maternal health in developing nations, an established part of the European Parliament’s overseas aid budget. An amendment to the report to cut funding for this important service duly appeared, encouraged no doubt by Development Committee member and religious zealot, Anna Zaborska.

Slovakian Zaborska, who views Aids as god’s punishment for homosexuality, is a natural suspect for such anti-women sentiments. However, eleven Tories voted for the amendment and in favour of cutting references to the call by the UN’s development goals for universal access to reproductive health care. Very nasty indeed. I wonder if David Cameron knows.


Beijing, China, Olympics, Tibet

Last week the European Parliament debated the situation in Tibet. There were calls for a boycott of the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing this summer. Many, including the President of the European Parliament Hans-Gert Poettering, expressed solidarity with the Dali Lama.

I do not believe we can continue to let China get away with human rights abuses. China should respect the cultural and religious identity of the Tibetan people. The Olympics must be fairly reported.A boycott of the opening of the Beijing Olympics would show we are serious. There are times when a strong stand is needed.


Life Expectancy, Zimbabwe

Women in Zimbabwe can hope to live for just 34 years. It’s slightly higher for men – 37. Life expectancy has actually fallen by two months during the past year. Aids, the crumbling economy and hyper inflation are all taking their toll.In the UK female life expectancy is 81 and 76 for men. At the turn of the 20th century in 1901, it was 49 for women and 45 for men.

Women in the relatively prosperous west have always lived longer on average than men.There are also more first time mothers in the UK in the 30 – 34 age range than aged 25 – 20. In England and Wales there were 669,601 live births during 2006. 110,509 were to women between 35 and 39 and 22,512 to those aged 40 -44. The majority of British mothers give birth after the age at which their Zimbabwean sisters die.

Yesterday I wrote about the lack of women in senior positions in the European Commission and Council. Women’s representation is important and I will continue to work to make it better.

Yet if you were a woman in Zimbabwe you would stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anywhere. You would be dead.