Amnesty International Report


“2016 saw the idea of human
dignity and equality, the very
notion of a human family,
coming under vigorous and
relentless assault from
powerful narratives of blame,
fear and scapegoating,
propagated by those who
sought to take or cling on to
power at almost any cost.”
For millions, 2016 was a year of unrelenting
misery and fear, as governments and armed
groups abused human rights in a multitude
of ways. Large parts of Syria’s most populous
city, Aleppo, were pounded to dust by air
strikes and street battles, while the cruel
onslaught against civilians in Yemen
continued. From the worsening plight of the
Rohingya people in Myanmar to mass
unlawful killings in South Sudan, from the
vicious crackdowns on dissenting voices in
Turkey and Bahrain to the rise of hate speech
across large parts of Europe and the USA,
the world in 2016 became a darker and more
unstable place.
Meanwhile, the gap between imperative
and action, and between rhetoric and reality,
was stark and at times staggering. Nowhere
was this better illustrated than in the failure of
states attending September’s UN summit for
refugees and migrants to agree any adequate
response to the global refugee crisis which
assumed still greater magnitude and urgency
during the year. While world leaders failed to
rise to the challenge, 75,000 refugees
remained trapped in a desert no man’s land
between Syria and Jordan. 2016 was also the
African Union’s Year of Human Rights; yet
three African Union member states
announced that they were pulling out of the
International Criminal Court, undermining the
prospect of accountability for crimes under
international law. Meanwhile, Sudan’s
President Omar al-Bashir roamed the
continent freely and with impunity while his
government dropped chemical weapons on
its own people in Darfur.
On the political stage, perhaps the most
prominent of many seismic events was the
election of Donald Trump as President of the
USA. His election followed a campaign
during which he frequently made deeply
divisive statements marked by misogyny and
xenophobia, and pledged to roll back
established civil liberties and introduce
policies which would be profoundly inimical
to human rights.
Donald Trump’s poisonous campaign
rhetoric exemplifies a global trend towards
angrier and more divisive politics. Across the
world, leaders and politicians wagered their
future power on narratives of fear and
disunity, pinning blame on the “other” for the
real or manufactured grievances of the
His predecessor, President Barack
Obama, leaves a legacy that includes many
grievous failures to uphold human rights, not
least the expansion of the CIA’s secretive
campaign of drone strikes and the
development of a gargantuan mass
surveillance machine as revealed by
whistleblower Edward Snowden. Yet the early
indications from President-Elect Trump
suggest a foreign policy that will significantly
undermine multilateral co-operation and
usher in a new era of greater instability and
mutual suspicion.
Any overarching narrative seeking to
explain the turbulent events of the past year
is likely to be found wanting. But the reality is
that we begin 2017 in a deeply unstable
world full of trepidation and uncertainty about
the future.
Against this background, the surety of the
values articulated in the 1948 Universal
Declaration of Human Rights is in danger of
dissolution. The Declaration, penned in the
Amnesty International Report 2016/17
wake of one of the bloodiest periods in
human history, opens with these words:
“Whereas recognition of the inherent
dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights
of all members of the human family is the
foundation of freedom, justice and peace in
the world.”
Yet despite the lessons of the past, 2016
saw the idea of human dignity and equality,
the very notion of a human family, coming
under vigorous and relentless assault from
powerful narratives of blame, fear and
scapegoating, propagated by those who
sought to take or cling on to power at almost
any cost.
The contempt for these ideals was on
plentiful display in a year when the deliberate
bombing of hospitals became a routine
occurrence in Syria and Yemen; when
refugees were pushed back into conflict
zones; when the world’s near-total inaction in
Aleppo called to mind similar failures in
Rwanda and Srebrenica in 1994 and 1995;
and when governments across almost all
regions of the world carried out massive
crackdowns to silence dissent.
In the face of this, it has become
alarmingly easy to paint a dystopian picture
of the world and its future. The urgent and
increasingly difficult task ahead is to rekindle
global commitment to these core values on
which humankind depends.
Among the most troubling developments of
2016 were the fruits of a new bargain offered
by governments to their people – one which
promises security and economic betterment
in exchange for surrendering participatory
rights and civil freedoms.
No part of the world was untouched by
sweeping crackdowns on dissent – some
overt and violent, others subtler and veiled in
respectability. The quest to silence critical
voices surged in its scale and intensity across
large parts of the world.
The killing of Indigenous leader Berta
Cáceres in Honduras on 2 March epitomized
the dangers faced by individuals who bravely
stand up to powerful state and corporate
interests. These courageous human rights
defenders, in the Americas and elsewhere,
are often cast by governments as a threat to
economic development because of their
efforts to highlight the human and
environmental consequences of resource
exploitation and infrastructure projects. Berta
Cáceres’ work to defend local communities
and their land, most recently against a
proposed dam, had earned her global
acclaim. The armed men who killed her in
her home sent a chilling message to other
activists, particularly those who do not enjoy
the same level of international attention.
The security justification for crackdowns
was widely deployed across the world. In
Ethiopia, in response to largely peaceful
protests against unjust dispossession of land
in the Oromia region, security forces killed
several hundred protesters and the
authorities arbitrarily arrested thousands of
people. The Ethiopian government used its
Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to carry out a
sweeping crackdown on human rights
activists, journalists and members of the
political opposition.
In the wake of a coup attempt in July,
Turkey escalated its crackdown on dissenting
voices during a state of emergency. More
than 90,000 public sector employees were
dismissed on grounds of alleged “links to a
terrorist organization or threat to national
security”, while some 118 journalists were
held in pre-trial detention and 184 media
outlets were arbitrarily and permanently
closed down.
Across the Middle East and North Africa,
repression of dissent was endemic. In Egypt,
security forces arbitrarily arrested, forcibly
disappeared and tortured alleged supporters
of the banned Muslim Brotherhood
organization, as well as other critics and
opponents of the government. Bahraini
authorities ruthlessly prosecuted critics on a
range of national security charges. In Iran,
the authorities imprisoned critics, censored
all media and adopted a new law that made
virtually any criticism of the government and
its policies liable to criminal prosecution.
In North Korea, the government furthered
its already extreme repression by tightening
Amnesty International Report 2016/17
its stranglehold on communications
Often the stern measures were simply an
attempt to mask government failures, such as
in Venezuela, where the government sought
to silence critics rather than address a
spiralling humanitarian crisis.
In addition to the direct threats and
attacks, there was an insidious chipping away
at established civil and political freedoms in
the name of security. For example the UK
adopted a new law, the Investigatory Powers
Act, which significantly increased the
authorities’ powers to intercept, access,
retain or otherwise hack digital
communications and data without any
requirement of reasonable suspicion against
an individual. By introducing one of the
broadest regimes for mass surveillance of any
country in the world, the UK took a significant
step towards a reality where the right to
privacy is simply not recognized.
However, the erosion of human rights
values was perhaps most pernicious when
officials blamed a specific “other” for real or
perceived social problems in order to justify
their repressive actions. Hateful, divisive and
dehumanizing rhetoric unleashed the darkest
instincts of human nature. By casting
collective responsibility for social and
economic ills onto particular groups, often
ethnic or religious minorities, those in power
gave free rein to discrimination and hate
crimes, particularly in Europe and the USA.
One variant of this was demonstrated by
the escalation, with enormous loss of life, of
President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” in
the Philippines. State-sanctioned violence
and mass killings by vigilantes claimed more
than 6,000 lives following repeated public
endorsements by the President for those
allegedly involved in drug-related crimes to
be killed.
When self-styled “anti-establishment”
figures blamed so-called elites, international
institutions and the “other” for social or
economic grievances, they chose the wrong
prescription. The sense of insecurity and
disenfranchisement – arising from factors
such as unemployment, job insecurity,
growing inequality and the loss of public
services – demanded commitment, resources
and policy shifts from governments, not easy
scapegoats to blame.
It was clear that many disillusioned people
around the world did not seek answers in
human rights. However, the inequality and
neglect underlying popular anger and
frustration arose at least in part from the
failure of states to fulfil people’s economic,
social and cultural rights.
The story of 2016 was in some ways a
story of people’s courage, resilience, creativity
and determination in the face of immense
challenges and threats.
Every region of the world saw evidence
that where formal structures of power are
used to repress, people will find ways of
rising up and being heard. In China, despite
systematic harassment and intimidation,
activists found subversive ways to
commemorate online the anniversary of the
1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. At the
Rio Olympic Games, Ethiopian marathon
runner Feyisa Lilesa made global headlines
with a gesture to draw attention to the
government’s persecution of Oromo people
as he crossed the finishing line to win a silver
medal. And on Europe’s Mediterranean
coasts, volunteers responded to the inertia
and failure of governments to protect
refugees by physically dragging drowning
people out of the water themselves. People’s
popular movements across Africa – some
unthinkable only a year earlier – galvanized
and channelled popular demands for rights
and justice.
Ultimately, the charge that human rights is
a project of the elite rings hollow. People’s
instincts for freedom and justice do not
simply wither away. During a year of division
and dehumanization, the actions of some
people to affirm humanity and the
fundamental dignity of every person shone
more brightly than ever. This compassionate
response was embodied by 24-year-old Anas
al-Basha, the so-called “clown of Aleppo”,
who chose to remain in the city to bring
comfort and joy to children even after
government forces unleashed their horrific
bombardment. After his death in an air strike
on 29 November, his brother paid tribute to
him for making children happy in “the
darkest, most dangerous place”.
As we begin 2017, the world feels unstable
and fear for the future proliferates. Yet it is in
these times that courageous voices are
needed, ordinary heroes who will stand up
against injustice and repression. Nobody can
take on the whole world, but everyone can
change their own world. Everyone can take a
stand against dehumanization, acting locally
to recognize the dignity and the equal and
inalienable rights of all, and thus lay the
foundations of freedom and justice in the
world. 2017 needs human rights heroes.

[And for those who believe our main interest should be in UK human rights issues]

Full accountability for torture allegations
against UK intelligence agencies and armed
forces remained unrealized. An extremely
broad surveillance law was passed. Women
in Northern Ireland faced significant
restrictions on access to abortion. The
government failed to establish a review into
the impacts of cuts to civil legal aid. Hate
crimes rose significantly following the UK’s
referendum vote to leave the EU.
In June, the majority of the electorate in the
UK and Gibraltar voted in a referendum to
leave the EU.
Amnesty International Report 2016/17
Although the new Justice Secretary
announced in August that the government
intended to continue with plans to replace
the Human Rights Act (which incorporates
the European Convention on Human Rights
into domestic law) with a British Bill of
Rights, by the end of the year the Attorney
General suggested that concrete proposals
would be deferred until after the EU
referendum process had been completed.
Calls intensified for a review of cuts to civil
legal aid brought about by the Legal Aid,
Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act
2012 (LASPO), based on their impact on
vulnerable and marginalized people in
various contexts, including inquests,
immigration, welfare, family and housing
 Official statistics published in June by
the Legal Aid Agency showed that legal help
in civil cases had dropped to one third of pre-
LASPO levels. In July, the UN Committee on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights called
on the government to reassess the impact of
reforms to the legal aid system. The
government failed to establish a review.
Counter-terrorism powers and related policy
initiatives to counter “extremism” continued
to raise concerns.
Definition of terrorism
Despite a Court of Appeal judgment in
January which narrowed the definition of
terrorism, and recurring criticism of the over-
broad statutory definition by the Independent
Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, the Home
Secretary confirmed, in October, that the
government had no intention of changing it.
Administrative controls
In November, Parliament extended the
Terrorism Prevention and Investigation
Measures (TPIM) Act 2011 for five more
years. TPIMs are government-imposed
administrative restrictions on individuals
suspected of involvement in terrorism-related
The Independent Reviewer’s annual
report, published in November, documented
that new powers to prevent suspected
“foreign terrorist fighters” from travelling were
applied 24 times during 2015, and pre-
existing powers to withdraw passports from
British citizens were exercised 23 times, but
that a power available since 2015 to
temporarily exclude returning “foreign
terrorist fighters” had not been used.
“Counter-extremism” policy
Plans for a Counter-Extremism and
Safeguarding Bill were announced in May,
but no concrete legislative proposal had been
tabled by end of year.
NGO research into the statutory “prevent
duty” on certain public bodies, including
schools, to “have due regard to the need to
prevent people from being drawn into
terrorism”, found that the scheme created a
serious risk of violating human rights,
including peaceful exercise of freedom of
expression, and that its application in
educational and health care settings
undermined trust.
In April, the UN Special Rapporteur on the
rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of
association warned that the government’s
approach to “non-violent extremism” risked
violating both freedoms. In July, the
Parliamentary Joint Committee for Human
Rights recommended the use of existing laws
rather than drafting new, unclear legislation.
In May, the Joint Committee for Human
Rights published its inquiry into the use of
drones for targeted killing. The inquiry
examined the drone strike by the Royal Air
Force in 2015 in al-Raqqa, Syria, killing three
people, including at least one British national,
believed to be members of the armed group
Islamic State (IS). The inquiry called on the
government to clarify its policy of targeted
killings in armed conflict and its role in
targeted killing by other states outside armed
Amnesty International Report 2016/17
Internment in Northern Ireland
In December, the government responded to
questions put to it by the European Court of
Human Rights (ECtHR), following a 2014
request by the Irish government to review the
1978 judgment in
Ireland v UK
, on torture
techniques used in internment in Northern
Ireland in 1971-72.
In June, the Crown Prosecution Service
(CPS) decided not to bring any criminal
charges relating to allegations by two Libyan
families that they had been subject to
rendition, torture and other ill-treatment in
2004 by the US and Libyan governments, 
with the knowledge and co-operation of UK
officials. In November, the two families –
Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar, 
and Sami al-Saadi and his wife and children
– began judicial review proceedings to
challenge the CPS decision.
Armed forces
In September, it emerged that the Royal
Military Police were investigating
approximately 600 cases of alleged
mistreatment and abuse in detention in
Afghanistan between 2005 and 2013.
As of November, the Iraq Historic
Allegations Team, the body investigating
allegations of abuse of Iraqi civilians by UK
armed forces personnel, had concluded or
was about to conclude investigations into
2,356 of 3,389 allegations received.
The Iraq Fatality Investigations, a separate
body established in 2013, reported in
September on the death of 15-year-old
Ahmad Jabbar Kareem Ali, finding that he
drowned after being forced into the Shatt-al-
Basra canal in southern Iraq in 2003 by UK
soldiers. The Ministry of Defence apologized
for the incident.
Allegations of war crimes committed by UK
armed forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2008
remained under preliminary examination by
the Office of the Prosecutor of the
International Criminal Court.
In November, the Investigatory Powers Act
(IPA), which overhauled the existing, 
piecemeal domestic legislation on
surveillance, became law. The IPA granted
increased powers to public authorities to
interfere with private communication and
information in the UK and abroad. It
permitted a broad range of vaguely defined
interception, interference and data retention
practices, and imposed new requirements on
private companies, facilitating government
surveillance by creating “internet connection
records”. The new law lacked a requirement
for clear prior judicial authorization.
In October, the Investigatory Powers
Tribunal (IPT) ruled that the secret, bulk
collection of domestic and foreign
communications data and the collection of
“bulk personal datasets” had violated the
right to privacy previously, but were now
Proceedings were pending before the
ECtHR regarding the legality of the pre-IPA
mass surveillance regime and intelligence
sharing practices. The Court of Justice of the
EU ruled in December that the general, 
indiscriminate retention of communications
data under the Data Retention and
Investigatory Powers Act 2014 was not
The former and current Secretaries of State
for Northern Ireland both referred to those
raising allegations of collusion or focusing on
human rights violations by state agents as
contributing to a “pernicious counter
narrative”. NGOs advocating for
accountability for victims raised concerns
that such language placed their work as
human rights defenders at risk.
In November, the Special Rapporteur on
the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and
guarantees of non-recurrence urged the UK
government to address structural or systemic
patterns of violations and abuses, rather than
focusing solely on existing “event-based”
approaches. He suggested widening the
Amnesty International Report 2016/17
focus of measures from cases of death to
include torture, sexual abuse and unlawful
detention, with a gender-sensitive approach.
The Special Rapporteur also urged limiting
national security arguments against claims
for redress, and ensuring that reparations for
all victims be tackled seriously and
The Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland
set out a detailed five-year plan to address
the backlog of “legacy” coroner’s inquests,
but failed to receive funding from the
Northern Ireland Executive and central
The government continued to refuse to
establish an independent public inquiry into
the 1989 killing of Patrick Finucane, despite
having acknowledged previously that there
had been “collusion” in the case.
Access to abortion in Northern Ireland
remained limited to exceptional cases where
the life or health of the woman or girl was at
 The abortion law in Northern Ireland
was criticized by both the Committee on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the
Committee on the Rights of the Child in July.
Women in Northern Ireland faced criminal
prosecution for taking WHO-approved
medication to induce abortions. A woman
was given a three-month suspended
sentence after pleading guilty to two offences
under the 1861 law governing abortion in
Northern Ireland.
Official statistics for the previous year
showed that 833 women from Northern
Ireland had travelled to England or Wales to
access abortion, and that 16 lawful abortions
had been performed in Northern Ireland.
In June, the Northern Ireland Court of
Appeal heard appeals of a 2015 High Court,
ruling that the region’s abortion law was
incompatible with domestic and international
human rights law.
In November, Scotland’s First Minister set
out proposals to provide access to abortion
services through the National Health Service
in Scotland for women and girls from
Northern Ireland.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council’s official
statistics in June and September showed a
57% spike in reporting of hate crime in the
week immediately following the EU
membership referendum, followed by a
decrease in reporting to a level 14% higher
than the same period the previous year. The
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
expressed his concern in June. Government
statistics published in October showed an
increase in hate crimes of 19% over the
previous year, with 79% of the incidents
recorded classified as “race hate crimes”. In
November, the CERD Committee called on
the UK to take steps to address the increase
in such hate crimes.
In the first inquiry of its kind, the UN
Committee on the Rights of Persons with
Disabilities reported on the cumulative
impact of legislative changes on welfare, care
and legal assistance. The government
disagreed with the Committee’s findings of
“grave or systematic violations of the rights of
persons with disabilities.”
The Immigration Act became law in May. It
extended sanctions against landlords whose
tenants’ immigration status disqualifies them
from renting, while increasing landlords’
eviction powers; extended powers to block
limited appeal rights against removal from the
UK until after the person has left the country;
and introduced a scheme whereby separated
children seeking asylum in the UK may be
transferred between local authorities.
The government continued to resist calls to
take more responsibility for hosting refugees.
In April, the government announced it would
resettle up to 3,000 people from the Middle
East and North Africa by May 2020. In
October, the government accepted a few
dozen separated children from the “Jungle”
camp in Calais, France, alongside a larger
number of other children relocated to join
family under provisions of the Dublin III
In January, an Independent Review into
the welfare in detention of vulnerable persons
made strong criticisms of the scale and
longevity of immigration detention. In August, 
the Home Office responded with a new
“adults at risk” policy. However, NGOs
criticized the policy for further removing
safeguards against harmful detention, 
including by adopting a narrow definition of
“torture” when considering the risk posed by
detention to a person’s welfare. In November,
the High Court permitted a challenge to the
policy, ordering that the previous wider
definition of torture be used for the time
In December, the House of Commons voted
to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on
preventing and combating violence against
women and domestic violence (Istanbul
Convention), which the government had
signed in 2012. In July, the UN Committee
on the Rights of the Child recommended
improved collection of information on
violence against children, including domestic
and gender-based violence.
Serious concerns remained about the
reduced funding of specialist services for
women who had experienced domestic
violence or abuse. Research by the domestic
women’s rights organization Women’s Aid
showed that refuges were being forced to
turn away two in three survivors due to lack
of space or inability to meet their needs, and
that the rate for ethnic minority women was
four in five.
In May, the Trade Union Act, which placed
more restrictions on unions organizing strike
action, came into force. During the year, the
UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to
freedom of peaceful assembly and of
association and the UN Committee on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights called
on the government to review and revise
the law.
1.United Kingdom: Cuts that hurt – 
the impact of legal aid cuts in
England on access to justice (EUR 45/4936/2016)
2.United Kingdom: Submission to the UN Committee on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights (EUR 45/3990/2016)

Mark Beachill teaches in the School of Arts and Creative Industries in London South Bank University. Eryn Beynon and Thomas Sadler are journalists and students of journalism.