But the Russian invasion does have enormous implications for human rights. First and foremost, of course, for the millions of people bearing the brunt of Russia’s brutality. As a Jewish human rights charity, the fate of refugees is a primary concern. The images of desperate people fleeing with nothing more than the few belongings they can carry is something we all hoped were consigned to history books. Those images have obvious parallels with recent Jewish experience.
Thus far the UK government’s response has been shameful and embarrassing – “unjust, unlawful, and inadequate”, as we said in our statement. We will be pressing not just for a more humane response to Ukrainian refugees, but also for the removal of elements of the Nationality and Borders Bill that will punish any refugee who arrives by a so-called ‘illegal’ route.
Those refugees who do make it to the UK then have to contend with a government-engendered ‘hostile environment’ that the Bill will only make worse. Destitute asylum-seekers are in danger of falling prey to modern slavery. In February, we ran two workshops for those working in synagogue drop-in centres – giving advice on how to spot the signs of exploitation, and how to help those affected to safety.
At the other end of the scale, Russia’s actions are a deliberate attempt to tear up international rule of law norms agreed in the aftermath of the Second World War. René Cassin takes its name and its inspiration from the French-Jewish co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which was not just a significant plank in that post-war settlement, but has also formed the foundation stone of most subsequent human rights provisions. Put simply, the Declaration was a response to the horrors of the Holocaust. For that reason, we are alarmed by government plans to severely weaken the UK’s Human Rights Act, which is a ‘grandchild’, via the European Convention on Human Rights, of the Universal Declaration. We made our views clear – “Hands off our Human Rights Act!” – in our recent submission to the government’s consultation, a view endorsed by 12 rabbis and 29 communal organisations and individuals.
China shares Russia’s ambitions. In a joint statement Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have made their view of external scrutiny of their actions chillingly clear – “the advocacy of democracy and human rights must not be used to put pressure on other countries”. Xi’s government is subjecting millions of Uyghur Muslims to repression on an industrial scale – including mass detention, torture, forced labour, sterilisation, religious persecution, and cultural annihilation – so his attitude is unsurprising. But this assertion of absolute state sovereignty runs directly counter to the Universal Declaration’s philosophy of a state’s responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens and its accountability to the world community for doing so.
I doubt Xi will lose much sleep over it, but René Cassin certainly ‘didn’t get the memo’ re not using human rights to apply pressure. On Holocaust Memorial Day, I urged governments to take a stronger stand against China’s abuses.
It is no coincidence that Xi and Putin issued their statement on 4 February, the day the Beijing Winter Olympics opened.
The sight of tyrants posturing on a world stage had an obvious resonance with the Berlin Olympics of 1936 as I pointed out in a piece for Jewish News. To emphasise those parallels we worked to ensure that the games are remembered as the ‘Genocide Games’. And to re-iterate the human costs of such brutality, we organised What If? The Holocaust, Uyghur Genocide and our moral responsibility today, a moving discussion between a Jewish grandfather and granddaughter and a Uyghur father and daughter.
And, on a very human level we were delighted to help produce and launch Under the Mulberry Tree – a collection of reflections from the Uyghur diaspora. The whole project was lovingly conceived and overseen by Emily Zinkin, a graduate of the René Cassin Fellowship Programme – something that speaks volumes for the value of our educational programmes and our ever-deepening relationship with the UK Uyghur community.
Our work on women’s rights and the right to food featured prominently in our last newsletter – and that work has continued. We are planning new editions of our Recipe for Rightsresources for the festival of Purim next week and for Pesach next month.
René Cassin has recently opened new workstreams on women’s rights and the right to food – crucial issues made more urgent by the pandemic, the cut in Universal Credit, and the sharp spike in energy prices. And we continue to highlight China’s genocidal repression of its Uyghur Muslims, along with campaigning in support of humane immigration policies and the Human Rights Act, andagainst hate speech and modern slavery.
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