Human Rights in Britain and the London Olympics

Argus title : Cool Britannia? Not with our rights record

I’ve enjoyed watching the Olympics. I still don’t think the Olympic authorities should have approved games in China, because of human rights abuses there, but I must confess to real excitement and a sneaky surge of nationalistic pride when our athletes achieved medals.

I’ll look forward to the London Games in 2012. It’ll be interesting to see what the British organizers make of the challenge. In Beijing the contrast between the closing ceremony of the Chinese and the British acceptance slot was fascinating. As was the case in their opening ceremony, the Chinese chose to make reference to symbols of their ancient culture – and there was no particular emphasis on the city of Beijing.

The British, on the other hand, made no reference to our history and focused not on the country as a whole, but on contemporary London – choosing a London Bus; queuing in the rain; rock music; and football as centre-pieces of the presentation. My husband lifted his head from his newspaper just long enough to comment “So they didn’t show 50 young people being stabbed then?”.

The organizers had obviously made a decision to market London as “cool”, yet the presentation seemed oddly dated. I was reminded of old films of the sixties featuring what was then called “swinging London”. I kept expecting to see shots of Carnaby Street and Mary Quant and to hear Roger Miller’s 1966 pop song “England swings like a pendulum do/Bobbies on bicycles two by two”.

There were no bobbies on bicycles in this display. I guess the UK organisers couldn’t take the risk. In the past, people of other nations may well have had an image of unarmed, helpful British bobbies in big boots and strange hats helping old ladies across the road. However, nowadays they’re more likely to have in mind poor innocent Jean Charles De Menezes shot repeatedly at close range by a police officer while lying pinioned in the London Underground.

Our politicians and the media have been forthright in condemning human rights abuses in China and rightly so. However, I don’t believe our leaders and opinion makers are at all prepared for the international scrutiny of Britain’s social welfare and human rights record which will almost certainly accompany our preparations for the London Games.

British authorities are no keener than the Chinese to see their dirty linen washed in public. A “Visit London” video which was screened in Beijing caused outrage within government and opposition alike, because it contained a brief glimpse of Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley, made from multiple copies of children’s handprints. It was immediately withdrawn. Yet child abuse in Britain is hardly a rarity.
Just this week Detective Chief Inspector Nick Stevens, head of the Metropolitan Police’s paedophile unit, said: ‘There are huge numbers of paedophiles online, surfing the net and looking for child abuse images, at any one time. The problem is far, far larger than anyone is aware of. Ten years ago the Metropolitan Police seized perhaps a few thousand images a year. Now you’re talking millions.”
Vicky Gillings of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), which operates nation-wide to prevent abuse, warned of growing evidence that paedophiles are concentrating on ‘pre-verbal’ victims, who are attractive because they are unable to report abuse or describe their abuser.
Jim Warnock, head of operations at the CEOP, estimated that as many as one in six children – 1.9 million – might be victims of abuse.
Our leaders tell us that violence in Britain is decreasing – yet what we see in London is a carnage of young people, killed by gun and knife crime. We know that at least one child a week dies at the hands of a parent or step parent. And within the last few days we have learned that in some impoverished parts of Britain a baby born now will have a life expectancy of only 53 years, while those living in more affluent areas of the same city can expect to live well into their eighties.
End Child Poverty (ECP), a network of children’s charities and other groups, has condemned the gap between rich and poor, calling it a “huge injustice”. Its recent report “Health Consequences of Poverty for Children” was based on an analysis of government data. It found that children from poor families are at 10 times the risk of sudden infant death as children from better-off homes. ECP also revealed that babies from disadvantaged families are more likely to be born underweight, that poorer children are two-and-a-half times more likely to suffer chronic illness when very young and are twice as likely to have cerebral palsy.
Nick Spencer, who is Professor of Child Health at the University of Warwick and one of the report’s authors, told the Observer newspaper this week: “Poverty is now one of the greatest dangers faced by our children” adding “If poverty were an infection, we would be in the midst of a full-scale epidemic.’
This bleak portrait of British society is confirmed by another recent report in the Observer, this time about a collaboration between fashion magazine Vogue and Kids Company, a south London charity set up to assist children and young people in difficulty.
Journalist Stephanie Merritt wrote of the children: “The majority of the young people who knock on the door…… asking for help do not have a functioning adult at home. Many of the parents are rendered incapable by drugs, some are abusing the children or permitting them to be abused in return for money or drugs. Some of the children appear in states of severe malnutrition and steal because they are starving. Most are not registered with doctors or dentists.”
Camila Batmanghelidjh, one of the founder of Kids Company, told Stephanie Merritt that in her opinion 500,000 young people ought to be on the Child Protection Register, adding grimly that “there is only capacity for 30,700”.
Batmanghelidjh said “We allow ourselves to describe children who present disturbed behaviour as “young offenders”, then we can say: “They made a poor moral choice.” But if your brain chemistry is adapted for violence because of neglect or abuse, you don’t have much of a choice. By labelling them criminals, we say the flawed morality is the child’s and the rest of us get away with not facing our flawed morality in failing to help them. In my experience of working with these children for 11 years, none of them wants to be a criminal.”

It is hardly surprising that, according to UN research, our children are some of the unhappiest in the developed world.

The news of recent days has repeatedly emphasized the connection between financial investment and good results in the Olympics. It’s now acknowledged that it is long term, stable central funding from the Lottery that has made the difference. This provides a valuable lesson from which politicians should learn.

If the government invested properly in welfare, educational and health services and child protection systems with a view to eradicating inequalities and abuse, we could have a very different society, one in which children could be both safe and happy.

We can only hope that in the run up to the Olympics, the scrutiny of the world may help concentrate the minds of our politicians to better support and protect our young people. However, I am not confident.

I keep thinking about the rich pickings to be made from sportspeople and visitors who will flood the capital before and during the 2012 Games – and the market they will create, not least for sex and recreational drugs. I’m sure every major pimp and drug dealer in London is already making plans.

It’s to be hoped that London’s police and politicians have a genuine commitment to disrupt them.

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