Human rights v civil liberties?

Stuart Weir
26 November 2008
Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): I have never quite followed the split between those who think reform-minded people should talk in terms of "civil liberties" and those who insist on "human rights". But a packed meeting of people in Cambridge last night for a forum to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Human Rights Act gave me cause to consider the terminology of rights, and especially the split in thinking it revealed between practitioners and the public.
The panel consisted of Rabinder Singh QC, from Matrix Chambers, Professor Rob Home, of Anglia Ruskin University, Andrew Watson, a local No2ID activist, and Jean Candler, from the British Institute of Human Rights. They spoke throughout in terms that emphasised the "human" in the phrase "human rights" and brought the debate down to everyday level - assisted, it should be said, by an admirably forthright chair, Boni Sones, of Women's Parliamentary Radio.
Naturally enough for Cambridge, there was an assumption that this was a gathering of enlightened people.  But it became apparent that there is a distinct difference in understanding between the practitioners and some of the audience when it comes to the use of the word "rights", which I think goes far wider than the Mumford Theatre at Anglia Ruskin, co-sponsor with the Cambridge CAB of the debate.
The panel spoke always in terms of "human rights", but several people in the theatre spoke of "rights" as individualistic and undesirable commodities that could, for example, cause disruption in families (children's rights) and schools (ditto), where children who should be excluded were not and so damaged the education of their class mates.  Of course, the panel had emphasised that human rights strike a balance between rights and responsibilities that must be determined in any case; that the interests of others and the wider community had to be taken into account; and that every judgment had to be proportionate.  But they blamed the Human Rights Act, at least implicitly.
My first thought was how much damage the Labour government and that popinjay Tony Blair have done to human rights by, first not engaging in the huge educational and promotional campaign that ought to have accompanied the Act, and secondly, in insisting on the need to balance rights and responsibilities as though the Act doesn't already do that.  Second thoughts: however the national debate goes on a new Bill of Rights, we must continue to explain how the HRA works and campaign for the public to be involved in its defence or the creation of a Bill of Rights; and secondly, that we should talk more often in terms of "liberty" and "freedom" as well as "human rights" which for some people in Cambridge are clearly seen as either PC or politically motivated.
Meanwhile Cambridge CAB, under Rachel Talbot, and CABs across the country are at the sharp end of defending people's lives and dignity in the recession, usually with utterly inadequate resources.  Nick Herbert has recently scorned the "trivial" matters where the HRA does make a difference (that could be greater). He needs to be told that homelessness, debt, poor schooling, the protection of family life, dignity in care homes - all the things that make up everyday democracy for people in the UK - are not trivial.
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