In the UK, public discourse undermines support for human rights

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The UK media does not do justice to the phrase, “human rights”. Rights activists must shift their framework to earn the public’s support. A contribution to openGlobalRights’ Human Rights: masses or elite movement debate.

Rachel Krys
20 April 2015

When compared to the women experiencing mass rape in Darfur, peace activists locked up and lashed in Saudi Arabia, or the torture and detention of dissidents in North Korea, the UK’s record seems pretty good, as British politicians often boast. But there is a debate raging within the UK about the need for human rights protections at home, and an increasingly vocal lobby that wants Britain removed from the European Court of Human Rights’ jurisdiction. 

Scepticism towards “human rights” at home is entrenched in our public discourse. Spend any time reading or watching the UK media's coverage of human rights at home, and you’ll find overwhelming emphasis on the negative. In a review of broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, political blogs and parliamentary speeches from 2013, for example, researchers found that only 30% of content supported human rights protections in the UK. In England, that figure was under 20%.

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Demotix/Peter Marshall (All rights reserved)

Protesters in London call for an end to violence against women.

Instead, the public human rights discourse in the UK focuses on a handful of controversial cases, rather than on how people use human rights ideas to challenge abuses and demand better public services. As a result, the media’s portrayal of human rights as something for “other people” remains very entrenched.

With such an overwhelmingly negative discourse, it’s easy to assume that public opinion is in the same place. But research into what people really think about human rights reveals that about a quarter of people are steadfastly positive about them. This group isn’t affected by the negative background noise, and remain convinced even when exposed to the most vilifying story. Inevitably, a similarly sized group is robustly negative about human rights. This group is not swayed by any positive messages about human rights; their minds are made up.

When human rights organisations talk about the importance of the UK protections, they reference the Magna Carta and they worry about the UK’s standing on the international stage. These are not the concerns of most people. These are not the concerns of most people. If you ignore the approximately 10% of people who simply don’t care at all, you find a much more interesting, and significant group. Around four in ten Brits are very much torn between the two poles of the human rights debate. The research finds that this group is generally positive about human rights in an abstract sense—they agree that rights create a fair society, help to protect people when they’re vulnerable and see most rights as fundamental. However, they also agree with statements suggesting that human rights laws are not doing what they are supposed to do and that the laws are being abused. This group is by far the most sensitive to the way rights are framed, and in an environment where the discourse is so negative, this pulls them to a much more sceptical place.

The research suggests that for many people in the UK, who fall into this “undecided” group, their attitudes vary depending on how relevant they feel human rights are to their lives. It also matters how much they perceive human rights to be about fair treatment and due process. When people in this group hear messages that connect human rights to their everyday lives, they understand rights better and are more supportive of them overall. And this is where the challenge lies. Because although 20% of the discourse is positive, it isn’t telling the stories that we know will resonate with most people. When human rights organisations talk about the importance of the UK protections, they talk about their “long tradition”, they reference the Magna Carta and they worry about the UK’s standing on the international stage. These are not the concerns of most people.

Most people are worried about the abuse of older people in care homes, because they or their parents might be in one or can imagine heading there. So stories about old people challenging bad treatment, invasive decisions or the intrusion into their private and family life are bound to resonate. Violence against women, and the failure of the police to protect women from domestic violence is a growing concern, so sharing how human rights have helped families get justice are incredibly strong. Children who are failed by the system and people with mental health problems who are ignored and abused are not the cases that spring to mind for most people when they’re asked to think about human rights.

We need a new shorthand, because how the public feel about and understand a law not only helps in how they use it, but also how they react when it’s under threat. The challenge human rights defenders face in the UK now is to find new ways to reach the people who remain unconvinced. We know what’s missing from the debate; we know what matters to people. Now we have to start telling those stories.


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