Why human rights now matter more than ever

It’s Human Rights Day and, in these turbulent times, human rights are more important than ever.

Sean Humber
10 December 2016

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Matt Brown/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

The last six months have undoubtedly been a difficult time.

The winner of November’s US’s presidential election emerged victorious not so much by resorting to dog-whistle politics but more by proudly donning a white sheet and sticking a flaming cross on the electorate’s front lawn.

Earlier in the year the Brexiteers successfully peddled their vision of returning Britain to a mythical land not known to exist outside a particularly sickly edition of Heartbeat, replete with trading agreements that seem to consist of little more than having and eating lots of cake.

Disbelief and incomprehension at this recent turn of events is now in danger of giving way to Bunyon’s “slough of despond”, a toxic combination of genuine fear for what more the future might hold combined with an almost fatalistic acceptance that decades of painstaking progress will now be irretrievably lost.

Post-truth politics flourishes when nobody holds dishonest politicians to account for their lies.

However, unless, we are simply going to characterise half the population of the UK and US as stupid, racist, or both, it is important to try and make sense of these recent events.

It is clearly not healthy in a democracy for so many people to be so disillusioned with conventional politics. It emphasises the need for politicians of all stripes to reach beyond the natural comfort zone of their own adoring supporters and honestly confront the challenges, as well as the benefits, caused by globalisation, greater migration, technology and tackle the rising inequality they are causing in our country.

When your living standards are falling for reasons that aren’t of your making, when you don’t feel that everyone is bearing these hardships equally and when elected politicians don’t seem interested in your plight then don’t be surprised if battered, fearful people feeling that they don’t have a meaningful stake in society, reject the status quo and desperately vote for change, almost any change.

This is when modern day snake oil salesmen emerge from their gilded lifts offering simplistic solutions to complicated problems. By seeking to blame and scapegoat those that are different amongst us, aided and abetted by parts of the media willing to distort the truth, they can find a receptive audience. Post-truth politics flourishes when nobody holds dishonest politicians to account for their lies.

Put simply, human rights cases usually centre on the attempts by the state to curtail the rights of the individual. 

However, it is important to remember that politicians, even those with a democratic mandate, must still act in accordance with the rule of law. This is why, in these turbulent times, human rights are even more important than ever and human rights lawyers, far from being the enemy within, have an even more crucial part to play.

Put simply, human rights cases usually centre on the attempts by the state to curtail the rights of the individual. Those facing the brunt of these attacks are usually the most legally vulnerable. This is where governments may be particularly tempted to pursue expedient and oppressive policies against the unpopular and marginalised in our society.

Sadly it is not really the whole answer to simply say that we live in a democracy and so let the people decide. Putting aside Godwin’s Law which states that if you are ever forced to rely on Adolf Hitler or the Nazis in support of a proposition, then it signals that you have lost the argument, it is important to remember that, in a time of great hardship and political upheaval, Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party received over 37% of the vote in an election in July 1932. Furthermore, it is also worth remembering that our very own Daily Mail also ran headlines such as “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” in the 1930s.

As a government Minister pointed out in Parliament just this week, the European Convention on Human Rights was forged in the aftermath of the atrocities of Second World War to identify inalienable rights of all individuals. These are rights that cannot be taken away from you by government wishing to pursue unfair and repressive policies, often to considerable media acclaim and electoral advantage.

Rather, the importance of human rights is that they protect people, especially unpopular ones, from the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Thankfully, breaching somebody’s right not to be tortured doesn’t stop being a breach just because the majority of people in the room still want to torture you.

Thankfully, breaching somebody’s right not to be tortured doesn’t stop being a breach just because the majority of people in the room still want to torture you.

Furthermore, human rights are almost by definition political because you are effectively saying to a government that, while you may be elected and entitled to govern, you still can’t do something because it infringes my basic rights. Cue much stamping of feet by disgruntled politicians and their outraged cronies in the right wing press about “meddling unelected judges thwarting the will of the people”.

In this present fevered atmosphere, it is therefore worrying that the government remains dogmatically committed to scrapping the Human Rights Act and replace it with its own 'rights lite' British Bill of Rights.

The bill is currently lurking in the political long grass as the government is fully occupied grappling with the many headed Hydra that is Brexit. Whether it ever emerges and, if so, in what form remains open to question. However, the fundamental question is why the government wants to foist its own imitation human rights on us in the first place when the rights set out in the Human Rights Act are those identified in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Why, when we already have a continent-wide treaty signed up to by 47 separate countries (including the UK) and covering over 800 million people which sets out a minimum list of basic human rights that countries are obliged to respect, would the Government want of give us its own inferior own-brand alternative?

All the more so when the government has recently reconfirmed that it has no intention of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights. This means that, in the end, people would still be able to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to enforce their “proper” Convention rights.

The only logical rationale for the government putting forward its alternative British Bill of Rights would be if the UK were also proposing to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. However much a retrograde a step, this would at least be logical.  A clean slate and all that.

If we left the European Convention on Human Rights, the UK would join Belarus, currently the only military dictatorship in Europe, as the only countries on the continent outside the Convention.

If we were to take such a step, the damage to the UK's reputation internationally would be incalculable. Such an exit would mean that UK would join Belarus, currently the only military dictatorship in Europe, as the only countries on the continent outside the Convention.

Therefore, assuming that pulling out of the Convention really does remain a step too far, the main practical purpose of scrapping the Human Rights Act is a nakedly political one. Having cynically painted the Act as being the source of so many of the country’s woes for so many years, doing away with it would at least allow the Conservatives to fulfil a manifesto commitment.

The other more practical consequence of scrapping the Human Rights Act would be to make it much more difficult for people to actually enforce their human rights. It takes far longer and is far more expensive to enforce your rights in Strasbourg than in the domestic courts and the government may simply calculate that fewer troublesome human rights cases are likely to be brought. Less a policy based on high principle and more one based on low cunning.

So, the real lesson of the last six months is that we must not be complacent. We should not assume that the arguments about the importance of human rights have been won. We must redouble our efforts to explain that rights that protect people from being killed, tortured, enslaved, detained without a fair trial and discriminated against and that protect our privacy, our right to practice our religion and express our opinions and to freely associate with others and to vote are important to us all.

We also need to emphasise all of the positive things that the Human Rights Act have done for us, including, by way of a small number of examples, prompting the Inquiry into mortality rates at Staffordshire General Hospital, forcing the police to follow up on rape claims and requiring the government to properly equip our soldiers.

I, for one, want to live in a country where we all have the protection of internationally-recognised basic rights, protected by an independent judiciary, which an over-zealous state cannot take away. Especially in these febrile times, I am sure there must be plenty of others out there who feel the same.

Is it time to pay reparations?

The Black Lives Matter movement has renewed demands from activists in the US and around the world seeking compensation for the legacies of slavery and colonialism. But what would a reparative economic agenda practically entail and what models exist around the world?

Join us for this free live discussion at 5pm UK time (12pm EDT), Thursday 17 June.

Hear from:

  • Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership
  • Esther Stanford-Xosei: Jurisconsult, Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe (PARCOE).
  • Ronnie Galvin: Managing Director for Community Investment, Greater Washington Community Foundation and Senior Fellow, The Democracy Collaborative.
  • Chair, Aaron White: North American economics editor, openDemocracy
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