The issue of human rights is ever before us. Rightly so. If we want a “newer kinder” mode of politics, then there must be some protections for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. You might think that this is an open and shut case, but there are those who believe that we in the UK should scrap the various commitments we have to the six (yes, six) treaties that there are on human rights.
It can be argued that the contemporary concept of human rights had its genesis in the 18th century. It was however in 1948 that the narrative began with serious intent, and with the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then the whole issue has taken off and most contemporary legislation, directly or indirectly, is to some extent intrinsically fashioned by our understanding of the concept of human rights.
Broadly, I think people recognize that Human Rights Conventions are a good thing. The problem is that human rights can often create a collision course between the rights of one group and the rights of another. The legislation can be utterly ambiguous.
At present, on grounds of their ‘human rights’, those who are imprisoned but don’t smoke, (apparently a clear minority), are seeking to get Her Majesty’s Prisons declared a complete no-smoking zone. Imprisoned smokers don’t much like this and prison staff are nervous that any such ban could make their prisons unmanageable.
I think we all swallow hard when someone wanted for terrorist offences in another country can’t be extradited from the UK, because to do so would be a breach of their human rights!
In an article in the Guardian back in 2014, Eric Posner made a very serious comment: “The truth is that human rights law has failed to accomplish its objectives. There is little evidence that human rights treaties, on the whole have improved the well-being of people.”
Part of the problem Posner says, is a fundamental disagreement as to whether human rights are political rights – the right to vote, to free speech, to religious freedom, to not be arbitrarily detained etc., or as the Soviets argued, that human rights are social or economic rights – the right to work, to healthcare, education etc. These two streams seem to have run together in our European understanding. The outcome of this confusion has led to, well, further confusion.
What does qualify as a human right? Sometimes it feels as if what a political party promises today becomes a human right tomorrow! What criteria do we have for settling the question of which minority group has a greater claim to its rights, when those rights are in tension with others?
Most of the developed nations have signed up to the various human rights treaties and Europe has been at the centre of all that. The problem is that often, so-called ‘strategic’ or ‘financial’ factors can get in the way of compliance with what we have signed up for. Turning a blind eye to regimes that pay lip service to human rights on the basis that we need an airfield there, or there’s money to be made if we trade with them, in the end, will make our commitment look very thin.
The basic idea of a Charter of Human Rights has to be a really good thing. Simply signing a charter and then colluding with regimes that ignore the bits of paper they have signed, needs to be called for what it is – hypocrisy. Politics has to be about compromise – I think we would all accept that – but there is a good deal of distance between compromise and blatant hypocrisy.
Right now there are too many seriously vulnerable people on the planet who require protection.
From the perspective of believers, there is a further point too. The message of many of the prophets of the Old Testament of the Bible, is that privilege (of being God’s people) also brings responsibility (to act justly and mercifully). The privilege of power brings with it the responsibility to exercise that power for the common good. Governments and all organisations, not least our global commercial institutions, need to be responsible in the exercise of their undoubted power and its effect upon others.
But there’s yet another important point, that I fear we are losing sight of. This works from the other direction too. Rights based legal systems, can inhibit the concept of personal responsibility. Not everything that happens to me is ‘my fault’, but some things really are. Grown up people realise that there are people whose plight is not of their own making and that they need others to help them. Grown up societies encourage people to take responsibility for their actions.
When people stop taking responsibility for what they need to take responsibility for, things become difficult, and sometimes justice can be the victim.
The Rt. Rev. Mike Hill is Bishop of Bristol in the Church of England