Why I detest all this anti-rights rhetoric

Last week Umar Lee blogged a piece about “child terrorists” who rampage in the streets of New York every day of the school year. The young thugs get out of school and terrorise the streets, buses and even libraries as adults look on, powerless to do anything about it. This he blames on single parents (particularly mothers), soft parenting in middle-class homes (including among Muslims), and “modern theory that gives children the rights of adults and forbids adults from disciplining them”. The same week the Conservative opposition leader in this country, David Cameron, promised to reform or abolish the Human Rights Act (various reports linked here), the European treaty incorporated into British law which enshrines most of the rights Americans have taken for granted for two centuries (obviously minus the right to keep and bear arms). This, of course, is likely to make him popular with the right-wing gutter press, which has long frowned on the notion of rights. Rights only protect criminals; the rights of the public and of “victims” is forgotten, the lore goes. (Tags: . More: Slaw.ca, Bloggerheads (UK).)

A lot of the problems Umar notes are also in evidence on the streets of London and many other British cities. In a book called Yob Nation (yob is boy spelled backwards, but means thug), Francis Gilbert notes that yob behaviour - obscenity and violence - has become commonplace in some areas, and people are becoming more and more afraid of tackling it. The modern British yob, he notes, delights in inspiring fear in the public, rather than just making money for himself. There is also a tendency to humiliate victims by catching their distress on mobile-phone cameras and publishing the footage, and rounding off a mugging by beating up or sexually assaulting the victim. One police officer the author interviewed about a gang, the “Lords of Stratford Cru” (Stratford is in east London), said this:

What is frightening about these guys is that they had enjoyed really kicking the shit out of people who had already handed over their stuff. This is the most worrying thing. They enjoyed watching people being totally humiliated … If this series of robberies had not been stopped when it was, I’m sure we would eventually have ended up with a murder enquiry. They had no morals, and no concept that others have feelings or rights.

The trouble is that rights do in fact protect the weak as much as the strong. Those who complain about “criminals having rights” conflate criminals with the accused, and victims with complainants. Someone accused of a crime (who may in fact be innocent) needs protection from, among other people, corrupt police officers, which is why interviews have to be taped now. Before that, the police were able to beat confessions out of vulnerable suspects when they were dealing with a high-profile case and wanted to make themselves look good and get promotion. They often did this to vulnerable people, particularly those of low intelligence, by such means as withholding cigarettes and depriving the suspects of sleep. There are reasons why rape complainants, and some other witnesses, are not identified and are protected in other ways, but victims do not need the same rights as the accused, because they are not in immediate danger of a long prison spell (or execution).

Another favourite claim of the anti-rights lobby is that people only think of their rights and not of other people’s, or of their responsibilities. What they forget is that having rights means other people’s responsibility not to treat you like dirt, which is why we were told on more than one occasion by the thugs and jobsworths who ran my boarding school that we had no rights: in other words, we were entirely at the mercy of the staff and had to take whatever they dished out. It was, of course, the weaker pupils who valued rights more than those who could use their fists to get what they wanted, and told staff, “you can’t do that - it’s assault”. And although the cane and the slipper had fallen into disuse on account of having been banned in 1987, the fist and the shod foot certainly had not. In some cases teachers used them on pupils themselves, but more often it was senior boys who did this. I can recall seeing prefects jumping on junior boys in the corridors and shouting at them, “keep your f***ing language down”. In my final year, when discipline was starting to break down among the junior boys, with teachers facing the usual problems of how to control young teen and pre-teen boys, the headmaster resorted to appointing as prefects three known hoodlums and an unpleasant busybody (who could also be a thug when necessary), and having them watch over the junior classes. The year after, the chief hoodlum of the next two forms were made “sub-prefects”, over such concerns as seniority.

Of course, I don’t object to the use of force for such purposes as ejecting troublemakers from places where they are harrassing others, such as libraries and indeed buses and trains. I also don’t object to punishing bullies with a taste of their own medicine. But if anyone thinks bringing back the cane for the sort of disciplinary offences for which it was used before, they are fooling themselves. If people will not follow orders which are perfectly legitimate, such as to be quiet when a teacher is trying to give a class, do you think they will follow an order to put out their hand or bend over to receive the cane? Hardly. Teachers will know that they will get a chair around their head if they try using the cane - so the people who receive it will mostly be (a) petty rule-breakers who want to get back on the right side of the teachers and (b) weaker pupils who give out mouth because it’s the only weapon they have, and who are angry about being mistreated by a teacher or their peers, and the teachers’ inaction. I often came across care workers who were buddy-buddy with the bullies: they were “the lads”, or their chums, while we were just their jobs. One of these jobsworths dished out lectures on how their buddies were not to be messed with as there were only a couple of staff who could handle them. I also came across school staff perfectly willing to use violence and imtimidation to answer personal slights, but not to punish people who made my life a misery (the headmaster told me that because using the slipper was no longer legal, he could do little more as a punishment than “inconveniencing” people by withholding privileges such as going out and the like, but I saw him assaulting pupils on more than one occasion).

Which brings me back to the situation with the Human Rights Act and the political capital which is commonly made from slagging it off. It is actually one of the most toothless pieces of rights legislation in existence, as judges do not actually have the power to invalidate laws because they go against it. Americans, of course, are well used to the idea of the powers of the legislature and executive being constrained by the courts, but in this country once a law goes through the Parliamentary process, even if by only one vote and even if in a Parliament in which a less than 40% plurality of the popular vote has translated into a majority of the seats in the Commons due to the First Past the Post electoral system, it becomes law. Politicians, of course, do not like being told what to do by judges who formerly did little more than judge people’s deeds by their words. Since the Sun, and papers like it, make an awful lot of money from feeding the popular prejudice that “human rights” is all about protecting people who don’t deserve protection, it is of course politically convenient to oppose the HRA.

So, as ever, politicians try to score points by attracting the most reactionary section of the British media, in particular a paper which arguably has had a major role in producing the yobbish culture this country has developed over the last twenty years or so (Francis Gilbert has much to say about this issue in Yob Nation as well, in the same chapter in which he details the fondness of certain New Labour figures for intimidation). Given that politicians are so cowed by this odious newspaper, not even under British ownership, you would think they would find some way between them to make sure it cannot dictate terms to elected politicians - after all, when those with ideas above their station are workers and their unions, they close the industries concerned down, and when they are judges, they talk of repealing the first law Parliament ever passed which enshrines freedom of speech. Given that only last week David Cameron gave a speech to business leaders about the role big business has in the sluttification of teenage girls, the first time a Conservative leader has linked the two rather than just moaning about declining standards, it seems strange that he still feels the need to accommodate the biggest culprit of all in the decline in public morality.

Simon Jenkins, at Comment is Free, regards the HRA as “a classic panacea” which proved to be “a gift to nuisance lawyers and the wilder shores of the right”:

This week sees exactly what sceptics of the act predicted. A measure introduced to defend the “rights” of minorities against majority tyranny is cited by champions for that majority against minorities. Proclaim the human rights of asylum-seekers, ex-prisoners, paedophiles, yobs, the incompetent, the “challenged” and the downright vexatious, and a mob will gather to proclaim the equal and opposite rights of “ordinary, decent people”. What about the rights of peace-loving citizens not to have their surroundings polluted by dangerous offenders or aggressive foreigners? What about the human right not to be upset, insulted or inconvenienced? What about the human right to be excused risk? … Imprisonment without trial should be opposed because nobody should be denied freedom without a good reason and a due process. That should be in the relevant act and not left to some other act. I oppose sacking people as black, old, female or foreign because that is a rotten way to run a community. I support releasing prisoners on parole, even at some public risk, because penal policy is about balancing risks, not honouring a fundamental human right. Start talking human rights and the majority will make sure nobody ever leaves jail.

The problem is that right-wing tabloid opposition to the HRA is not HRA-specific; it is opposed to rights, full stop. It is the same attitude I heard, a good five years before the HRA was passed, after four members of staff at my school were suspended for alleged physical abuse (one of them, by the way, had assaulted me twice when I was 12): “it’s all this children’s rights shit”. Human rights, like the children’s rights which allowed us weekends home and the ability to write to our parents without the letters being intercepted, is all just a load of shit. The tabloids don’t use the word shit - they are too sanctimonious even while they print pictures of a woman’s bare boobs - but the mentality is exactly the same: the blanket dismissal of any concept of rights as no more than the last refuge of the weak or a means to protect criminals and scroungers at the expense of everyone else.

These politicians want to rip up the HRA because they want to imprison people without trial for long periods, and deport them to countries known for torturing people on the basis of flimsy “understandings” from petty dictators. The years since the Major administration have seen the steady erosion of ancient rights on the grounds that they are impediments to “getting things done”, with every year, it seems, seeing a right which dates back centuries being threatened or abolished because it is inconvenient. We all know that a document is no defence against a government, or other armed faction, determined to do whatever it wants to do, but in the present climate we should oppose the abolition of the HRA if there is no robust replacement. Of course, our communities - however we define our communities - have the right not to have our lives and property ruined by yobs. But just remember that you may need rights next time you are in a police cell and the police are “investigating” a brutal murder and looking to get results.

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