Human rights are not just for other people

A Venn Diagram by Paul Bernal. The right-hand circle is labelled "People who understand the European Convention on Human Rights"; the left-hand one is labelled "People who want to withdraw from the ECHR". The overlap is labelled "People who should not be in any position of power in any government, anywhere".

This Venn diagram by Paul Bernal has been doing the rounds on Twitter, and follows the announcement from the Conservative party that at the next election, their manifesto will include a commitment to changing this country’s relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights, an agreement of the Council of Europe (not, contrary to popular opinion, the European Union) enforced by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and enshrined in British law in the Human Rights Act, passed by the Labour government in 1998. Since then, it has become a major headache for governments of both parties as it has been used to challenge such policies as deporting suspected terrorists to countries which are ruled by dictators and where torture is common. It is also unpopular with the Tory tabloid press, which portrays it as a means by which stupid cases can be brought by people who are clearly in the wrong, to demand benefits off the government or to be allowed to stay in the country where they should really have no right to be here. Selling this policy depends on the assumption that human rights are only for the weak and the unworthy, and defending them, much as with defending the NHS and what is left of the welfare state, depends on making people realise it is for them as much as anyone else.

A revealing quote appears in this article on the BBC News website, from Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary:

Asked to respond to critics who have claimed that being a signatory to the Convention is proof that Britain is a modern, compassionate society, Mr Grayling said: “I was a human rights campaigner. I chaired the Amnesty International Group when I was at university.”

He stressed his view that human rights were “about some of the appalling things happening around the world - people being brutalised for their political views, people being put in jail”.

It has also been noted that Chris Grayling was a member of the Social Democratic Party (a Labour break-away that later became part of the Liberal Democrat party) in his youth as well as Amnesty International. Whether he has carried that organisation’s values into his adult life or is just using them to give himself credibility on this matter is not clear. However, anyone who has worked with Amnesty knows that you do not campaign on issues affecting your own country, so if you were active in the 1980s you will have been forever writing letters to other parts of the world — military dictatorships in south and central America, fake democracies dominated by one man in southern Africa, the Apartheid regime in South Africa itself, and so on — and steering well clear of Northern Ireland. You learn either that the rest of the world is a frightening place dominated by vicious dictators and heartless bureaucrats and how lucky we are to live in a civilised country, or (if you look at who was behind some of them) how criminal (and hypocritical) some western politicians were, and maybe developed an interest in the international arms trade. Grayling has obviously learned only the first lesson.

There is an obvious element of racial dog-whistling behind his reference to AI. Human rights are something that people need in third world countries, less civilised ones than ours, because they have dictatorships, or at any rate, not proper democracies like ours. We as Brits are protected by our political culture (commonly cited as a reason why a written constitution and bill of rights is not necessary) and our long record of political stability (no dictators since Cromwell and so on). One problem with this is that other nations that thought themselves civilised have fallen into dictatorship or into brutal and bloody civil war, the most recent example being Yugoslavia (particularly Bosnia, where people went from calling themselves Yugoslavs and pretending to have forgot their differences to killing and raping each other in a matter of months). It is tempting to think ourselves so civilised and so stable for so long that what happened in Bosnia, or Kenya after the last election, or Germany in the 1930s, could absolutely never happen in the UK.

Grayling believes his audience do not regard themselves as needing to claim human rights because his audience is white, middle-class or higher, living prosperous lives in the suburbs or provinces, not into political agitation of any sort (e.g. eco-activism or militant trade unionism), and want the great unwashed kept under control — the very people who use the Human Rights Act, in fact: the immigrants, the “terrorists”, the “foreign criminals” and so on. Even when there are claims that the police, for example, have not acted with complete propriety, the victims have not been them — they have been (working-class) Irish or Black people, and more recently, Muslims, and if “they” didn’t support terrorism or form gangs and deal drugs, they would not have to worry about rough treatment from the police (or about being summarily deprived of their citizenship or ‘rendered’ to a foreign prison), much as nice middle-class white people don’t. Grayling knows that his audience understands that the things he could do without the hindrance of human rights laws (like secret court hearings, for example) would only affect brown people, foreigners and political troublemakers.

Besides this false sense of security, there is another misconception: that human rights, and the HRA, only apply to our dealings with agencies like the police, the courts, the security forces and the prison service. That is not so: it also applies to the health and education systems among other things, which is why cases have been brought for people being denied benefits or people in the mental health system whose lives are being unfairly restricted, or say they are. The people incarcerated without trial most recently in the western world were not political prisoners, but mentally ill people (even if not a danger to others), people with cognitive disabilities, and those who had embarrassed their families or were deemed to be in “moral danger”, such as single mothers (this did not just happen in Ireland). The HRA could be instrumental in preventing any return to institutionalising disabled people, for example (particularly those with cognitive disabilities), and is being used to challenge the appallingly unfair underoccupancy penalty known as the bedroom tax, which callously penalises families of disabled people and foster families to score cheap points with the tabloids. People must be persuaded that the HRA might well assist them in securing a basic quality of life if they or someone close to them is in need, especially through illness or disability. Of course, a selection of sensible and justifiable judgements that were issued under the HRA would bring around a fair number of people, as well as proof of some claims that were refused. The matter of whose company we would be in if we were outside the Convention must also be emphasised: not Switzerland and Norway, but Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe and the last bastion of the KGB.

Human rights are not something which is made unnecessary by civilisation: it is a mark of civilisation. Every oppressor, from the school bully to the torturer in the concentration camp, wants to be able to say to his victim, “you have no rights — I can do what I like to you”. The HRA is not the only piece of legislation which grants rights to people in the UK, of course, but it is an impediment to harsh, unjust laws and regulations being issued as a result of a moral panic or a scandal, which is exactly why the right-wing tabloids are opposed to it: because they feed off mob sentiment, discouraging compassionate and rational thought, when the latter is often what is sorely needed but does not sell papers. Right now, it is the closest thing we have to an American-style Bill of Rights (it includes rights that document does not, and is weaker than it in others), and if anything, there needs to be stronger protection for free speech, freedom from unjust imprisonment, and so on, than this law provides. Those who both understand the ECHR and want to withdraw from it are some of the most privileged, some of the wealthiest, who want to be free of any challenge to their wealth and power; those who control presses which fabricate hysterical “public opinion”, and want to be free of any challenge to their demands being made law; and bureaucrats and securocrats who want to be free of any impediment to “getting things done”. The HRA must be defended to the hilt: it must be presented as a sign of our civilisation, it must be compared to bills of rights elsewhere to show that court challenges to legislation is how things work in a parliamentary democracy, and it must be presented as something that protects everyone, not just terrorists and undesirable foreigners. The whingeing backsliders must be faced down, for everyone’s sake.

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