Reclaiming Human Rights

By Lorna McGregor

Today we mark International Human Rights Day. In the UK, as globally, it has been a bad year for human rights. The rise in overt racism, xenophobia and intolerance is the clearest illustration of this. Where ‘human rights’ have received airtime, they have often been portrayed negatively. This is illustrated by years of pushback on the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act and a wider caricaturing of human rights with reductive stories of human rights being about cats and speeding laws.

The dominance of these stories risks the characterisation of human rights as ‘part of the problem’ as a set of partial or parochial concerns – or worse – redundant. In this context, however, human rights could not be more important. Moving into 2017, it is critical that we become much more effective than we have been at pushing back against the pushback on human rights. We must assert why human rights matter, and why they are more essential now than ever before.

How do we do this? First, we have to start with the narrative. We have to reclaim what human rights are and why we need to protect them. This year we have celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of two of the most ground-breaking international treaties – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Together, these treaties provide a summary of human rights as a basic set of rights that allow us to live with dignity, equally and without discrimination. Examples of rights included in these treaties are the right to education, the right to adequate food, clothing and housing, the right to a fair trial, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to freedom of expression, the right to health, the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to work and social security. In essence, they are rights that pervade all aspects of each and every one of our lives and protect individuals and communities in positions of vulnerability and marginalisation, as well as the majority against the tyranny of the few.

Yet, in public discourse, we seldom get a feel for the breadth and pervasive nature of human rights. Rather, human rights are often presented in a narrow and reductive way which risks that we overlook their critical and fundamental importance to us all. This is not because these rights are not issues in our society. To the contrary, so many stories we see in the media are stories about where human rights law has protected us or where the government has failed to meet its human rights obligations. For example, the duty to investigate deaths and allegations of torture and other forms of ill-treatment led to the Hillsborough inquests, the investigations into Rotherham and to findings of responsibility where the police failed to treat calls on domestic violence seriously enough. The consequences of austerity policies on persons with disabilities, child poverty and families living in temporary accommodation are all stories about the failure to respect our international human rights obligations. The inquiry into child sexual abuse, and the uncovering of ill-treatment in care homes by investigative journalists are stories about the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment. Even the critics of human rights are protected by the human right of freedom of expression. Yet, since the term ‘human rights’ is rarely used in these stories, we are at risk of becoming disassociated with what human rights are about.

When we move beyond the negative discourse, and begin to speak of human rights in their fuller sense – as they really are – we see that human rights are actually intended to protect all of us. They are relevant to each and every member of our society. But human rights are about more than that, they are also about shared ideals and values. Human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent, so signing up to them does mean that we cannot deport people if there is a risk that they will be tortured or ill-treated abroad – even if they are convicted criminals or suspected terrorists. This is right. If our values prohibit torture, we should not facilitate torture by others. To find otherwise, also poses greater risks to our security and our ability to influence other states not to use torture including potentially against British nationals abroad. Similarly, the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights means that if there is a credible suspicion that members of our armed forces have been involved in torture or unlawful killings abroad, they should be investigated. My colleagues Prof Noam Lubell and Dr Daragh Murray have argued persuasively that accountability does not threaten the military but rather enables the ‘armed forces [to] publicly demonstrate their integrity and professionalism – and ensure the public’s trust’.

If we are to reclaim human rights, we must ensure that they are capable of making a tangible difference to peoples’ lives. We must ensure that they move beyond legal treaties and that they are mainstreamed. This means that we need human rights to be talked about in their fullest sense by our political leaders and our public figures rather than employing language that disparages and reduces human rights into misrecognition as something cheap and meaningless. We need to see our media labelling all stories that contain a human rights dimension as about human rights – not just the stories to which they object. And in communities, we need to be talking about and understanding why human rights matter on a human level. They are not the preserve of human rights lawyers or human rights organisations – they belong to everyone and everyone needs to defend them.

And with that full understanding we need to hold the government to account so that these rights are realised and that people are able to claim their rights. 2017 is an important year for government accountability for human rights. In 2016, the United Nations issued a series of reports (see here, here, and here) identifying where the UK is failing on human rights and will issue more next year including through the Universal Periodic Review of the UK by the UN Human Rights Council (a system of peer review for all states on their human rights situation). Priority issues that need to be urgently addressed include the rise in hate crime, the impact of social security reforms on people’s lives, particularly for persons with disabilities and children living in poverty, the overuse of stop and search powers by the police against ethnic minorities, the gender pay gap, the risks to privacy through bulk surveillance, the overuse of restraint and the use of solitary confinement in juvenile detention centres, significant disparities in access to health services for particular groups such as black and minority ethnic groups, children and young people, Gypsies and Travellers and transgender persons and gaps in educational attainment.

In 2017, we need to ensure that these UN recommendations do not gather dust in reports but are implemented so that human rights play a strong role in changing peoples’ lives in the UK. Human rights are not part of the problem. The problem is that they are not being fully respected and it is our job to make sure that they are. Human rights are not perfect or the answer to all problems but they do contribute to resolving rather than aggravating many of the problems existing in our society today. We must work to ensure they are implemented, and that the potential of human rights is fulfilled.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.

Lorna McGregor is Director of the University of Essex Human Rights Centre and a Commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission 


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