On the 2ndof July, I participated in the organising of a public meeting held by the Essex Human Rights Centre in collaboration with community groups in Jaywick to discuss the contribution human rights can make to communities in the UK that are experiencing extreme poverty. This meeting was a follow up to the UN Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty’s visit to Jaywick in November 2018, as part of his UK country visit. Jaywick is the most deprived community in the UK and thus particularly relevant to any focus upon poverty and deprivation.
This meeting in Jaywick also provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the similar need people have for human rights protections in otherwise very different parts of the world.
My native home is Syria; a country torn into pieces by civil war, notorious for being the place of arguably the worst humanitarian crisis in modern history. In the past nine years, barely a week has gone by in which the situation in Syria has not made headlines. Our state is tragically infamous for its numerous gross human rights violations; from mass extra-judicial killings, to enforced disappearances, torture, and violations of the law of armed conflict, to name but a few. For over nine years, millions of people have had, and continue to have, their rights violated. This is our very compelling reality.
Now my adoptive home is the UK; where I have been living for over eleven years. I have come to embrace and celebrate my new home where human rights are celebrated by many and where there exist many opportunities to stand up against injustice.
The UK has a long history of contributing to the development of what would become the modern human rights movement: from the Magna Carta, to the Habeas Corpus Act, the Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade, the English Bill of Rights, and the Welfare State System. However, my experiences of the challenges which confront many members of the Jaywick community – and the wider account of extreme poverty in the UK provided by Philip Alston’s report – raise significant doubts about the extent of the UK’s true commitment to upholding human rights at “home”.
Jaywick was once been a popular holiday destination with a vibrant seafront, less than 50 miles from London. In recent decades, however, the economy in Jaywick has deteriorated and it is now one of the most disadvantaged and depressed towns in England. Conditions have been aggravated by governmental changes to social protection in recent years, including the introduction of the Universal Credit benefits system.
In Jaywick in 2019, I was surprised to see that people’s standard of health is deteriorating, that their ability to lead active lives is being eroded, and that the anxiety of always living on a bare minimum without any margin of recourses or any hope of improvement is slowly sapping their strength. All of these reinforce Alston’s damning indictment of the UK government’s failure to uphold its core social and economic human rights obligations. Nonetheless, the community’s intensity of spirit and desire for change, which was consistently displayed throughout the meeting, revealed tremendous powers of resistance.
What stands in the way of protecting human rights in the UK? There has been a long-standing campaign in parts of the UK press and amongst elements of the political class to present human rights as being somehow irrelevant to the lives of UK residents.Misguided headlines about human rights bombard people on various social media platforms. For the Daily mail “Human Rights is a charter for criminals and parasites our anger is no longer enough”, the BBC writes about a convicted rapist murdering a girl after being released because of human rights, and many more myths about human rights exist. There is hardly any account of the ways in which human rights have transformed the UK and how, if protected, they can provide essential support for many residing in the UK. This false perception alienates people from their ability to use human rights to transform their economic and political reality.
This is no longer the case in Jaywick. The collaboration on human rights awareness between the local groups and the Essex Human Rights Centre is demonstrating the value and importance of human rights within the local community. People have started to think of human rights mechanisms as empowering tools in their lives. During the meeting in Jaywick, people’s statements were spontaneous, but to the point. They were no longer interested in making any kind of appeal to anyone. Instead, they shifted to a proactive engagement where their interest lay in discovering a human rights-based approach to holding the government accountable for violating their rights.
The community is manifestly locked in poverty and held back by low paid inflexible jobs, held back by the lack of secure, affordable accessible homes, held back by a social security system that is not providing the anchor that a wealthy society, such as that in the UK, needs to be able to rely on in difficult times. Nevertheless, poverty does not define the Jaywick community; they are also a community furious with the UK government for violating their human rights, and invigorated by the potential a human rights framework may bring. A human rights-based community-led response to claim back what is owed to them by the government will serve to underline the true universality of human rights.
Between Syria and the UK, there is a fundamental difference. Syrians do not enjoy the protection of a domestic human rights framework. In the UK, the government already made a political commitment under international law to protect the human rights of its citizens. It is about what the poster announces “know[ing] your human rights, your future depends on it”.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.