Currently, it is claimed, there is not much support being found amongst Britain people to defend the idea of human rights. Various reasons are suggested, along with some hoped-for improvements.
Neil Crowther has usefully covered the current position in this debate here – https://makingrightsmakesense.wordpress.com/2016/10/19/reflections-on-who-are-we-hate-hostility-and-human-rights-in-a-post-brexit-world-by-martha-spurrier/
I want to argue here that we need to do something more than is often currently being suggested, and to start this we need to have a deeper analysis of the problems we face when we are trying to defend human rights.
To do this, lets go back to 1983. The British government at the time was deeply unpopular and was heading towards losing the next election. Unemployment was over three million people and inflation was rising. The government was following an economic policy called monetarism, spending less on manufacturing and favouring financial markets instead. Then, starting by accident rather than design, the Falklands / Malvinas “war” happened and the government’s popularity soared, staying in power for a further 14 years.
And what was the lesson learnt? That people’s lives may be deep in the shit, but as long as they have an ‘other’ to hate then all can be managed and contained. The phrase bread and circuses used to be popular, taken from Roman times on how to manage a population. It was perhaps too benign a translation, it was really bread and executions.
Now, to stay fresh the ‘other’ has to change from time to time. Argentinians had their uses, but we’ve also seen anger at prisoners, hated for having satellite colour TV and prawn salad sandwiches served in their rooms on sliver trays with a coleslaw garnish. Almost. So you get the drift how post-truth journalism works. Today it is the turn of people whose faith is Islam – Muslims. And so, we learn this week from the Independent Press Standards Organisation, it is permissible to attack a fellow journalist for wearing a headscarf.
And what is it that stops us giving the hated ‘other’ the kicking they deserve – human rights. It tries to stop someone being sent abroad to be tortured. To stop someone being locked up without a fair trial. To stop the abuse of the ‘other’, even though the angry crowd is watching and waiting, wanting to enjoy the schadenfreude of seeing the ‘other’ in pain.
Because when people are angry, as in the 1930s Great Depression, it suits power to channel that anger against the ‘other’. Which is why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations, as well as the European convention and court all rose in the 1940s after the Holocaust.
And the ethics of human rights goes back much further, such as the Abrahamic tradition of: love your neighbour as yourself; and hate the sin, love the sinner. Today it would be: tackle the ball not the player. And our appeal to human rights is to respect the referee, to play a clean game. So, the answer to anger at the ‘other’ is to explain the anger as well as defending the ‘other’ against the hatred aimed at them.
Defence alone just feeds the anger by giving it a bigger target.
So, I’d suggest that we need to call for human rights for everyone, for every ‘other’ everywhere, including places such as North Korea. This is not frivolous – we have seen how disabled children are incarcerated and abused in many countries. No country has perfect authorities, so we all need the power to limit authority in order to protect ourselves from abuse. Human rights give us that power. The call for freedom around the world in the last century was for people to rise up and shake off their chains. Well, in terms of human rights, the world’s disabled people are still in chains.
Firstly, we must set a standard. If rights are universal then we need to show that everywhere counts, and by implication we show that “British human rights” is a nonsense, like British oxygen or British clouds. We need to say that the idea of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is still worth fighting for.
Secondly, we must set a challenge. Would you deny to people in the UK the same rights which we would want to see in all other countries? To do this we have to remind people that Britain is not exceptional. We must continue to tell the stories of abuses in the UK, not least to counter the superior view that other countries need human rights laws, but we don’t because we are somehow better. From Hillsborough to historic child abuse, there are many stories where the establishment has closed ranks to protect its own. It is the elite that benefits when ordinary people lose their human rights.
Thirdly, we must explain the wider anger. Your longer wait to see an NHS doctor is because of cuts, not migrants. Migrants pay more taxes than non-migrants. Your elderly parent’s loss of social care is the same. Your inability to afford a decent holiday for your family is because wages have fallen since 2008 everywhere, not just where migrants live. Your child being in a school class of 35 is because of cuts, not migrants.
Your life is worse now because of inequality – cuts in pay and services if you are poor and tax scams and growing profits if you are rich.
You are right to be angry. But human rights are not the problem.