Human Rights – not Nice People’s Rights.

There’s a lot of debate at the moment about the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Human Rights Act 1998, and whether it’s a good idea or not for the UK to be involved in that sort of thing, which inevitably ends up forcing us to be nice to People Who Do Not Deserve It, or who are Not Nice People, or just Not Our Sort Of People.

Why, we ask ourselves, can’t we get rid of foreign criminals and terrorists and other undesirables? Why can’t we just dump them back where they came from, considering they’re not supposed to be here in the first place? So what if they’re at risk of being tortured or killed – don’t they (whisper it!) deserve it? (Well, just a little bit of torture anyway. Why do we always have to be nice to nasty people? If we aren’t allowed to give them some of their own back, why can’t we send them to where they’re going to get what’s coming to them?)

And therein, of course, lies the problem.

The European Convention on Human Rights grew out of the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War. Never again, said Europe, was any country going to be allowed to do that sort of thing to people. There were some things, said Europe, that were beyond the pale. That no human being should be subjected to.

And those things became the Human Rights of the convention:

  • Article 2 – the right to life
  • Article 3 – the right to freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • Article 4 – the right for freedom from slavery, servitude and forced labour
  • Article 5 – the right to liberty and security of person
  • Article 6 – the right to a fair trial
  • Article 7 – prohibition of retroactivity (if it wasn’t a crime when you did it, they can’t make it a crime and then punish you)
  • Article 8 – the right to privacy and family life
  • Article 9 – the right to freedom of conscience and religion
  • Article 10 – the right to freedom of expression
  • Article 11 – the right to freedom of association
  • Article 12 – the right to marry and found a family
  • Article 13 – the right to an effective remedy for violations of the other rights
  • Article 14 – the right to freedom from discrimination

And what, precisely, is wrong with these rights? Which right is it with which we don’t agree? Do we think it would be a good thing if the state were allowed to kill people? Or fix trials? Maybe society would be improved if certain people weren’t allowed to marry – or were only allowed to marry certain other people? Would it be preferable for the state to be able to arrest people and imprison them on a whim? Is discrimination on grounds of race or sex actually not that bad?

Let’s face it, people. When we think of the Human Rights Act, there is nothing in it that we would want to change – as it applies to us.

Because we are nice people, and we deserve to be protected from bad things like fixed trials and summary execution. But you look at some people, and you think “Hmmm, torture and summary execution couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.”

And therein, of course, lies the rub.

These are human rights. These are things that Europe decided, sixty years ago in the wake of the horrors of Nazism, that nobody should have to suffer. The Convention was designed to prevent the wholesale violation of rights of the population by the state, and it has proved to have been mostly used to protect the rights of individuals. But is that such a bad thing? After all, a population is composed of individuals. Is a tortured person any less tortured because he was only one, not one of thousands? Is a criminal worth less as a human being than a priest?

When we get down to it, the European Convention on Human Rights is not about law: it is about ethics. It says “this conduct is morally wrong and there is no justification for it.” The Convention is about making the statement that to be human is to have value. All people have the same value: none are valued less, because they are the wrong race, or the wrong gender, or because they have a disability, or because they are politically inconvenient, or because they’re not British, or because they’re just really unpleasant.

The clue is in the name: Human Rights. Not Nice People’s Rights. Not Our Sort of People’s Rights.

If we repeal the Human Rights Act, we demonstrate that we believe that there are no human rights. That governments can treat their people as they see fit. And those at the margins of society – the unpopular, the minorities, the defenceless, had better look out. And the thing about margins… once you’ve eliminated whoever’s standing at the margin now, the margin moves inwards – and it might just be to right where you’re standing.

As Martin Niemöller said:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

He was talking about the intellectuals of Germany following the Nazis’ rise to power; the people who should have spoken out against the atrocities. The Human Rights Act speaks out for us all: do we want to silence that voice?

If we do, who will speak for us?


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