After World War II and the horrors of the holocaust a brief window of opportunity opened for the international community to discuss and concretise by declaration the fundamental rights and freedoms of human beings, not the rights of mere citizens but the rights afforded to all people by virtue of our common and shared humanity. Eleanor Roosevelt, who represented the United States on the drafting committee of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rightly foresaw that the Declaration would have the same effect on the whole world that the US Declaration of Independence had on American society. No other written document in the history of human civilisation has so profoundly shaped how we see ourselves as people with inherent and inalienable rights, freedoms, and dignity.
Sadly, it is fair to suggest, that with the normalisation of international governmentality through the Cold War and the post-Cold War era this window of opportunity has closed. Our rights were chiselled in stone at a singularly unique moment in history, and we are fortunate to have them. It is true that the Declaration never gained the force of law, but its universal acceptance and global appeal ensured that it became a core influence in the shaping of national constitutions, conventions, and international treaties – effectively empowering it with the de facto force of international law, defendable in parts with universal jurisdiction.
Drawing on the influence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the European Convention on Human Rights was drafted and entered into force on 3 September 1953, obliging Council of Europe member states – including the United Kingdom as a founding member – to accept and ratify the rights it affirmed as law in their domestic legal systems. As a result of the ECHR we now have the European Court of Human Rights, where we have the right to challenge our individual governments when we have evidence that they have violated our human rights. It would be wrong to imagine that the UK government is above committing human rights violations.
Ireland successfully fought for the rights of British citizens (Ireland v. UK, 1977) who had been detained without trial and held in what the European Court found to be “inhuman and degrading” conditions. More recently the British government was found to have unlawfully detained persons, violating their right to liberty and security (A. and others v UK, 2009).
It is an interesting trick of modern media that when most of us think of “human rights violations” we think of South American military juntas or despotic warlord-led governments in Central Africa, when the truth is that Britain has been and continues to be a serial human rights violator.
Britain’s Westminster government has made clear its intention to scrap the Human Rights Act of 1998, in which further legal effect was given in UK law to the rights and freedoms of the European Convention, and replace it with a “British Bill of Rights” overseen by the unelected Conservative Lord Michael Gove. This proposal for a reformed piece of primary legislation arises from the present British government’s discomfort with the European Convention, and its lack of power to amend human rights in Europe without the consensus of other member states.
It is as yet unclear what the Conservative government wishes to change, but any alteration to our basic rights must be viewed with deep suspicion, unless, of course, those rights are being added to – which they most certainly are not. David Cameron’s government is deeply embroiled in various US-led foreign wars where human rights violations have become routine:
The Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights and domestic Human Rights Act face ongoing political and media attack. The government failed to honor its promise to convene an independent judge-led inquiry into UK complicity in overseas rendition and torture, giving the task instead to a parliamentary committee lacking the necessary independence and transparency.
– Human Rights Watch
Together with other NGOs, Human Rights Watch has consistently highlighted the increasing securitisation of the United Kingdom, with clandestine domestic surveillance and phone tapping operations, as a serious and growing human rights violation.
Human rights, the basis on which we have the right to privacy and protection from undue interference by the state, including the rights to free speech and to a fair legal process, get in the way of any government which’s priorities are increased domestic control and escalated foreign warfare. The rights that we currently enjoy came to us during an exceptional moment in history – a moment we may never experience again – and so they must be defended. At present the UK government has these rights in its sights, and Britain’s growing isolationism from Europe and continued involvement in a globalised war means that in a British Bill of Rights our fundamental rights and freedoms will be subservient to a frighteningly militaristic and indeed fascistic political agenda.
So much credit is due to the SNP’s Westminster MPs Joanna Cherry and Phil Boswell for making Scotland’s voice clear on this issue. In a threatened legislative move that will endanger the rights of refugees and asylum seeks, migrant workers and so forth in Scotland we must understand more fully that the rhetoric of “extremism” deployed against them and their human rights is exactly the same language that is being used against “separatists” like the SNP and Plaid Cymru. We would be foolish to imagine that this targeting of rights is for the public good.
The Butterfly Rebellion