UN speech by the Commissioner for Human Rights well worth a read
It is perhaps a sign of the times that Theresa May, the UK prime minister, should find herself quoted in the opening paragraph of a speech by the UN Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Not in a flattering way but quoting her remarks that human rights should be overturned if the ‘got in the way’ of the fight against terrorism. These remarks were made during the election campaign which did not go the way intended by Mrs May. They followed a terrorist attack in London.
Whatever the background, Al Hussein thinks the remarks were ‘highly regrettable’ and are a gift to the many authoritarian
governments around the world. It seems that any idea that the UK is some kind of a beacon for civilised behaviour in an increasingly troubled world has all but gone. The desire to promote arms now matters more than the victims of their use for example in Yemen. Despite the appalling behaviour of the Chinese government, most recently with the death of Liu Xiaobo, our response is the minimum necessary: we are more interested in trade than decent behaviour.
It is disappointing to see the prime minister of the UK being mentioned in this way because whatever her faults, there is no comparison between the behaviour of her government and that say, of Russia, where journalists and opposition politicians are gunned down and which has been described as a mafia state. The activities of governments in the Gulf also leave a great deal to be desired. There are many other countries in the world where autocratic regimes mistreat their citizens, use torture routinely, violently put down peaceful protests and deny freedom of expression.
The remarks were perhaps made more in sorrow reflecting the fact that it was the UK government after the war which was one of those who were active in promoting the role of international law and human rights. Today, Al Hussein notes in his speech, for some politicians see human rights as an ‘irritating check on expediency.’ Some are indifferent to the effects of austerity on their own citizens.
A question he asks are ‘what rights does the prime minister mean?’ a question we asked of our Salisbury MP Mr Glen. It is seldom if ever clear what it is they want to see done away with. This might arise because they are responding to tabloid media pressure which maintains an unceasing campaign against the European Court, the European Convention of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act. A recent example is from the Daily Mail claiming that the Act does help terrorists. Other newspapers run similar stories presenting a drip, drip of negative material against the act. Throw in a hatred of anything European and it is small wonder politicians follow the line. As Al Hussein expresses it:
So why did Prime Minister May said this? At least part of the answer may lie in market conditions. Human Rights law has long been ridiculed by an influential tabloid press here in the UK, feeding with relish on what it paints as the absurd findings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This viewpoint has some resonance with a slice of the public unaware of the importance of international human rights law – often seen by far too many people as too removed from everyday life, very continental, too lawyerly, too activist, ultimately too weird. How can the Court consider prisoners’ voting rights, and other supposedly frivolous claims, when set against the suffering of victims? The bastards deserve punishment, full stop! This may be understandable, at some emotional level. However, one should also acknowledge that British ink, reflecting an enormously rich legal tradition, is found throughout the European Convention on Human Rights.
Although some members of the government seek to reduce the influence of human rights in our society, not all do and the organisation Bright Blue, which describes itself as an independent think tank and pressure group for liberal conservatism, has recently published a report arguing that the Conservatives should make Britain the ‘home of human rights.’ Clearly some fundamental attitudes will have to change if that ambition is to be realised. This report is also well worth a read.
Unless countries like Britain and the USA are willing to provide moral leadership then a further deterioration in human rights around the world is to be expected.