- A Magna Carta for all Humanity:Homing in on Human Rights
The defence of human rights is a crucial part of contemporary politics
‘The UK’s Human Rights Act has become a political football’. Behind this lament - one that is voiced by people of all political persuasions, including both supporters and critics of the Act - lies the assumption that human rights thrive outside of politics, or at least should do. But this view of human rights obscures both their origin and purpose. The idea of human rights arose through political struggle, and the ways in which we understand its meaning continue to be shaped by politics. Its aim is both to right individual wrongs and to create a better society, if not world. And if human rights are not viewed within their political context their meaning becomes opaque. Whilst they must of course be capable of legal expression, they are not in themselves law: they are a means of evaluating the legitimacy of laws and policies. Nor are human rights a substitute for other ideologies or perspectives: they are an ‘ethical guide’ for interpreting and exercising them.
In my book A Magna Carta for All Humanity: homing in on human rights, published in June to coincide with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, I argue that it is also misleading to characterise the modern incarnation of human rights as simply the continuation of a Western, neo-imperialist world view. Contemporary human rights stem from the post-war project to address the limitations of Enlightenment thinking. They can be traced to the ethical framework reflected in the UN’s 1948 [End Page 130] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which drew from the wide range of political, philosophical and religious beliefs of its diverse drafters, stirred by the ‘barbaric acts’ that had so recently taken place in democratic, ‘enlightened’, Europe.1 It is the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, interpreted and developed by more recent global debates and practices, which give human rights their distinctiveness and traction in our current world.
Yet it was not until the Berlin wall came down that the ‘politics of human rights’ was liberated from the sterile polarisation of the Cold War, which had kept them petrified for forty years. It was only then that the idea of human rights began to take root amongst those whose dreams of revolution and liberation had been tarnished, and who saw in the language of human rights a more humane route to a better world. Those who wished to believe that this would usher in the ‘happy end of the story’ - just like those who believed in ‘the end of history’ more generally - have been caught out. The very notion of universal human rights remains contested and challenged in the west as elsewhere; including, as we are currently witnessing, in ‘the land of the Magna Carta’.
Most of the attacks by the current government on the Human Rights Act revolve around who can access rights, rather than the rights themselves. Likewise, much of the criticism of the European Court of Human Rights stems from a reassertion of national sovereignty, and a push back against the transnational standards that the UK expects the rest of the world to abide by.
The basis of this unease stems from the term ‘everyone’ - the most repeated word in human rights instruments. This does not mean that they are a route to open borders or world government: human rights treaties are primarily intended to bolster democracies within individual nation states. But when the chips are down - for example when large numbers of people are drowning in the Mediterranean - boasts of liberty and democracy count for little if we cannot prioritise our common humanity over our nationality. Post-war international human rights law was devised to address such moments.2
The current row over human rights protection in the UK, in other words, is essentially a political and ethical debate over who we are and what kind of society we want to live in. No law can save human rights. They can only ultimately be protected by political struggle and a passionate belief in our common humanity. [End Page...