When Rachel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right adequate housing recently visited Britain and expressed concern regarding among other things the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’, she was vilified by senior Ministers who described her as a ‘woman from Brazil’ who in their opinion had no expertise or mandate to express such a view and who had not – they claimed incorrectly – been invited to do so by the British government. She was then accused by the Daily Mail of dabbling in witchcraft.
Yet just last week Prime Minister David Cameron prayed in aid the independent assessment of a UN Special Rapporteur when calling for an investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. If that special rapporteur had been from Brazil would he have thought twice about relying on their judgment? If the Sri Lankan government claimed the rapporteur had not been invited would he have ignored their analysis? Would he not be at all suspicious were a Sri Lankan newspaper to accuse the rapporteur of being a witch?
In the UK government’s bid for a seat on the UN Human Right Council it describes itself as a ‘passionate, committed and effective defender of human rights.’ Yet this is the same human rights defender that is presently threatening to dismantle its own citizens basic human rights protection and to derail the entire European Human Rights framework. It is the very same champion of human rights that says publicly it finds it an inconvenience to not be able to send people on a whim to face trial in countries where evidence gained through torture might be used against them. And it is the passionate human rights advocate that seeks publicly to undermine the credibility of a UN Special Rapporteur appointed by – yes you’ve guessed it – the Human Rights Council to assess whether it is meeting standards that it has voluntarily agreed to uphold and which it expects of others.
Respecting and defending human rights is a strong British tradition about which we should feel proud. We are able to rely on it to assert our moral authority in the world. Doing so demands however that we consistently uphold the standards that we demand of others and from time to time this can involve inconveniences. But we managed in the end to deport Abu Qatada without breaching his human rights and we have coped with far greater challenges than having to give a few prisoners the vote in ensuring our values are upheld at home and abroad. It is precisely our refusal to abandon our values in the face of great adversity that underpins that moral authority.
That authority and influence is also why when Britain undermines human rights at home it undermines them everywhere. Patriotically renewing our commitment to human rights at home lies at the heart of Britain’s defence of human rights world-wide.