We need to bring human rights to the small places, close to home

“We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong.  We think that the other side is blind to truth, reason, science and common sense but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.  If you want to understand another group, follow their sacredness

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind – why good people are divided by politics and religion (2012)

Public attitudes are capable of nourishing or destroying laws and institutions.  In the UK public attitudes are helping to destroy human rights, both within and beyond our shores.  The UK is not alone – the human rights ‘brand’ is under assault across the globe, whether in attitudes to the International Criminal Court in parts of Africa or perceived tensions between civil liberties and security in the post 9/11 USA for example.

The Human Rights Act 1998 may have ‘Brought Rights Home’ by ‘repatriating’ the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights, grounded as many of them were in the English Common Law, but I think it is fair to say that implementation has struggled overcome the dangers identified by Eleanor Roosevelt on the 10th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1958:

‘Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.’

It is ironic that the lack of meaning that human rights appear to possess for many people in the UK stems in no small part from the UK’s record of success in embedding respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.  For most people such rights and freedoms are so woven into the everyday fabric as to be invisible.  International human rights funders do not on the whole support human rights work in the UK because of this, seeing the real threats as lying elsewhere.   International human rights NGOs do not carry out work in the UK for the same reason.  The UK is one of the ‘good guys’ that respects and complies with international standards and the rule of law.  Our Foreign and Commonwealth Office actively promote human rights around the globe.

Of course the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights have benefited ordinary citizens seeking justice.   Yet somehow, when stories such as families securing justice for the loss of loved ones at the hands of the State, as in the case of the Hillsborough Inquests or by the families of those who died in NHS hospitals in Mid Staffordshire or ordinary law abiding people challenging the abuse of investigatory powers by snooping local councils reach the public domain, the pivotal role of the Human Rights Act or the European Court of Human Rights appears to get lost.

And while countless groups and organisations are actively involved in campaigning for what in many other countries would be characterised as human rights – the campaign for LGBT equality, for disabled people to live independently, against violence against women, for equal pay, against institutional racism – in the UK many of these groups choose not to frame their advocacy in these terms, being more likely to talk of equality, social justice or civil rights.   Sometimes in the past such organisations have expressed outright hostility to human rights, regarding them as overly legal and as atomistic, divorced from social movements and at odds with group solidarity.   Today many appear hesitant to employ human rights precisely because it has become such a toxic brand.  Some fear it will switch off donors, politicians and the media and do more harm than good.

Yet it is precisely this ‘hidden army’ of human rights defenders that need to out themselves if we are to begin to change the narrative on human rights in the UK and to build support for the importance of human rights in the ‘small places close to home.’ We do have a publicly funded institution with a legal duty to do such work, but for seven years now (including the time I worked there, leading its human rights work) it has mostly resisted doing so.  Help is out there however from the Equally Ours initiative, established by the Equality and Diversity Forum with the support of eight charities, for them to be able to tell their story of human rights in a way that not only avoids the toxicity but which is shown to enhance the impact of their advocacy work.

Unless and until this broader constituency of support comes forward to tell its own human rights stories, the human rights narrative in the UK will continue to be dominated by stories about alleged terrorists, asylum seekers, foreign criminals, prisoners, travelers (INSERT UNPOPULAR GROUP HERE), using the Human Rights Act or bringing cases to the European Court of Human Rights to – it is argued – evade justice, or to violate unwritten codes of fairness by expecting rights without exercising commensurate responsibilities.  In short, human rights will continue to be regarded as anti-majoritarian – as in the interests of minorities only and not the wider public interest.  This narrative will leave it wide open to abuse – ironically underpinning a narrative that fosters in many a sense of powerlessness and disenfranchisement, when the very purpose of human rights is to accord power to the people and make the powerful accountable.  That is why attacking the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights is so central to the increasingly successful narrative of the UK Independence Party, despite the fact that the Party’s policies if enacted would render people more powerless still.

Promoting factual accuracy in the reporting of the stories that create what PR people call the ‘washing line’ for this negative narrative is an important nut to crack and something which is not yet being done systematically.  But ultimately the fact that the European Court of Human Rights did not say that all prisoners must have the right to vote or that it did not demand that UK courts could not impose Whole Life Tariffs for serious crimes, only that those subject to life sentences should have a right to a review is unlikely to go far in changing the narrative.   To comply with the judgments on prisoners votes some prisoners will have to be given the right to vote.  And if a right of review never holds the prospect of a prisoner serving a life sentence being released well then why have a right of review?   The detail is too complex and subtle to address and challenge people’s intuitive sense that such judgments are at odds with their values.  Building support for human rights should not be confused with challenging people’s prejudices.  It is about finding the messages that work with their values.  And as the American expert on framing Professor George Lakoff warns ‘negating a frame re-enforces the frame.’ That is to say, each time we try to correct the way these cases are presented we help those who are using them to build antipathy towards human rights by assisting them to frame the discourse.  We simply confirm their claim that human rights is primarily about prisoners, terrorists and criminals.  While ensuring that accurate information is available is critical, our larger strategy has to pivot away from these stories and we must create our own frames and narratives that speak to rather than conflict with common values.

That is why much of the response to the Tories recent ‘proposals’ this past week has been so unhelpful.   The paper may be ‘legally illiterate,’ its proposals completely unworkable. But that’s not the point at all. Both politically and as a piece of political communications it is a work of art.  The Tories, outflanked by UKIP in the European elections, enduring defections and facing damaging defeats in by-elections ahead of next year’s General Election, unable and unwilling to promise unilateral withdrawal from the European Union have offered up Britain’s support for the European Court and Convention on Human Rights as a sacrifice.  And the joyous front page headlines of the right wing press show clearly that the strategy has worked, helping take some of the shine off Nigel Farage’s defections bonanza ahead of today’s by-election in Clacton-on-Sea.  Moreover, ‘out of touch left wing human rights QCs’ bickering about its legal accuracy on social media and elsewhere is most likely serving rather than undermining its impact – the Tories are able to point out how they are giving the hated fat cat human rights lawyers a kicking as well as getting Europe off our lawn: as turkey’s voting against Christmas.  In fact the only response that got anywhere near undermining the proposals in my view was that of the Daily Mash which ran the headline ‘Human rights laws to be replaced by gut instinct’

Think politicians and the media just don’t get the difference between the EU and the Council of Europe? Think again – the confusion is deliberate and calculated.  Public antipathy towards human rights is rooted in the same existential fears and xenophobia that underpins attitudes towards immigration.  Both attitudes to immigration and to human rights have become weapons in the battle to leave the European Union.  So long as human rights are primarily associated with negative themes it will continue to serve this purpose. The battle over Europe is going to dominate the political landscape before the election and very likely beyond, especially if David Cameron wins an outright majority or enters into a further coalition at the 2015 General Election.  Post-election should the prospect of an in/out EU referendum become real, hostility to human rights and the threat or reality of regressive reforms will go up several notches still.

The only way forward for human rights advocates is then a concerted detoxification strategy.   Different frames, different messages, different stories, different people telling their stories.  It requires people to understand and to focus on speaking to people’s existing value systems, not on seeking to impose value systems. It requires coordination and discipline. It requires everyday people and organisations that the public recognise and trust and who care about human rights from all walks of life to speak out about why human rights matter to them, why they should matter to others and why human rights matter for Britain.   To finish with the remainder of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote:

‘Without concerted citizen action to uphold human rights close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

The time has come for all human rights defenders to come out, stand up and be counted.

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