Building public support for human rights – where next?

“They (human rights) carry no weight unless the people know them, unless the people understand them, unless the people demand they be lived.” Eleanor Roosevelt 1948

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For the past several years I’ve been engaged in one way or another in thinking how to stop the rot of public discourse and public opinion surrounding human rights, first at the Equality and Human Rights Commission than latterly as Director of the Thomas Paine Initiative.   Theresa May’s assault on ‘left wing activist human rights lawyers’ during her Party Conference speech this week shows we’ve rather a lot of work left to do.

The work I’ve been involved with has helped to establish initiatives such as Equally Ours and Rights Info, underpinned by new research into how the public thinks about human rights and how we can communicate about human rights more effectively.  A key insight from the research is that to enjoy public support, stories about human rights need to be relatable, foster an intuitive sense of injustice or unfairness and be told by spokespeople that enjoy high levels of trust.   Or as Eleanor Roosevelt advised almost 60 years ago, human rights must make sense in the ‘small places close to home’ if we are to expect them to have meaning and enjoy support in the wider world.

The challenge of course is that much of what we read about human rights fails these tests on a massive scale.  In the domestic context human rights often appears to be securing intuitively unjust and unfair outcomes for people many of us find it difficult to relate to or feel empathy with and we have little trust in the spokespeople for such causes.  We may know the role human rights played in securing justice for the families of those killed at Hillsborough, or those of patients who died in Mid Staffordshire hospitals, or how it has helped bring about peace in Northern Ireland for example, but the public does not for the most part.   It is in my view this gap in perception (and experience) that creates the impression that human rights are not universal – that they benefit ‘other’ people who do not ‘play by the rules’.    In his book the Politics of Hope (2000) the then Chief Rabbi Jonathon Sacks argued:

‘The universality of moral concern is not something we learn by being universal but by being particular. Because we know what it is to be a parent, loving our children, not children in general, we understand what it is for someone else, somewhere else, to be a parent, loving his or her children, not ours. There is no road to human solidarity that does not begin with moral particularity – by coming to know what it means to be a child, a parent, a neighbour, a friend. We learn to love humanity by loving specific human beings. There is no short cut.’

Unless we take heed of this, I fear we stand little hope of earning at least tolerance of the fact that human rights also protect ‘unpopular’ groups and individuals as well.   The cost of failing to address this will be human rights that in future are no longer universal: the UK outside the European human rights system; a hierarchy of protection tied to citizenship status; a government determining the merit of human rights cases brought against it.   If you think this couldn’t happen, you’ve been asleep since June 23.

But to rise to this challenge we need to overcome a number of hurdles, and I write this in the search for ideas and debate, not because I have the answers.

First, some human rights defenders believe that the strategic communications necessary to attend to public discourse and opinion involves the abandonment of the principle of universality, as it encourages communicators to pivot away from tricky issues such as defending the rights of prisoners or alleged terrorists onto more productive terrain.   Moreover, such approaches rely to a certain degree on appealing to ‘self interest’ rather than encouraging at the first instance respect for the equal dignity and worth of everyone.  By doing so, it can be argued, such communications strategies undermine human rights principles, risking deepening notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ people.   This criticism needs to be taken seriously.

Second, among those who we would need to become new human rights spokespeople to shift public discourse and opinion, there is resistance because talking about human rights is not regarded as offering any added value on issues such as the situation of people with mental health problems, older or disabled people for example.  There is reasonable concern that it may in fact unnecessarily undermine public support given how toxic a brand human rights has become.  And it is not only that human rights are not spoken about in these areas, they play little part in practice either.  This fact alone should be of deep concern to human rights defenders, irrespective of its significance for securing opposition to regressive legal reform.

It might be said that these challenges are merely a feature of where human rights fits in a modern, developed, largely democratic and free country.  That is to say, the reason human rights are so strongly associated with so called ‘unpopular groups’ is (a) because it is those groups – asylum seekers, migrants, prisoners, gypsy travellers, alleged terrorists – who fall back on the law for protection most and (b) because other groups and issues can appeal to intuitive notions of fairness and injustice and hence feel less need to assert human rights?

But I’m unconvinced by this argument.  It relies on false presumptions about and an unhealthy characterisation of the situation faced by certain groups in society.  Are we really saying that 3000 plus people with learning disabilities locked away in Assessment and Treatment Units are able to rely on the public’s intuitive sense of injustice to secure their freedom?  Is the public’s burning sense of unfairness acting as a bulwark against cuts to care packages that leave older and disabled people utterly isolated and without the support to secure their basic dignity?   If the public was so committed to ridding society of the scourge of violence against women, why would so many refuges have closed with so little opposition over the past 6 years?  Was it public opinion that secured the second inquest for the families of those killed watching a football match at Hillsborough?

The task then is not one that can so easily rely on mobilising intuitive notions of fairness and injustice or on appealing to self interest through communications because (a) it is not enough  (b) if it was we wouldn’t need human rights  (as the Director of Human Rights Watch, Ken Roth, has said; ‘If most people always wanted to do the right thing, democracies would not need to be concerned about human rights’) and (c) talking must be matched by doing.

But it must be a strategy that broadens out people’s sense of what human rights are about and who they matter to.  To these ends, I have (perhaps belatedly) come to a view that the task cannot be reduced to one only of communications.   Rather it is one of ‘democratising’ human rights.     That is, a strategy that sees spreading the practice of human rights as going hand in hand with changing the public narrative sufficient that human rights are recognised as having universal benefit and through doing so come to enjoy at least grudging respect, if not outright support when they protect people we don’t like very much.

On practice, I was pleased to see my ideas taken forward by the Baring Foundation and Legal Education Foundation in their new programme to support better use of the law and human rights by the voluntary sector. It is a modest and hugely oversubscribed programme, which I hope will inspire other donors.  It seeks to build bridges between the legal and non legal voluntary sectors to pool expertise and networks and bring human rights to areas it has rarely gone.  It too is working against the grain of cuts to the legal advice sector, a closing space for civil society to engage in advocacy, the toxic climate for human rights and a lack of confidence in using the law and human rights.   There is much work still be done, and our national human rights commission’s in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland also have a critical role to play.

On communications, we do have to continue to address the perception gap, but this has to involve more than just finding and communicating ‘relatable’ stories that already enjoy support for the reasons that I have outlined.  If we are to really change things we need to learn how and when framing issues as violations of or risks to human rights deepens or secures the public’s sense of unjustice and unfairness, rather than focusing  only on those areas that enjoy it already.  This is the only way to convince sceptics to become spokespeople and through doing so to tell a much more inclusive story of the importance of human rights in the UK today.   This will involve building on work already done by Equally Ours and others to engage and support civil society to talk about human rights in ways that matter to them.   But it also I think involves a bigger task of finding a new narrative for human rights in the round – one which masterfully secures recognition and support for the importance of human rights to the particular as a route for building support for the principle of universal human rights today and into the future.

This will require money – quite a lot of money – which presently is not being invested in the UK.

Answers on the back of postcard please…..

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2 thoughts on “Building public support for human rights – where next?

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. My feeling is that the real source of change lies not with changing public perceptions of human rights (either through communications or democratization), but with making newspaper editors less fearful about Article 8. Some (not all) editors clearly fear that Art 8 right to privacy will one day be used to prohibit “juicy” (for want of a better word) stories about celebrities etc, and so have a vested interest in turning the public against human rights. That’s why they run stories about “criminals” benefiting from HR. If they can’t be convinced to run accurate and fair stories, then the public will never engage with the universality of human rights. Of course, I’m speculating here…

  2. Thanks Neil for a thought provoking blog post. The universality of human rights enshrined in the Human Rights Act is fundamental. . “No human being can be more human than another human being” Maya Angelou. As a disability rights campaigner, I believe that talking about human rights is essential to disability rights campaigning. When campaigning, we often say that we just want to be treated as human beings. So to further our cause and that of every other disadvantaged group we need to celebrate exactly that: our basic humanity. If each disadvantaged group unites to protect and celebrate our basic human rights we will be so much stronger than splintering off to fight for our individual (and oh so similar) causes.

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