In a guest post, Tom Gaisford argues that our discussion of human rights ignores one of our greatest freedoms
The policy and discourse of human rights is mired in the dialectic of rights versus responsibilities. But this limited mode of thinking overlooks the synthesising power of one of our most important and uncodified freedoms: the right to cooperate.
Amongst all the rights defined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights there is no mention of our freedom to help each other. Nor has it been characterised as a human right since. Why not? The answer is simple: we have taken it for granted.
Consequently, however, there is a gap in the discourse. Rights are contrasted with responsibilities as if the two were entirely distinct. They are not. And the devastating result of this false distinction is that our responsibilities – to others as much as to ourselves – are socially and politically devalued.
The drafters of the Declaration came close to identifying the nexus between rights and responsibilities when, by implication, they recognised the importance to each of us of protecting each other. In the preamble they wrote that the protection of human rights by the rule of law is “…essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression…”
Yet in defining the need for protection at all, they were in fact assuming a more fundamental, ingrained and important privilege: the freedom to help. The human rights movement did not come about solely as the result of human atrocities, but of our unquestioned will to prevent them reoccurring. That volition is ours, by birth right.
You could argue that our freedom to help each other is already provided for by means of political participation, through which, together, we help to decide which rights we collectively wish to endorse. And yet a closer look reveals that even the right to political participation derives legitimacy from the unspoken assurance that we have a right to assist each other. First we assume the right to pre-empt and counter tyranny and oppression, then we work on the most effective way to achieve this aim. It is worth noting that neither democracy, nor human rights discourse for that matter, would exist without our latent endorsement of our right to help each other.
Paradoxically, this right is so entrenched in our psyche that we have failed to see the importance of making it part of the human rights debate. A lamentable consequence of this is that we are able to contest and undermine the legitimacy of other, derivative human rights with ease. Without recognition of our collective endorsement of the importance of being able to help each other, human rights have the appearance of being simple, ungrounded pronouncements.
In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of the very abuses that we sought to avoid after the horrors of the second World War – systematic torture of so-called ‘enemy combatants’, or the reckless bombing of civilians, to name but two – are frequently committed by those seeking individual gain, in the name of human rights and democracy.
Without a forum for meaningful discussion of the primary purpose of human rights, political discourse is limited and distorted – how can we talk about the importance of our freedom to help each other if we fail to articulate it? In taking the right for granted, we have managed to breed the popular assumption that it is somehow less important to us than it actually is.
Nowhere is this clearer than in our domestic immigration debate, which is defined exclusively in terms of benefit or detriment (usually economic) to the host state. Astonishingly, arguments from both sides of the political spectrum take little if any account of our real interest in the welfare of the immigrants we are discussing, many of whom, we know, take immense personal risks to get here.
Instead, immigration continues to be presented as a zero sum game: if we indulge immigrants’ interests, we shall detract from our own. The crude assumption here is that our interests exist exclusively of theirs. They do not. And until our leaders realise this, many of us will continue to feel disenfranchised. For whether we choose to recognise it or not, our profound interest in each other’s welfare is being systematically ignored.
Ed Miliband’s recent change of tack on immigration was premised on the need to be ‘fair’ to our domestic working classes, to whom so-called ‘cheap immigration’ is allegedly less beneficial. He needs to change tack again if progress is to be made. Fairness cannot be considered in a vacuum, or applied to one group of people and not to another. To do so is, by definition, unfair. And misguided statements such as this serve only to contain and foreclose genuine egalitarian aspirations. Perhaps we feel that is precisely what we want – to keep things as they are? Yet history shows, with pellucid clarity, that we do so at our peril.
If we’re serious about human rights – and we should be – we need to acknowledge why they are important to us. And we need to start valuing them above our immediate, short-sighted, economic interest. Would we really exchange a safer, fairer world for some extra cash?
Well, alarmingly, the evidence here in the UK suggests that we would. We seem to have lost sight of our profound interest in helping each other – the same interest that united nations in their efforts to pre-empt the type of worldwide atrocities that we continue to see, day in, day out.
We have only to consider the savage assault on legal aid courtesy of the recent Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Bar a small number of exceptions, it will, inter alia, effectively exclude the poor from legal assistance in immigration cases. This will breach the legal aid providers’ right to help poorly resourced clients, by making their work (still more) economically unsustainable – or rather, it would, if that ‘right to help’ were articulated: we lack the language to defend ourselves.
More recently still, the government issued a Statement of Intent on family migration. Although its gory details are not the subject of this article, the changes – incorporated into our domestic immigration rules this week – effectively undermine, in one fell swoop, years of brilliant and painstaking legal analysis in respect of the right to family and private life. How could this possibly be in our collective interest?
This type of systemic myopia is not, of course, limited to the UK. And unless we can develop a political discourse to reflect our common interests more accurately, we can brace ourselves for another 60 years of tyranny, insurrection and humanitarian triage operations on the wounds inflicted by our collective disenfranchisement.
For all the excitement of her recent visit to the UK, the warning conveyed by Aung San Suu Kyi in her inspirational Nobel acceptance speech last month appears to have been all but ignored. Here it is again:
“Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of new conflict, for suffering degrades, embitters and enrages.”
Self-determination and human rights discourse alike owe their existence to a right so fundamental that we have unwittingly managed to demote its importance. The language of human rights may well have a shelf-life. But for the time being, at least, it seems here to stay. It is time we started using it to acknowledge, and to develop, our primary interest in the wellbeing of our fellow human beings.
Tom Gaisford is a solicitor and writer. This article first appeared on the Open Democracy website.