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Human-rights protections at risk

11 June 2021

Government attempts to dilute them should be resisted, argues Mark Oakley

st paul’s cathedral

Mark Wallinger’s sculpture Ecce Homo stands on the west steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, for Holy Week and Eastertide, in 2017, to bring attention to Amnesty’s campaign against unfair trials

Mark Wallinger’s sculpture Ecce Homo stands on the west steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, for Holy Week and Eastertide, in 2017, to bring attention to Amn...

FOR some, “rights” have come to be considered the “enemy of the people”, because they seem to protect the dangerous and the downright quirky. This view is sometimes found in the Christian community. To speak of “human rights” sounds as if it all begins with you rather than with God.

With what language are we, in a secular climate, to join forces with people of good will to protect the God-given and equal dignity of the vulnerable and oppressed? Might it be possible to own the language of “rights” as Christians, not as being contrary to a belief in God, but being a consequence of it?

The history of human rights is full of faith in God. Amnesty International was founded by a Roman Catholic lawyer, Peter Benenson. He set up the organisation with Eric Baker, a Quaker credited with coining the phrase “prisoner of conscience”. The organisation that we now know as Liberty was founded, after the National Hunger March of 1932, in St Martin-in-the-Fields. Our modern human-rights movements follow in the steps of the anti-slavery campaign, sometimes called the “first international human-rights movement”, to which Christians were (and still are) central.

When I worked at St Paul’s Cathedral, I was pleased to work with Amnesty International to install Mark Wallinger’s sculpture of Christ, Ecce Homo, outside at the top of the west steps (News, 13 April 2017). We placed it there at the beginning of Holy Week to bring attention to the Triduum, and to Amnesty’s campaign against unfair trials. The resonances were clear: a prisoner of conscience, a mob in a frenzy, cruel and degrading treatment in an unjust courtroom, torture, and the brutal carrying out of the death penalty.

 

OUR human-rights protections are at risk. In the UK, the right to life; freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment; freedom from slavery; the right to a fair trial; freedom of thought, including religion; freedom of expression; and freedom of assembly are all explicitly protected — with others — through the Human Rights Act. For years, successive governments have sought variously to scrap, dilute, or replace the Act, presumably because it prevents their doing things that they would otherwise do.

The latest version of this ambition is an “independent review” to make recommendations, in the coming days, to “update” the Act. It sounds relatively innocent, except that it is accompanied by a whole raft of laws that will probably lead to the abuse of people’s rights. MPs have already passed the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act, which enables us to be watched through previously illegal means, as well as the Overseas Operations Act, which came unnervingly close to effectively decriminalising torture, before being amended at the very last minute.

Now, there is more to deal with, such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (its opponents are calling it the “Police Crackdown Bill”), which would put power in the hands of the State to criminalise and shut down peaceful protests if they are deemed too “noisy” or “annoying” (Comment, 1 April). On top of this is the Immigration Bill, originally called the “Fair Borders Bill”, which has been criticised by refugee charities. Now, the Government has changed the name, perhaps because what is proposed in it is going to be profoundly unfair.

 

THE Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 established that human rights, or dignities, are universal regardless of national legislation. They are founded on our common humanity. They are international in the sense that national sovereignty must not be a screen behind which governments can hide, claiming that abuses against their own citizens or residents are their own business.

In the present climate, however, the notion of universalism, and the belief that there are requirements on us legitimately made from beyond the single nation state, are not welcome. Rights, it is argued, only go with responsibilities, and should be defined by the country in which you live. The problem arises — as the declaration-drafters had seen with their own eyes — when those nations do this with the momentum of popular hatred and prejudice towards some minority or group.

The foundation of human rights is to be able to imagine what it is like to be someone other than yourself. Pope Francis argues that “Many forms of injustice persist, nourished by reductive anthropological visions, and by an economic model based on profit that does not hesitate to exploit, discard and even kill.” While many live in wealth, he continues, many others “see their dignity ignored, despised or trampled on and their most basic rights ignored or violated”. Human rights, he concludes, must lie “at the heart of all policies, including development co-operation policies, even when this means going against the tide”.

I really hope that people of faith will be vigilant in the forthcoming national debate, because much is at stake. It might not always be popular to speak out, but, as Melissa McEwan, reminded us, “There are times when you must speak, not because you are going to change the other person, but because if you don’t speak, they have changed you.”


Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and chairs the Civil Liberties Trust.

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