Jeremy Hardy on human rights

Photo of Jeremy HardyTell us something about yourself.

I'm a comedian, born in Surrey, lower-middle class background, parents liberal-lefty Guardian readers. When I was 9 my mum described her socialist philosophy: Socialists think that if there is a lake everyone should share it, but Tories think that one person should own it and charge everyone else to approach it.

When was the first time you became aware of human rights?

The expression was hardly used when I was growing up. Probably when I was at university reading History and Politics. Rousseau in the 18th century was an early exponent of the ideal of human rights, and introduced the idea of fair/not fair which we now take for granted.

I can certainly say I was a socialist from a young age - I've always believed in equal opportunities, a fair share for everyone, and control over one's own life.

What do human rights mean to you in your own life?

I don't employ anyone, so I hope I don't exploit anyone. I always try to think how my words or actions will affect other people's rights. I wouldn't cross a picket line, or work for an organisation that was bad on human rights.

When the BBC refused to broadcast the appeal for the people of Gaza, I did a lot of agitating within the organisation as well as outside to persuade the BBC to change its mind.

It's not an issue I confront every day, but as a satirist I can and do send up hostile attitudes to human rights. I do of course do benefit performances where I can promote human rights, but I'm often preaching to the converted! I'm always happy to help where I can - like giving you this interview! - but since I have a living to earn I can't take on every cause. I don't do things like Red Nose Day, I would rather just donate the money.

What do you think is the public perception of human rights in the UK?

It's about prisoners in other countries, or immigrants, or convicted criminals released only to commit more crimes. It implies entitlement - an absolute right to work, or to have a place to live. But most people have no idea of their real rights when they are stopped by the police, or being visited by the bailiff. We also have rights regarding labour, employment, housing and benefits.

The Human Rights Act is widely seen as a set of annoying rules, such as police officers who have to undergo anti-racist training. It originates from the American Declaration, which was actually about the rights of men - specifically white men - not women or slaves. It's a legalistic Labour idea formulated by barristers, a requirement of Britain's membership of Europe. Now they're belatedly trying to sell it to the public, but it can't satisfy the demands being made on it.

It is also increasingly being used to crush campaigners and deny rights to trade unionists.

What more can be done to encourage people in the UK to think and feel positively about human rights?

Emphasise that it's about everyone's rights - elevating the status of human beings. When human rights are threatened we should be free to speak out. At the grassroots level, there should be one-on-one communication, not edicts. Make an offer - here are some rights!

People need educating about the rights/responsibilities dichotomy - freedom of speech may cause offence. Freedom of religion is an emotive issue, because as long as the Church of England is the established religion, members of other faiths such as Islam inevitably feel vulnerable. The political, moral and philosophical dimensions of the matter have not been properly addressed.

A Bill of Rights would help, and would have more appeal. It's too late to explain the Human Rights Act now. Appeal to people's better nature: why this is the right thing to do. And then help them to do it. For example, look at the newsagent who is ordered to install wheelchair access to the shop. S/he will probably go broke doing it - why not offer some financial help?

Name your human rights hero/heroine.

Helen Bamber, who has dedicated her life to the care of victims of torture, of trafficked women. She's brave, self-sacrificing, hands-on, political - in short, not a woolly liberal!

Would she be entitled to stress counselling?



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