The past few weeks at BIHR, we have been talking about “rescuing human rights”. This month our Director Sanchita spoke at the launch of Rescuing Human Rights: A Radically Moderate Approach, a book by Hurst Hannum, a professor of International Law at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

The book acknowledges that the development of human rights in the aftermath of the Second World War as one of the most significant achievements in international relations and law in recent times. However, Hannum argues that the continuing influence of human rights is increasingly being questioned by authoritarian governments, nationalists, and pundits as the proliferation of new rights that attempt to address every social problem from a human rights perspective which risks undermining their credibility. Instead, he argues, it is through law that human rights are most clearly and most powerful defined.

Human rights: everything or linking to the law?

Although the book launch was a discussion about international human rights law, we hear similar arguments made in the UK all the time. That human rights have gone too far, that they have been stretched to their breaking point and become meaningless by trying to make them mean all things to all people. Our UK Human Rights Act is often under threat with politicians periodically calling for it to be “scrapped” and replaced with a “Bill of Rights”. (Never mind that modern bills of rights are about setting out the universal human rights people have and the duties of the governments to respect these rights, precisely what the Human Rights Act already does).

This got us talking about pro-human rights commentary and discussion in today’s political climate. Is there an overselling human rights that presents them as a magic wand to all problems, about being nice or being charitable, about being everything and conversely nothing? Does that strengthen anti-human rights governments and others who challenge the universal application of human rights?

Increasingly it seems that the need is for us to hold the line on what we already have. For an organisation such as ours, that exists to secure and progress people’s human rights, to be seen to be calling for the status quo is a rather odd position to be in. But of course, when we’re calling for standing by our domestic law, the Human Rights Act, and focusing on implementing it not only in the courts (although that is important and must continue) but also making human rights the language of people’s everyday interactions with public services and national government, that isn’t the status quo. Focusing on the law could be seen as moderate, perhaps unambitious, but a genuine culture of respect for human rights in the UK, which delivers on the whole purpose of the HRA, would in fact be a radical departure from where human rights implementation is right now.

The moderate and the radical?

Remembering that human rights are not simply about the State at international level but also to the public institutions that people interact with every day, our HRA sets out rules for these interactions. Our human rights law provides a system of checks and balances so that the power of government and public institutions is not unlimited, but rather public bodies, and those that work for them, have a legal duty to protect and respect our human rights. Human rights, which have been internationally defined and agreed, but bought into our domestic law. Sadly though few people working in these public institutions with the legal duty to respect and protect human rights know their obligations. And so few people know what the law entitles them to, and how to use it practically to positively change decisions, policies and practice that affects us all.

At BIHR, we empower people to know what human rights are (and often what they are not), to use them in practice achieve positive change in everyday life without resorting to the courts, and make sure those in power respect and progress our human rights laws and systems. However, it is clear that there is still a lot of work to do here in the UK to ensure that our most basic human rights are ensured.

Human rights here at home

The same week we were discussing rescuing international human rights, the stark reality of needs to implement our domestic human rights hit the media spotlight. The Care Quality Commission’s  interim report in to the alarming use of restraint affecting people with learning disabilities and mental health issues,  the LeDeR report on the disproportionate deaths of people with learning disabilities in health services, and the Panorama programme on startling abuse of people who should have been receiving care at Whorlton Hall, all made strikingly clear that there are systematic failings to respect and protect the human rights of people with mental health issues, learning disabilities and/or autism.

However as we’ve discussed in our responses to these “incidents” (“” because we know they are not one-offs) there are already tools to address these issues. Human rights, and specifically the Human Rights Act, provides an invaluable, legally anchored, framework to drive change. The HRA’s legal, not ethical or moral, duty to respect and protect human rights can and should be empowering services and public officials to do things differently. Human rights are a red line which people must not fall below, not simply to be nice, but because it is the law. 

Professor Hannum’s argument that the status of human rights as law needs to be protected and that the distinction between legal obligation and other moral and political obligations needs to be maintained is central to the work that we do here at BIHR. It means we’re doing human rights work; not just being nice work. It is the difference in power and action that comes from framing a staff member who stops a person leaving a care home without any legal authorisations as an unlawful restriction of the right to liberty rather than unfairness. It is the difference between calling abuse the inhuman and degrading treatment of a person which is never lawful rather talking about a lack of compassion by staff.

Human rights are not a magical wand that can solve all ills, and we are always clear about that in our practice-based work across the UK. However, human rights do set down in law the rule book for governments on how people should be treated and how power should be exercised; this is about ensuring that we are all treated with dignity and respect in our daily lives. Through human rights we can hold those responsible for abuses accountable. Even more importantly, if organisations, services and governments embed a human rights approach to all their interactions to prevent abuses happening in the first place.

Our focus must be on ensuring that the tools we do have, the Human Rights Act, is protected and used. Making sure that people know what their rights are and feel empowered to talk about them and use them when needed. Equally important is ensuring that those who have a human rights duty know what they are, and that human rights based decision making results in better decisions for all. This is at the heart of everything we do day to day at BIHR.