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Why our Human Rights Act Matters...a Christian view

Tim Gee worked for Amnesty International UK from 2018 to 2021 . His fourth book “Open for Liberation: An activist reads the Bible” is published next year. 

Please note, this is a guest blog and views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of BIHR.

50 years ago this year, Peter Benenson - a lawyer and Christian - was reading the newspaper on the London Underground. Finding an article about some people arrested for expressing their opinions, he found his way to a church, St Martins-in-the-fields near to Trafalgar Square.

There he realised that he had to do something, and with his friend Eric Baker co-founded Amnesty International to work for the fulfilment of all people’s human rights, beginning by campaigning against torture, against the death penalty and for freedom for political prisoners.

When I started work for the same organisation, I became interested in its ‘origin story’. I followed in Benenson’s steps, to the same church in London, and sat down in a pew, looking at the cross at the front. How could I prepare spiritually for what was to come?   

The stories of Christianity and human rights have long intertwined. One of the precursors to human rights is the idea of natural law and the recognition that each person has inherent value because every person is made in God’s image. Among my denomination – the Quakers - something similar is expressed through the belief in 'that of God in everyone’ - manifested in secular form through the existence of universal and inalienable human rights.

Phrased in human rights terms, the list of abuses against Jesus in his final earthly days is long. Following the exercise of his freedom of expression and assembly on his entry into Jerusalem, he was arrested and imprisoned unjustly. He endured an unfair trial and was subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment before suffering torture and capital punishment.

The Human Rights Act matters to me because it confers duties on the authorities to do all they can to ensure we enjoy, among other things, the right to life, freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to a fair trial, freedom of thought including religion, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. In other words, it helps guard against the very forms of brutality meted on Jesus from happening in the UK today. If we didn’t have these legal protections, plainly put, many more human rights abuses would take place, and many more abusers would escape accountability.

The Human Rights Act also matters to me because I care about justice and reconciliation. Even in the context of increasing conflict and polarisation, it’s a nuanced instrument which does a difficult job of helping mediate when the needs and interests of different groups might be in conflict. Accordingly, Christians have used it to safeguard the freedom of expression and religious worship, as have Jewish and Muslim groups to ensure they can perform rites of passage such as funerals, according to their religion. Without it, those in power could much more easily disregard the needs of people of faith, and ultimately reduce the freedom of us all.

Most importantly though human rights are an expression of the ‘Golden Rule’, central to Christianity but shared by most of the world’s faiths and moral belief systems: We should treat others in the way we would wish to be treated ourselves, and we shouldn’t treat others in ways we wouldn’t want to be treated. If you think you deserve the right to life, a fair trial, no punishment without law, privacy, and the freedom of thought, expression, assembly and association then it stands that other people deserve these too. All of these and more are protected by the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights it is based on.   

Could something like this have been on Benenson’s mind in 1961, a few years after the European Convention on Human Rights came into force? This far on in it is impossible to say. What I do know though is that half a century later, these are the questions on mine.

Christians are among those speaking up for the protection of our human rights frameworks. To prevent the current UK Government’s project of weakening our rights though, many more people of all faiths and none will need to stand together and say, the raid on our rights has to stop.

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