Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Want your Right to Life? Best pay your taxes

More posts by me which are not, in fact, posts by me. If only I could write my thesis like this.
This one is a guest post from the lovely and talented Lizzie McClory:

Jack Straw has drawn rather a lot of attention to himself recently with his announcement of a green paper entitled ‘Rights and Responsibilities’. The bill is aimed at protecting citizens’ rights (such as the right to free healthcare and victims’ rights) and also monitoring citizens’ responsibilities (such as the duty to serve on juries, obey the law and to pay taxes). The idea is that the proposals in the green paper will effectively extend the Human Rights Act to social and economic rights.

Tempting as it is simply to swat aside Straw’s proposed bill by dismissing it as toothless and futile, I am more concerned with a problem identified by Chris Huhne.

The frightening concept implicit in this Bill is the conflation of citizens’ rights and human rights. It should be recognised that there is an important difference between:

(a) fundamental protections that should be available to all human beings, whatever responsibilities they have shirked; and

(b) benefits that are available to a citizen who enters into a contract with society, thereby acknowledging certain responsibilities.

The concern is, that assuming Straw’s mission succeeds, these social and economic rights will be seen as a mere expansion of the Human Rights Act. In other words, Straw wants “to build on the Human Rights Act” (which brings to mind Joni Mitchell: “they paved paradise, put up a parking lot …”).

There are two immediately apparent dangers:

1. The debasing of human rights by virtue of their association with these ‘secondary’ social and economic rights.

2. The threat to the universality of human rights.

Currently, human rights operate as a guaranteed basic minimum standard of humanity afforded to all.[1] This may not remain the case, as if social and economic rights are contingent on responsibilities, then by virtue of conflation with these rights, human rights could also become contingent on responsibilities.

There is a disturbing possibility, therefore, of access to human rights being dependent on whether, say, one agrees to sit on a jury or not. Surely this is not something any right-thinking government should promote. (A right wing-thinking government intent on bringing down the Human Rights Act, now that’s a different matter.)

[1] Of course the rights of wrongdoers are a separate issue here. Convicted criminals’ rights are balanced against the rights of the public / the state and sometimes the wrongdoer in question must forfeit a human right in the name of punishment - for example, forfeiture of the Article 5 right to liberty by way of imprisonment.


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