Human rights are about each of us living in dignity, and we are a long way from achieving that on a global scale. We shall see that the human rights project is not simply about implementing a set of obligations fixed in history; rather, the human rights movement is about people standing up to injustice and showing solidarity in the face of oppression. The concept of a 'human rights culture' also means different things to different people. To some, it means ensuring that everyone is treated with respect for their inherent dignity and human worth. To others, it means that judges, the police, and immigration officials are required to protect the interests of terrorists, criminals, and other undesirable elements at the expense of the security of the population. This tension recently came to a head in the United Kingdom with popular newspapers ridiculing the application of the new Human Rights Act.
The tension is, in a way, inherent in the operation of human rights protections. Human rights come into play to stop governments and other actors from pursuing expedient policies at the expense of the well-being of certain individuals and the proper functioning of a democratic society under the rule of law. At times, human rights protections may seem to be anti-majoritarian; indeed, human rights may serve to protect people from the 'tyranny' of the majority. But, as we shall see, with the exception of the absolute ban on torture, human rights law does allow for security needs to be taken into consideration.
On closer inspection, much of the apparent British backlash against the 'human rights culture' in decision making turns out to be based on false information concerning the supposed effects of the new Human Rights Act. First, the judges cannot strike down laws as incompatible with human rights; Parliament retains complete sovereignty over which laws to pass or repeal. (This is not the case in other countries with an entrenched constitution, such as the United States or South Africa, where constitutional rights may rank supreme.) Second, the Government's review of the implementation of the Human Rights Act has highlighted a series of ‘myths and misperceptions' about the Act. Stories, such as the prisoner who claimed that denial of access to certain magazines amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment, have been retold until they start to become synonymous with the very concept of respect for human rights.
This prisoner's claim concerning his human right to magazines was never accepted by decision makers and was simply rejected by the courts. Stories that present the Human Rights Act as 'a nutters' charter', 'crazy legislation', or 'barmy laws' on closer inspection turn out to be sensationalist.
Attempts to paint human rights protection as madness remind us that the human rights project is often about securing rights for those who have been marginalized and made vulnerable. Those who conceived the idea of human rights centuries ago considered this was the outcome of rational thought, rather than neurosis, but they too were often seen as suffering from a delusion that such rights exist at all. We shall meet 'Mad Tom' Paine in a few pages. Let us now turn to consider the history of the concept of human rights.
We first need to understand that human rights are considered a special, narrow category of rights. William Edmundson's introductory book on rights distinguishes human rights from other rights by suggesting that: 'Human rights recognize extraordinarily special, basic interests, and this sets them apart from rights, even moral rights, generally.' Richard Falk suggests that human rights are a 'new type of rights' achieving prominence as a result of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948. This point is worth remembering throughout the book: we are not talking about all the rights that human beings may have - we are considering a rather special category of rights.
Many who approach the subject of human rights turn to early religious and philosophical writings. In their vision of human rights, human beings are endowed, by reason of their humanity, with certain fundamental and inalienable rights. This conclusion has existed in various forms in various societies.
The historic development of the concept of human rights is often associated with the evolution of Western philosophical and political principles, yet a different perspective could find reference to similar principles concerning mass education, self-fulfillment, respect for others, and the quest to contribute to others' well-being in Confucian, Hindu, or Buddhist traditions. Religious texts such as the Bible and the Koran can be read as creating not only duties but also rights. Recognition of the need to protect human freedom and human dignity is alluded to in some of the earliest codes, from Hammurabi's Code in ancient Babylon (around 1780 BCE), right through to the natural law traditions of the West, which built on the Greek Stoics and the Roman law notions of jus gentium (law for all peoples). Common to each of these codes is the recognition of certain universally valid principles and standards of behaviour.
These behavioural standards arguably inspire human rights thinking, and may be seen as precursors to, or different expressions of, the idea of human rights - but the lineage is not as obvious as is sometimes suggested. Let us now look at some early historical invocations of the actual concept of rights (as opposed to decent behaviour) and the sceptical responses they evoked.
Human rights in the UK press
The Sun (online): Oliver Harvey and Michael Lea,*
'THOUSANDS of Sun readers have voted to scrap the Human Rights Act.'
Nearly 35, OOO rang our You The Jury hotline within 24 hours to back our call for an end to the interests of killers, rapists and paedophiles coming ABOVE those of victims. The crazy legislation has led to many dangerous criminals being freed to re-offend. Others have used the barmy laws to gain perks and pay-outs.
The Sunday Telegraph: Give us back our rights The Afghans who hijacked a civilian airliner are rewarded with a judgment that they are entitled to stay in Britain at the taxpayer's expense. Foreign terrorists who reportedly plot the murder of hundreds of British civilians cannot be deported back to their countries of origin, nor may they be detained here. Murderers and rapists are entitled to have any decision to keep them in prison reviewed by a judicial hearing, at which they must be represented by a lawyer – and as a result, an intimidated Probation Service frees killers who go on to murder fresh victims. The British public is increasingly worried by judgments whose effect is to rank the 'rights' of criminals higher than those of law-abiding citizens. As a result, the whole notion of human rights is becoming discredited. Rather than basic protections against arbitrary power, 'human rights' are now seen as legal fictions that prevent the police, the intelligence services and other government agencies from doing what they believe needs to be done in order to safeguard the nation.