by In Wales
'We' argue over equality. 'We' argue that positive action is discriminatory against the majority. 'We' argue that white men are now a discriminated against group. That immigrants and asylum seekers have more rights than indigenous people. That muslims are being allowed to take over and that the Christian and proper British way of life is now being persecuted. 'We' as in society at large, fuelling and/or fuelled by the right wing media's agenda setting.
Some people say that all these minorities and their laws constitute political correctness gone mad. When will common sense prevail?
Let me introduce you to the missing link.
The UK very strongly has anti-discrimination legislation, not rights based legislation. So equalities legislation has fallen foul in a way by singling out groups for protection. There is good reason for this, the groups singled out are those who are significantly disadvantaged, discriminated against, excluded and/or persecuted in one way or another. So the legislation sets out that this is unacceptable. As it should. In some areas the law sets positive measures that should be taken to remove disadvantage - for example, disabled people can be treated more favourably than non-disabled people at work in order to make up for the severe disadvantages they face. There are some circumstances where voluntary gender quotas may be introduced.
But this leads to resentment and hostility from those who do not fit into a protected group and do not understand the need for these groups to have their own special legislation. Perhaps these groups are not really as disadvantaged as they say, perhaps positive measures for one group constitutes discrimination of another group and how can that be fair? If people are good enough they can get by on their own merit, nobody is stopping them. Perhaps legislation is trying to outlaw something that is a natural consequence of Darwinism, nature, the survival of the fittest, therefore wilfully supressing the liberty of people who aren't in a protected group?
Missing from all of this is the foundation of human rights, the concept that every single one of us is born with the same fundamental human rights.
Fairness, dignity, respect, equality. These are the values that the Equality and Human Rights Commission sets out to promote throughout British society. These values apply to everyone. And people predominantly agree with these values. But do these words mean the same thing to everyone? Do people believe that these values should be applied to every single individual? In that sense alone, the language of human rights needs to be made explicit.
The introduction of the Human Rights Act in the UK was an attempt to 'bring rights home' - to make it easier for people to access their human rights rather than having to go to the European Court of Justice.
But an opportunity was missed and the HRA wasn't promoted effectively, and consequently had a bumpy ride in the public domain as a poorly understood and heavily misinterpreted piece of legislation.
Most of us think that human rights are needed in other parts of the world, in situations of genocide, brutal dictatorships or starvation in developing countries. Human rights apply as much in Britain as anywhere else. Human rights are about you.
The Equality and Human Righst Commission have just launched the Human Rights Inquiry, the most comprehensive of its type since the HRA was introduced 11 years ago. It also comes about at a time where political parties are beginning to debate on the future of the Act.
So the findings of this report could not come at a more significant moment. Shifting the focus away from high-profile legal cases and the loaded discourse of the media and political parties, the report examines whether the introduction of a human rights approach has had a positive impact in key public-sector areas; heath, local authority services, policing, schools and regulatory authorities.
The findings are overwhelmingly positive. In health and social care, professionals told the inquiry of "a structure of rights and abilities...that have improved people's situations", of patients being able to spend less time in hospital, of nurses being able to challenge management over practices they found harmful, and of a refocusing on the purpose of the institutions.
Human rights, when presented correctly, helps to focus on the fundamental approach underlying the way that we should treat people. Human rights and human wrongs - good service delivery includes treating people well, with respect and dignity and as people, not as cattle being fed through some beast of a bureaucratic machine.
The problem is, that human rights are rarely presented correctly or accurately. Many myths exists, often along the lines that human rights is about foreigners or used by individuals seeking self interest above the better interests of society and community as a whole.
However, the inquiry has provided some interesting results about the values that people hold around human rights, even in the face of misunderstanding of the legislation we do have:
According to an Ipsos MORI survey of almost 2,000 adults commissioned as part of the Inquiry, 84 per cent of people said they wanted human rights enshrined in the law for themselves and their families and 81 per cent of people saw human rights as important to creating a fairer society.
And this is against a background of human rights being misrepresented in the media with stories that are inaccurate and at times actually falsified, and then not rebutted when they do occur.
Here are examples of how the Human Rights Act can be applied in day to day situations, taken from the Inquiry Report Executive Summary:
- Not being able to eat properly while in a care home;
- abuse or neglect of older people, those who are learning disabled or other vulnerable people;
- Lack of respect for privacy on a hospital ward;
- Not respecting gay and lesbian partners as next of kin;
- Excessive surveillance of law-abiding people;
- Loss of personal data by public officials;
- Not being sufficiently protected from domestic violence;
- Bullying of all kinds in schools;
- Refusal to permit the staging or broadcasting of artistic works
These cross all groups and to sum it up the EHRC says:
How do human rights help you? Human rights are based on core principles like dignity, fairness, equality, respect and autonomy. They are relevant to your day-to-day life and protect your freedom to control your own life, effectively take part in decisions made by public authorities which impact upon your rights and get fair and equal services from public authorities. They help you to flourish and fulfil your potential through:
- being safe and protected from harm
- being treated fairly and with dignity
- living the life you choose
- taking an active part in your community and wider society.
Which is basically what equality legislation has failed to communicate. In tackling discrimination and disadvantage, the aim above all is to secure full access to human rights for these groups - to be treated fairly, to have choice over how they live their life, to be able to participate in society, have access to education, employment, politics and so on. This isn't about denyign rights to others in the process, but about ensuring that disadvantage groups are able to access the same rights as everyone else.
European Tribune, 8th July 2009