So 2017 was… difficult.
With the country split over Brexit, Trump’s first year in office and the rise of the Far Right across the world, Grenfell, the Rohingya genocide, not to mention a series of terrorist attacks across the UK, including both of my hometowns (Manchester and London), it seems that misery has been packed on misery.
No surprise then that human rights campaigners have had a busy year. In the UK, the human rights community has been working hard to prevent citizens’ rights being reduced after Brexit, and have won a number of key battles in the court against austerity policies. In the United States, the ACLU has taken on the Trump Administration in the courts and beyond.
So in honour of the new year, I am going to avoid the bad stuff for a few moments, and focus on the bigger picture. Human rights are important in protecting us against current threats. But for the human rights movement to grow, we need to keep an eye on the hope. Here are five human rights hopes I have for 2018.
1. We Need to Reaffirm our Human Rights Past
In December 2018 we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You will be hearing a lot about this extraordinary declaration.
It’s a good time to look back at 1948. Not just at the declaration itself, but the people who fought for it and their reasons for doing so. Last week I spoke about human rights history at the wonderful Limmud Festival in Birmingham, and it gave me the chance to look back on the 1945-46 Nuremberg Trials and the invention of modern human rights.
It is easy to forget how extraordinary those times were – in the months following the end of the Holocaust – when the world was beginning to come to terms with the depths to which humanity had sunk. It is also easy to forget how radical the idea of international human rights standards was; before Nuremberg, the idea that leaders of a sovereign state could be indicted for ‘Crimes against humanity’ was just a theory.
This led on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The rarest of moments when the world came together to agree a recipe for a fair, just and equal societies. It inspired a number of binding treaties such as the European Convention on Human Rights. Putting ourselves back in that moment, and remembering the lives of the men and women who made it happen, is a worthwhile way to spend 2018 and will inspire us to new ideas and inspiration for the human rights movement.
2. Human Rights Should Play a Central Role in the Social Media Revolution
2017 was the year of the social media backlash. We were inundated by long-reads about the dangers of filter bubbles, fake news and other pernicious effects of the personal publishing revolution. Social media has been variously held responsible for the re-emergence of the Far Right (through 4Chan), the rise of Trump, Brexit and the malign influence of Russia on world politics.
I am a social media optimist – perhaps unsurprisingly as RightsInfo only exists because of it. I believe that the mass opening of publishing platforms to individuals will ultimately be a force for good. I entirely see that social media has given a platform to hate. It has shown us worlds of intolerance and extremism which we had hoped didn’t exist. But they do exist and social media didn’t create them. Social media might just be that ‘marketplace of ideas’ which free speech campaigners have been banging on about for years without, perhaps, truly understanding what it would entail. We should trust our democratic instincts and allow those sometimes unsafe spaces to flourish.
I agree (as I usually do) with Matthew Parris in The Times (£) who says social media cannot be tamed. Rather, there is “a great truth to be learnt about an essentially open-access, unmediated social media platform”, so,
Bring on the fake news; bring on the slosh of sentiment; bring on the wildfires of anger and accusation. They are windows into the interior worlds of other human beings. Let us learn to see what lives there and make our own judgments.
Human rights campaigners can play an important role here. We can be standing up against government attempts to clumsily limit social speech. If there is to be regulation of free speech, I doubt that the police should be the arbiters of it. Any laws which could make criminals of silly teenagers posting on Facebook should be fought strongly against. And, meanwhile, international human rights laws – and the principled balance between rights to free speech and privacy – may ultimately be the best way to regulate increasingly powerful social media companies.
3. The UK’s Human Rights Protections Need to be Celebrated
With the all-encompassing furore over Brexit, it is easy to forget that we currently have a government which has pledged to repeal our home-grown bill of rights, the Human Rights Act (HRA). The HRA will celebrate its 20th birthday this year and we should be marking that achievement as much as we mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration. After all, unlike the Universal Declaration, the HRA is binding on public authorities – meaning we as individual citizens can enforce it.
2018 should be a year when the UK’s human rights movement tells the extraordinary story of this law which has been under attack for almost its entire history, and yet has – almost under the radar – helped many thousands of people in practically every aspect of human life.
We also mustn’t forget that our Prime Minister expressed strong skepticism about the European Convention on Human Rights. An uneasy truce is currently in place between Theresa May and the ‘Runnymede Tories’, led by the estimable Dominic Grieve, but only because of government weakness and Brexit. This truce may not last and the logic of the Brexit movement, particularly the calls for ‘sovereignty, applies equally to the Convention. We must keep building support for the Convention, because it is foolish to assume the battle is won over this crucial human rights treaty.
4. We Need New Ideas, Vision, and Hope
We also need to start thinking about how our human rights laws can be strengthened. One of the effects of the almost constant attacks on human rights laws by politicians and the press has been that the UK’s human rights movement has, understandably, become quite reactive. We have been expending our energy protecting what have, sometimes at the expense of building a vision for what’s next.
That has to change. I have been working in the human rights advocacy space for close to a decade now and I have noted two things. First, it is far easier to defend human rights which they are clearly threatened than to build support in times when they are not. This is because the ‘core supporters’, a relatively small but powerful group, can be mobilised. However, and this is the second thing, the base is enough to win skirmishes but it isn’t big enough to win the war, that is building enough sustainable support for human rights principles in the UK that they will become part of our national culture.
I am almost certain that if the UK had a referendum tomorrow about staying in the European Convention, it would follow the same route as the Brexit referendum. We need to build more support for human rights principles and laws from the centre ground. And that can’t only involve reacting to threats.
As well as the important work we are doing at RightsInfo to highlight human rights successes, we need to build a vision for human rights in the 21st century. Many of the human rights laws we now have were written in the 1940s and 1950s. Is it time for an update? For example, has the time for social and economic rights now come? People are increasingly angry at the wealth gap in Western societies, as demonstrated by the success of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Why shouldn’t human rights be at the centre of those movements?
5. The Rule of Law Must Remain at the Centre of Human Rights
One of the things which surprised me when we were working on our ‘European Court of Human Rights Uncovered‘ infographic was that a huge proportion of case which had succeeded in the Human Rights Court since it began operating have been about the right to a fair trial. Once I thought about it, it made sense. Because without a working court system – and the rule of law whereby leaders don’t just make the laws, they are subject to them – human rights protections are illusory.
We are currently witnessing that lesson in real time in the United States, as the dishonest and potentially corrupt Trump Administration is subjected to independent criminal investigation. 2018 will be a test of how powerful the rule of law is in the strongest of Western democracies. Hopefully it will win out.
Happy new year from me and everyone at RightsInfo.