by Rhodri C. Williams
So here is the scenario. A wealthy Western country is early out in 2001 in extending a standing invitation to UN human rights rapporteurs to visit anytime they like. In doing so, they are taking up a Quaker initiative premised on the idea that the first step toward respecting human rights is willingness not be defensive about one’s own record.
Twelve years later, the UN Rapporteur on the right to housing announces the first visit by her mandate to said country, at a time of economic recession. Her initial PR and a subsequent set of preliminary findings praise the host country’s tradition of housing assistance for the poor and provide a reasoned set of criticisms of recent measures to deregulate private rental markets and ensure more efficient use of public housing stocks.
The response? Pandemonium. The chairman of the main party in the governing coalition speeds a letter to the UN Secretary General claiming that the rapporteur arrived uninvited, ignored the relevant government ministers and issued politically biased findings, suggesting “that the UN withdraw her claims” until a “full investigation” is carried out.
A national tabloid accuses her of being a Marxist witch while a conservative columnist is pleased to merely dismiss her as an idiot and a “Brazil nut”. She, of course being the (Brazilian) UN rapporteur Raquel Rolnik, and they being the Right Honourable conservative commentariat of the United Kingdom.
So. How has it come to pass that the United Kingdom, with its Magna Carta and its mother of parliaments is unable to engage in a reasoned dialogue with a UN human rights official? To express mild concerns about her criticism, promise to study them and let them slide gently toward the circular file like everyone else? Or conversely, why draw unnecessary attention to the report by engaging in shrill denunciation of UN activism (not to mention sexist and arguably racist ad hominem attacks on its author)?
I happen to be in England as I write this and am very much enjoying the experience. London is as congested and expensive as ever, but every single human interaction I have had has been entirely positive, from the biker in Holland Park who dropped everything to boot up his iPhone and help me with directions, to the ticket clerk at Liverpool Street who graciously overlooked the fact that I had mislaid the pin number for my prepaid ticket. But dinner with some old friends helped get at the political atmosphere behind it all.
Talk was of a government that would insist on a referendum on exit from the EU if re-elected and of an electorate that would not hesitate to oblige. Even the business community, it seems, has never enjoyed the full benefits of membership (given refusal to join the Euro), while feeling the full weight of the red tape. But the real reason to pull out? Simple. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, requiring respect for the family life even of immigrants. Made binding via the Human Rights Act. Passed as a requirement for EU membership.
My back of the envelope sense is of a negative political feedback loop. Government policies leave some room on the right. Right-wing insurgencies pick the soft-targets, immigrants and the human rights brigade that foist them upon us. Government alarmed into co-opting insurgency’s extreme positions (such as EU exit). Rest of constituency begins to scratch its head. Government forced to justify its position by constantly finding daggers at the very loins of the nation in even the mildest of criticism of its human rights record.
It seems to start with just not getting it right, whether wilfully or not. Beginning with the failure to remember that Britain issued a standing invitation to all the Rolniks the UN could throw at Britain over a decade ago, and continuing with a fundamental misunderstanding – or misrepresentation – of the supremacy of any international legal undertaking (including but not limited to human rights treaties) over domestic law and jurisprudence. As here, in Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapp’s complaint to the UN Secretary General:
The United Kingdom’s legal system has already ruled that the abolition of the Spare Room Subsidy is lawful. I am therefore extremely surprised and disappointed to learn that the UN has directly contradicted the decisions of our courts.
This is of course not to say that decisions by the UK Courts are irrelevant. One can easily draw on their reasoning in arguing that the UK is meeting its international obligations. Reasonable people can have reasonable debates over interpretations of international human rights law. But here, the argument is set out in blunter terms that obviate any reasonability, or debate for that matter. Our courts rule OK.
The underlying defensiveness is even clearer in “Brazil nut” columnist Leo McKinstry’s indignant rhetoric. Here, the Labor Party is fighting a desperate smear campaign against the sensible austerity policies of the Government and has stooped to “recruiting” useful idiots from the UN to support their cause. Completely ignoring Ms. Rolnik’s own consistent criticism of Brazilian housing policy deficits, McKinstry disqualifies her for having failed to have single-handedly fixed them. But the real invective is reserved for the insidious agenda of human rights activists.
Just as idiotic is her blather about “human rights”. Effectively she is arguing that our Government has a duty to provide social housing tenants with free spare rooms. That demonstrates how the very term “human rights” has been grossly perverted by policymakers with a radical agenda.
The modern concept of human rights was originally established after the Second World War in a mood of intense moral revulsion at the Third Reich, with the aim of preventing any return to genocide and brutal autocracy. It was never meant to stop the deportation of foreign criminals or give the vote to prisoners or provide extra welfare handouts to council tenants.
Like so many other Leftists Ms Rolnik uses the fashionable language of human rights to try to impose her own quasi-Marxist dogma.
Human rights are not meant to be political but always have political implications. Human rights criticism has been known to be politicised. But this type of criticism of human rights criticism is the very essence of politicisation. It is a sad day when countries that have been as fundamental to the development of international human rights as the United Kingdom turn them into bogeymen to frighten small children and undecided voters.