Thursday, 8 March 2012

Human Rights and Human Wrongs: Part Deux

A couple of posts ago, I pontificated on my general philosophy about human rights and how they apply to the people of the world who have done Bad Things

As a very brief summary, I feel that preserving the human rights of every single human being on this planet is the absolute most fundamental basis of a true justice system - no matter how appalling a crime a person has committed. 

Up until now, I haven't specified exactly what I mean by "human rights". It's an intangible concept, a phrase that has popped up here and there in the media, mostly recently in the context of the UK government wanting to deport people out of this country, but being unable to do so because it would infringe their human rights. I now frequently see people tutting and raising their eyebrows at those two words, as though human rights is some terrible albatross around our necks, prohibiting us from disposing of people whose behaviour and philosophies aren't quite right for us.

For the sake of accuracy, let me highlight exactly what I mean by Human Rights, by referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

There are 30 articles to the declaration (which I won't copy and paste here, because it's very long and you can read it for yourself by following the above link), which set out the fundamental conditions for each and every person on this planet to be able to live a life of freedom and comfort. 

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world

The UDHR was established following the Second World War, with the express intention that atrocities which had occurred during and prior to those awful years would never be allowed to repeat themselves. It is, however, impossible to ignore the widespread conflicts across the Middle East, the so-called "War on Terror" and escalating tensions between ethnic groups across the UK and USA. Within this framework, the topic of human rights has cropped up a few times and not entirely in the manner one might expect, given the relatively young age of the UDHR.

I said in my previous post that I would return to this subject later on and elaborate on specific cases to illustrate my point in practice, which is my intention with this post. I will endeavour to write sensitively and thoughtfully, support my statements with evidence-based research and in so doing, hopefully make an eloquent point about the different ways we apply human rights in practice to the people who find themselves falling back on them. As such, I thoroughly expect that this will be a very, very long entry, for which I apologise, but in the interest of making my point carefully it will be necessary to cover a lot of background. 

As I have said previously, it's not always a comfortable perspective to respect the basic human rights of a person who has, or is accused of having caused suffering to other people. Sometimes I have to work really hard at overcoming my anger when reading about those who have exploited or harmed others on any level - something that came to the front of my mind over the weekend when someone on Facebook posted a picture of the World Trade Centre in New York with the second tower in flames shortly after the hijacked plane had crashed into it. 
An emotive image in itself, evoking memories of that pivotal change in global politics when I, as a 17 year old girl, suddenly felt very grown-up and a bit frightened of the world.  The image wasn't what got me riled up though, but the caption accompanying it did. It consisted of a letter (supposedly) written by a Canadian housewife to her local paper, venting her umbrage at the reported condemnation of US soldiers defiling the bodies of deceased insurgents and the allegations of torture and abuse by US and UK forces. Her precise point was along the lines of 'why should I care about them when they attacked us first?'. The last time I looked at the image on Facebook it had been shared by 45,517 people. That's a lot of people (I presume) agreeing with this woman. 

I am one person who doesn't agree with her. I could post the image and the accompanying text here for you to make up your own mind, but to be completely honest I don't want to. Reading it again fills me with such sadness for the seemingly huge number of very narrow-minded people, I just don't want to pollute my blog with it. If you really want to look at it, you can follow this LINK, but I will warn you now, it makes for very uncomfortable reading - not least because it's a very poorly researched rant, almost worthy of the Daily Mail. 

At this point, I would like to include one of my favourite and recently discovered quotes. It summarises very neatly how I feel about people who like to make extreme statements without having all the facts at their disposal:

"You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No-one is entitled to be ignorant." - Harlan Ellison

It's a beautiful point, nicely made. Hold whatever beliefs and ideas you want - but let them be well informed. READ widely about issues before you make your mind up and condemn one party or another. Tell me I'm an idiot for my views if you like, but please research as much as I do about these issues before deciding whether or not to agree with me.

The issue of human rights is a very personal one. You either believe that everyone is entitled to their basic human rights, or you don't. There's a wealth of logical - and even spiritual - arguments to support my belief on this matter, but an equal number of emotive and persuasive ones to the contrary. 

My view on human rights is informed by two things: firstly, the accounts I've read of torture, oppression, exploitation, and execution through the brief time I spent studying human rights at university. What I learned in that time made me feel so utterly despondent about how we, the human race, behave towards one another that I wanted to run away and live on the moon. Secondly, I thought about what MY human rights meant to me. What sort of scenario could I envisage where I might need to call on my human rights to protect me? 

Let's imagine a hypothetical situation where I am accused of some dreadful crime. We can expect that I would not be arrested or detained unless there was sound evidence against me, and in that instance I would receive a fair trial by jury, the evidence presented would be accurate, testimonies against me would be truthful and the sentence I received - if found guilty - would be proportionate to the crime I had committed. All of these elements of my treatment are protected exclusively by MY human rights - me, the hypothetical criminal. 

Let us change the scenario slightly and presume that I am innocent. The theory of the UK justice system is that everything possible is done to ensure that no innocent person is ever convicted of a crime they didn't commit. We can reasonably expect, therefore, to have our innocence presumed until guilt is proven. As such, we can expect that I will have access to competent legal defence, will be treated with dignity and respect if remanded into custody, fed and watered adequately, and at all times assured that the case against me will be examined fairly so that my innocence can be ascertained and I can be released back into my regular life with no repercussions from the incorrect allegations made against me. Once again, this relies entirely on my human rights being observed. 

I am a good, law-abiding person as and such I can be reasonably confident that my daily life will continue without the threat of arbitrary arrest, torture, systematic rape, oppression or censorship. The very fact that I can sit at home and write this blog without fear of repercussion from the state is actually quite a big deal when you put it into context with nations of poor human rights records. 

The whole entire point is that these rights of mine will always be there. Nothing will take them away. I will never be in danger of the police hammering down my door and carting me away because of something I've been falsely accused of, then watching a corrupted trial take place where the evidence produced against me has been entirely fabricated or obtained by torturing me. 

This is not true of many countries. In fact, it's not even always true of Britain. It's something of a myth that we as a nation have an impeccable human rights record. We are not a paradigm of morality- a statement that is only vaguely alluded to in the Canadian housewife's rant attached to the picture from September 11th, 2001. It is worth noting that she doesn't deny that there are substantiated claims of US and UK forces abusing and torturing detained insurgents in the Middle East - only that she doesn't care.

But what does any of this have to do with the rights of Really Bad People? You know the ones I mean - the ones in the papers, who've committed unspeakable acts of violence or abuse against one or more persons. They might be child molesters, rapists, terrorists, murderers, wife beaters, or any one of a whole spectrum of reprehensible acts a human is capable of perpetrating against another. WHY do I ascribe the same claim to human rights for these people as I do to you and me, the decent, respectable, well behaved, functioning members of society?

THAT is going to have to come in another instalment. Well done if you've managed to stick with me so far. I promise that part 3 is not far behind and worth reading! Go and grab a cuppa and the next part will be along shortly, possibly once I've had a cup of tea and finished editing it.

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