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How did the concept of human rights ever become so unpopular? Soft Power campaigner Indra Adnan expresses her concerns about the government’s plan to rewrite the Human Rights Act as a British Bill of Rights.



In the final series of Britain’s international hit soap, Downton Abbey, the Countess of Grantham is fighting for the local hospital to stay in local control. While her family caricature her as King Canute attempting to hold back the waves of modernity, she exclaims Magna Carta was enshrined to protect the people from the abuses of ever more distant power bases. She’s obfuscating of course: Magna Carta was no more than a charter to shield the barons from the crown privilege of King John. They no more had ordinary people in their sights than the countess.

Yet her call was right. The battle to protect the weak from alienated power is the very basis of our human rights movement until today. Having enshrined a law that restricts the rights of the government over the governed, Magna Carta was the inspiration, but not the model for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), a far-reaching, though not immediately enforceable, call on all United Nations members to protect their citizens from abuses of power. It was deliberately broad and aspirational in recognition of the cultural diversity of its states, giving rise two years later to the European Convention on Human Rights and later the UK Human Rights Act in 1998. These acts developed those aspirations into regional laws enforced by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Given past abuses of authority that any GCSE student of history or politics can recite, it’s hard to imagine who in polite society would ever claim to be against human rights. Yet in the UK not only is the current government planning to pull out of the ECHR but it finds itself under investigation by the United Nations for “grave or systematic violations” of human rights with regards to welfare for the disabled. In a bad week for Cameron, the government also faced loud protests for bowing too low to a Chinese government condemned for its human rights abuses. More recently, the EU and British Government have been at odds over Britain’s substantial arms sales for the questionable activities of Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Are we now a rogue country, ourselves deserving of international opprobrium, or has there been a mistake?



When David Cameron claims, as he is currently doing, that Britain needs to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights he seems to be pitting the European Court of Justice as the King John of today against whom he is asserting some rights to sovereignty. But time has moved on and the serfs are no longer without franchise. Now he is the robber baron against whom the people are asserting their right to protection.

The progress of human rights, precisely because they deal with socio-political relations, cannot be fixed. To stay relevant, they need constant evolution. To avoid the fate of Magna Carta, which was quickly jeopardised by King John when he took the country to war against France, our modern charters must become “living instruments”  obliged to keep refining and challenging the power relationships across the states. For example, in the more black-and-white world of the past, criminals could be consigned to prison and left to rot. Today we understand much better the life conditions that can lead to crime, the value of rehabilitation over crude punishment as well as the inherent biases of the police which can easily lead to injustices being committed. As a corollary we debate the rights of prisoners to vote in general elections. It’s understandable that victims want to see offenders punished, but surely it would be in our society’s greater interests if they were educated into their civic selves and obliged to vote while in prison?

Confusion about the relationship between rights and freedoms run riot across our media and in our heads. Everyone, including sexual, ethnic, differently abled and disadvantaged minorities, expects protections for their equal right to a decent life. Yet one of our most quoted rights, freedom of speech, readily understood as essential for a democratic society, can easily lead to a loss of physical freedom for vulnerable groups. When the ECHR upheld the right of the Turkish politician Dogu Perincek to deny the Armenian genocide for example, they effectively curtailed the rights of those who considered themselves victims of the genocide to pursue justice. Whose rights were being challenged and whose violated in the Charlie Hebdo atrocity?

As individuals increasingly connect to a global society, it does not become any easier for national governments to control outcomes. David Cameron quotes ‘mission creep’ as a reason to withdraw from the ECHR, claiming the body is legislating on too many fronts on behalf of individuals across Europe, cramping the style of national government. But is the ECHR the culprit? In the age of the internet information is not distributed vertically down hierarchies of power but horizontally between peers and interest groups. Examples of successful demands for human rights spread quickly and communities reflect, develop their understanding and claims of right and raise their aspirations collectively forcing governments to respond.

REUTERS/Charles Platiau


Referring back to Magna Carta is often an attempt to conjure up a pre-globalised narrative, before cultural diversity arrived from all corners of the planet and made our individual and collective rights more complex. Francesca Klug in her seminal book ‘A Magna Carta for All Humanity’ points to a revival of the Enlightenment fundamentalist mindset that grew rapidly after 9/11, with Dawkins, Hitchens and Amis contributing to a quadrupling of mentions in the aftermath, and which still frames our human rights discussions today. If you doubt this, witness OFSTED measuring schools on their success in teaching British Values. Perhaps we should ask the Muslim pupils if their previously established human right to worship freely has now come into question?

When faced with such conundrums, it’s tempting to try and simplify the Human Rights Act; either fix it or drop it. But the reality is necessarily complex and requires a developmental mindset. The evolution of a fairer local and global society is a messy business. When individual rights compete with social ones, or scientific with religious, neither can afford to lose without impoverishing us all. To keep up, our notion of what it means to be British must evolve from being an imperial power over diverse nations to being a global model of inclusion and diversity within its own borders.

Maybe what is missing in an often polarised and distorted debate is an understanding of the plurality of our human needs. Economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen touches on this in making a distinction between capabilities and process, the difference between the inalienable rights we possess and our collective right to the means to achieve those rights. Most of us buy into Maslow’s claim that having their physical safety assured, food, housing, freedom from abuse, is all that stands between people and their ability to thrive, while self-actualisation is a sophisticated need. But as psychotherapists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell have shown, humans are driven by the multiple needs of status, belonging, privacy, sense of meaning and purpose from birth. Depriving ethnic minorities of these essential needs is a much greater trigger for social discord than any simple clash of customs and beliefs.

Numerous commentators are saying that it is not Huntingdon’s clash of civilisations fuelling the flight of young Muslims to ISIL, but the loss of dignity, identity and social purpose accrued to them within a narrowing idea of tolerance in British society. How we deliver these aspects of human rights will be vital to social cohesion in the future.

If Britain hopes to champion and model Good Country behaviour, it cannot hope to do so by turning back the clock. Like the Countess of Grantham, it must recognise the limitations of Magna Carta on its 800th anniversary and move enthusiastically with the times.


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