The politics of human rights: sorting the sheep from the goats

Not wanting to be a “government-tethered 'goat'”, Lord Lester’s resignation as constitution reform advisor and his attack on the government’s human rights record has set the cat amongst the pigeons.

In a UDHR anniversary speech yesterday he lambasted the government over its milkwater defence/veiled attack on the Human Rights Act, failure to follow through on constitutional reform and failure to sign up to optional protocols to international treaties.

All fair comment, I reckon. Lester’s boss Nick Clegg was actually at the Amnesty building last night saying the same thing. In a speech and Q/A with Sky News’ Adam Boulton, Cleggie was incensed at Jack Straw’s interview on the HRA in the Daily Mail this week and also criticised the government over its treatment of asylum-seekers as well as its increasingly illiberal take on key domestic human rights issues.

Clegg was good on this area and good on the corrosive effect of poor domestic human right policies as they effect the UK government’s international standing and effectiveness. He was also fine on the scandal of women and girls being denied public funds (and often places in shelters) if they are non-British. But on gender issues more generally he seemed vague and on the importance of economic and social rights he was negative (or hadn’t really understood their significance).

I don’t want to be too harsh on Clegg. He seems to be trying! After all, most senior politicians don’t exactly live and breath human rights (Tony Blair was always “tone deaf” on them said Adam Boulton).

On the question of economic, social and cultural rights, and civil and political rights, Amnesty’s Tim Hancock spelt out on last night’s Radio 4’s The World Tonight (about 10.35pm point) the fact that the international human rights movement has for too long ignored ESCR. But things are changing. China, as in so many things, is a key test. It’s gone though some kind of economic miracle since (say) the year of Tiananmen Square (1989). But its people are virtually no freer now then when they were being mown down by the army in the square.

The old argument that first you need to sort food and shelter then you can sort out “hard” rights is bogus, and so too is the notion that you completely separate the two sets of rights. (Clegg himself says a big regret he has is not pushing harder for human rights improvements with China when he was part of international negotiations over China’s WTO place in the 1990s). Just yesterday the BBC was reporting how Chinese demonstrators were detained after trying to mount a 10 December demo to air grievances that included a land dispute and a lack of food.

The final word goes to the brilliant Adam Boulton, who last night gaves us an anecdote about Gordon Brown and the Beijing Olympics. Anxious to make a point about China and executions to Boulton on the plane back from a TV interview, the PM apparently said “But you see Adam, the thing about this is that the Chinese are going to send all of their executioners on holiday during the Olympics.”

Now if only Amnesty had thought of suggesting that!

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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