MM 2001: Values for a godless age

December 21, 2000

Does our obsession with human rights devalue the concept of duty? Francesca Klug argues that it can act as an essential bulwark against barbarity.

Charter for Chaos." "Boon for lawyers." These were the headlines from a sceptical press heralding the introduction of the Human Rights Act on October 2. But one story was different. "Human Rights Act undermines Christian values" roared the front page of The Sunday Telegraph . The bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, was quoted as warning that the new act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, would promote liberal agendas and undermine traditional values.

This depiction of human rights as essentially liberal and, by implication, libertarian and individualistic is hardly new. In earlier centuries, critics of the idea of fundamental rights spoke in similar terms across the political spectrum. The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham concluded that declarations of rights burst the cords that bound "selfish passions". Karl Marx wrote in 1843 that "none of the so-called rights of manI go beyond egoistic manI that is, an individual withdrawnI into the confines of his private interestsI separated from the community".

The ghost of Marx found unlikely bedfellows in the House of Lords in 1996, when the archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, initiated an unprecedented debate on morality in modern Britain. One after another, their lordships bemoaned the demise of traditional Christian values as reflected in the breakdown of the nuclear family, rising crime and truancy.

High on their list of culprits was the idea of rights. The late Lord Jakobovits, former chief rabbi, went so far as to suggest that "the stress on our rightsI human rights, women's rights, workers' rights, gay rights and so on - and not on our duties, on what we owe to others" - could be "the greatest moral failure of our times".

More recently, the renowned moral philosopher and principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, Baroness O'Neill, warned against the consequences of focusing on rights to the exclusion of obligations in a lecture at King's College, London in January 2000. Her warning echoed a long line of rights critics, including the philosopher David Selbourne and Nicholas Tate, the former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Thomas Paine, the famous English radical, thought he had dealt with this point 200 years ago when he wrote: "A Declaration of Rights is, by reciprocity, a Declaration of Duties also. Whatever is my right as a man, is also the right of another and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess."

But this argument will not wash, according to Sunday Times columnist Melanie Phillips. For years she has argued that a human rights culture would mean replacing the network of duties on which western civilisation is based.

What would the men and women who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the end of the second world war have made of this accusation? In their minds, the very purpose of their declaration was to guard against the degradation of the human spirit, which had sunk so perilously low in the preceding years. Their stated aim was to establish a set of ethical values for those of any religion and of none. Rene Cassin, one of the declaration's major authors, described it as "the first document about moral value adopted by an assembly of the human community".

These were not revolutionaries fighting tyrannical governments as the authors of the French and American bills of rights were 150 years previously. These were delegates to the United Nations who surveyed the rubble and turned to the idea of human rights for an answer. Cassin was keen not to present the declaration as "a mere offshoot of the 18th-century tree of rights". It was widely understood that these rights were primarily driven by the impulse for liberty.

One obvious lesson drawn from the descent into barbarism that contaminated virtually the whole of Europe in the second world war was that creating mechanisms to prevent states from abusing the rights of their citizens was not enough. The same individuals who require protection from tyranny can also contribute to it. Individuals themselves needed to be inculcated with a sense of moral purpose if there was "never again" to be a Holocaust like the one unleashed by the Nazis. Spurred by this vision, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is addressed to all humankind as well as to states. It is shot through with references to dignity, equality and community, the hallmarks of postwar human rights thinking.

The view that the Universal Declaration should include the responsibilities as well as the rights of the individual was widespread among its drafters. "All human beings" are urged to "act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood", and "everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible."

These communitarian themes - there is no better word for them - reflected the delegates' philosophical and religious backgrounds, which included Confucianism, Islam and socialism as well as Christianity, Judaism and liberalism. It is often said that the European Convention on Human Rights, by contrast, was drafted by English lawyers, most notably a Conservative lord chancellor, Lord Kilmuir. In reality, the European Convention is a child of the Universal Declaration, as is acknowledged in its preamble. It is the framework for the legal enforcement of most of the civil and political rights in the Universal Declaration within the continent of Europe.

At the heart of the European Convention on Human Rights is the idea of balance. All but a few basic rights (such as freedom from torture and slavery) are limited to meet the needs of a "democratic society" or to protect "the rights of others". The exercise of freedom of expression "carries with it duties and responsibilities", and no "person" may "perform any act aimed at the destruction of" the rights in the convention. Reflecting such bedrock values, the convention has protected victims of crime as well as defendants and prisoners over the years.

In short, the European Convention on Human Rights and its parent charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, have the potential to provide the gum to glue together the diverse society that Fay Weldon seeks in her essay. They inform law and practice but also have the power to speak to us all in our daily lives. Should Bentham ever pop out of his glass box in the foyer of University College London, he might be surprised. The "selfish passions" he feared would be incited by rights documents are more likely to be tamed by a society that really understood the meaning of human rights.

Francesca Klug is author of Values for a Godless Age , the story of the UK's new bill of rights (Penguin, £7.99), and academic director of the Human Rights Act Research Unit at King's College, London.

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