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The big idea: why we need human rights now more than ever

The big idea: why we need human rights now more than ever

In the three decades since I became a lawyer, human rights – once understood as an uncomplicated good, a tool for securing dignity for the vulnerable against abuses by the powerful – have increasingly come under assault. Perhaps never more so than in the current moment: we are constantly talking about human rights, but often in a highly sceptical way. When Liz Truss loudly proclaims “We’ve got to leave the ECHR, abolish the supreme court and abolish the Human Rights Act,” she’s not the fringe voice she might have been in the 1990s. She represents a dangerous current of opinion, as prevalent on parts of the radical left as on the populist right of politics. It seems to be gaining momentum.

As an idealistic youngster, I would have been shocked to know that in 2024 it would be necessary to return to the back-to-basics case, to justify the need for fundamental rights and freedoms. But in a world where facts are made fluid, what were once thought of as core values have become hard to distill and defend. In an atmosphere of intense polarisation, human rights are trashed along all parts of the political spectrum – either as a framework to protect markets, or as a form of undercover socialism. What stands out for me is that the most trenchant critics share a profound nationalism. Nationalists believe that universal human rights – the clue’s in the name – undermine the ability of states to agitate for their narrower interests.

It’s no coincidence that the governments keenest on turning inwards – Viktor Orbán’s in Hungary, that of former president Bolsonaro in Brazil – have been least keen on common standards that protect minorities in their own territories and hold them to high standards in the international arena. At a time of insecurity, these leaders leverage fear to maximise their appeal. The prospect of a second Trump administration in the US demonstrates that this trend shows no sign of abating. In that context, it’s vital to make the case for human rights anew.

It boils down to this: given that so many of our problems – in an age of climate change, global disorder and artificial intelligence – can only be tackled with an international approach, a robust rights framework is more important than ever. There are parallels with the postwar period in which human rights were most fully articulated, a time when it was obvious to everybody that cooperation and global standards were the best way to shore up our common humanity after a period of catastrophic conflict and genocide.

Of course everyone believes in some rights – normally their own and those of friends, family and people they identify with. It is “other people’s” freedoms that are more problematic. The greater the divisions between us, the greater this controversy. And yet, it is precisely these extreme disparities in health, wealth, power and opinion that make rights, rather than temporary privileges given and taken away by governments, so essential. They provide a framework for negotiating disputes and providing redress for abuses without recourse to violence.

New technologies, and AI in particular, require more not less international regulation. As people spend more time online, they become vulnerable to degrading treatment, unfairness and discrimination, breaches of privacy, censorship and other threats. The so-called “black boxes” behind the technology we use make ever more crucial decisions about our daily lives, from banking to education, employment, policing and border control. Anyone who flirts with the notion of computer infallibility should never forget the postmasters and other such abuses, perpetrated and then concealed.

Perhaps most important of all is the growing contribution of human rights litigation to the struggle against climate catastrophe. A whole generation of lawyers and environmentalists is taking notes from earlier struggles, just as suffragists once learned from slavery abolitionists. This is despite the machinations of fossil fuel corporations versed in a thousand lobbying, jurisdictional and other delaying tactics.

Our shrinking, burning planet is the ultimate reason why nationalism does not work in the interests of humankind. Today’s global empires, sailing under logos rather than flags, need to be more directly accountable under human rights treaties. Our existing mechanisms, whether local and national governments, domestic and international courts, or some of the more notoriously tortuous UN institutions, may be imperfect and in need of reform. Yet, like all structures of civilisation, they are easier to casually denigrate than to invest in and adapt to be more effective.

While I have been writing this, I have been voting in the House of Lords on amendments to the so-called safety of Rwanda bill. It is the most regressive anti-human rights measure of recent times, and intended to be that way. It will not stop the boats of desperate people fleeing persecution, but is designed to stop the courts. British judges will be prevented from ensuring refugees’ fair treatment before they are rendered human freight and transported to a place about whose “safety” our supreme court was not satisfied. Rishi Sunak will be able to use this situation as excuse for an election pledge to repudiate the European convention on human rights.

If he gets his way, rights will be removed not just from those arriving by boat, but from every man, woman and child in the UK. By contrast, the golden thread of human rights is equal treatment: protecting others as we would wish to be protected ourselves, if that unhappy day ever came. It’s a thread we must never let go of.

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Shami Chakrabarti is a lawyer and Labour member of the House of Lords. She is the author of Human Rights: The Case for the Defence (Allen Lane), which she discusses with Zoe Williams in a livestreamed Guardian Live event at 8pm on 22 May. For tickets go to: theguardian.com/shami-event

Further reading

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein (Penguin, £14.99)

The Future of Human Rights by Alison Brysk (Polity, £14.99)

Inventing Human Rights: A History by Lynn Hunt (WW Norton, £11.26)

Source: theguardian.com