Saturday, 8 November 2014

Harry Giles: thoughts on Human Rights

This is the second part of Harry Giles' response to my questions about Human Rights and the Arts... 

But all this is me talking in very abstract theoretical terms. In actuality, the UDHR is a set of ideas that I can mostly (if not entirely) get behind, and the European Court of Human Rights is something that mostly (if not entirely) seems to be a tool we can use in struggles against oppression. So while I might have some intellectual qualms with it all, and while I might want to explore those, I'm also more worried about other things!

One of the things I'm worried about, like you, is the Tory attack on the discourse of human rights. It's partly the dystopian vision of the future, in which British rejection of the ECHR enables greater and greater restriction on civil liberties and greater and greater oppression of marginalised groups. 

But it's also how much the attack on the ECHR is used as a stalking horse for a bunch of other issues. When rightist parties attack "Europe", more often than not what they're acting on is really a fear of immigrants: xenophobia. In Dave's Declaration, the two targets (prisoners, terrorists) are stalking horses for immigrants. All three groups are people we can conveniently blame society's ills on and use as fear figures to increase neoliberal power.

(And as an aside, Dave's three examples are all also horrible in and of themselves. YES, I want it to be impossible to deport "suspected" terrorists. (Because who defines "suspected"? On what grounds? What about innocent til proven &c?) YES, I want the Geneva convention to apply to the battlefields of Helmand, just as it applied to even the fucking Nazis. And YES, I want prisoners to have the vote. Why the fuck should they not have the vote? Why should we take that right away, if we believe in it as a right? But then I also believe in abolishing prison, so.)

So yes, you're certainly right, I think, in your understanding. A "British bill of rights" is a horrible idea, because it defines "British" as some meaningful category of people who deserve more and better than other people. It restricts political organisation to a stupid border, rather than opening up actually meaningful classes of oppression like gender, or economic class, or dis/ability. "Nation" is a horrible way to organise a people, and one that truly relies on meaningless divisions between humans, rather than the actual power dynamics of how we relate to each other. There is no liberation for anyone in "nation", only small-mindedness, xenophobia and oppression.

You'll note something that feels like a contradiction in what I'm saying. On the one hand, I'm calling for attention to localities while on the other hand I'm calling for organisation beyond national borders. That's the sort of contradiction that bringing up "human rights" causes for me, and I think it's a productive contradiction. For me, universality is more about paying attention to everyone's specificities than it is about creating set codes and institutions for everyone. How to go about doing that, in practice and against power, is another question.

Hope this "helps".

 I would add a reply, but I think Harry articulates my position exactly on the difference between 'British' and 'Human' rights. And I have exactly the same qualms about the nation as an appropriate unit for political measures.

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