Kate Thick: We are developing a big problem with how we see human rights

Journal columnist Kate Thick on how protection of human rights is suddenly not important enough for too many people

Parents and children who are opposed to the possible closure of Ponteland Sure start center
Parents and children who are opposed to the possible closure of Ponteland Sure start center

Nearly 70 years ago in a world emerging from the atrocities of the second world war, the UN published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration’s 30 articles include freedom from want and the right to health and education.

Going back even further to the emergence of individual rights and the rule of law, the media is covering this year’s events commemorating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, a cornerstone of the British constitution.

All fine stuff but Human Rights Watch has just released its 25th annual report which says many governments around the world, including Britain, have reacted to the threat from extremism by downplaying or abandoning human rights.

I cannot wait to hear Helena Kennedy QC, a human rights barrister, on Radio 4 tonight discussing her ideas for a Magna Carta for today’s globalised world, on where power lies and how it might be contained.

She feels Britain is becoming a very hard society, a society where caring is disappearing while those running international corporations and international finance behave as if they are above the law.

My fear is that if you treat health and education like profit-making businesses, economics take precedence, not social need.

So my heart sank on reading that plans announced last week to reduce Sure Start children’s services in Newcastle and Northumberland have been approved. Councils may be trying their best but we need to remind somebody of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s finding that three in ten households in the North East struggle to make ends meet, and families with children under five are the hardest hit.

Spending on benefits for working adults and children has fallen by around £7bn. Cameron’s electoral rant this week proposed a £7bn tax cut for the better off.

Not a word of the need to invest in underpaid carers for the elderly or for programmes like Sure Start to turn around the life chances of the increasing number of children in urban and rural poverty.

Our nation is being held to ransom by people who are pocketing money and paying no taxes.

The Tory party is threatening to repeal the Human Rights Act and pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights and replace it with a British bill of rights.

The Act has brought very real benefits to people living in Britain: preventing the separation of elderly couples, securing accommodation for survivors of domestic violence, and tackling discrimination against the homeless. Simultaneously, legal aid - designed to give poor people the same legal protections as rich ones - has also come under systematic Tory attack.

Many are concerned that the root of the Tory gambit to replace the Human Rights Act, which enshrines the European Convention in British law, is the enhancement of state power and the rejection of equality before the law. Countries like Russia, China, Hungary, Turkey, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Syria and the forces of repression generally would be absolutely delighted to see us Brits repeal the Human Rights Act.

It is true that the central values by which most live worldwide are not always universal or harmonious, and complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality.

If humans were wholly free, I suspect the wolves would have eaten all the sheep by now. Tyrants of the 20th century have certainly extinguished and trampled on millions. Compromises between liberty and equality, between justice and compassion, between freedom and security, are difficult and require international oversight, negotiation and revision.

Should a society be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members? The youngest and the oldest are not faring well here. Workers’ rights, public services, a welfare state, are all being stripped away by an elite who have a problem with human rights. A sure start for a generation of powerless malcontents?

The Magna Carta established that everybody had to be answerable to law and nobody, not even the king, was above it. Magna Carta is a banner, an ideal to aspire to. Creeping authoritarianism and distorted socioeconomic policies have thrown our moral compass off track.

Protecting human rights and ensuring democratic accountability are key to social and political order.

We need a new charter for the 21st century to counter tyranny in all its forms and to protect the rights of those leading increasingly insecure lives.

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