An Irish perspective on human rights

Trans Media Watch was asked to speak at an Irish Labour Party event, so I accepted the invitation and was flown across to Kilkenny to speak on Friday evening. The theme of the panel was Media and Human Rights, and I found myself sitting next to Alex White, who is the Irish government minister responsible for, amongst things like energy, media. He sits in the Irish Cabinet, a senior politician.

The audience was in the unusual position of being aware of trans issues, almost every single hand went up when I asked whether any of them had met a trans person before. so I was able to talk about the stereotypes the media uses when reporting on trans stories, and the stories we wished they would cover. When I sat down, Alex turned to me and said quietly, “very well spoken”.

Later the discussion moved on to issues such as Internet regulation, where I was able to make a distinction between the Internet being used to hold a conversation as well as being a publication medium. Alex again said this was a good point which he would need to think about. If only affecting British government ministers was as easy!

The keynote speech was given by Michael Farrell, who is an eminent human rights lawyer of many years standing, but who is also eminently personable. I had the good fortune and privilege of being able to speak with him and his wife on my own for a good few hours afterwards.

He veered off his prepared speech to roundly condemn the British government for even thinking about withdrawing from the European Human Rights Convention. He stated that there was a tendency, especially in England, to view human rights as something to impose in other problematic countries, thereby making an arrogant assumption that we were past the point of needing human rights. This was after he had made several points about how the austerity programme in force across Europe had many implications for human rights, in terms of how the government’s restriction of benefits was adversely affecting the rights of the young, the old, the disabled and many other socially disadvantaged groups.

Farrell reminded us that there are a handful of far right wing governments in some parts of Eastern Europe, meaning that people there were reliant solely on the European Convention in order to be able to enforce their basic rights in the face of considerable state-sanctioned hostility. He then said that the idea of Britain just saying that it had the right to opt out or treat human rights as a pick’n’mix agenda was giving these far right governments a problematic precedent – if Britain, the initiator of human rights, could float the idea of opting out, then why not, say, Hungary or Belarus? The damage already done was considerable, simply by Britain mooting the idea.

When I spoke with a Conservative MP in the middle of last week about why I’d joined the Liberal Democrats, he said that the problem theTories had was not human rights per se, but that judgements affecting Britons were being made by overseas judges who were not lawyers and who did not understand our culture. In our private conversation Michael Farrell denied the first claim was correct, stating unequivocally that you had to be a lawyer to sit as a judge in the Court – something I confirmed this morning by checking the qualifications listed for each judge. This means that our government’s position appears to be driven by arrogance – the lawyers aren’t British lawyers, with the inherent assumption that British is best. From any other nation’s perspective, this is incredibly annoying and patronising.

This places a different perspective on my assumption that damage was limited because there was significant doubt that any legislation to remove it would not get through Parliament because of the depth of senior Conservative disquiet. The implication from Farrell’s observations is that the damage has already been done – the idea that the Convention is sacrosanct has been broached and is being considered by governments we wouldn’t like to be governed by. It’s not sufficient that our government now doesn’t progress any idea of withdrawal. Instead it actively needs to consider how it can re-establish the Convention of being the bedrock of our culture and governance. Otherwise it could very well be accused of having the blood of oppressed minorities on its hands, the very thing the Convention and Court was set up to avoid.

Human rights are rights for humans. The idea that some humans don’t deserve particular rights is deeply flawed – who determines which groups and which rights? If you claim that prisoners, say, should not have certain rights, how do you protect people from being incorrectly incarcerated?

There might be a balance of competing rights to consider, but that’s not the same as a blanket refusal to accept that certain people have rights. In any case, most of the human rights abuses that our British press is keen to point out are actually where the state has abused a legal process. Our government wins the vast majority, well over 95%, of the cases it defends in the European Court.

I find it interesting that the Celtic countries (Ireland and Scotland) are now taking the lead on human rights issues, another fundamental difference to what seems to be happening in England.

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