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The Death of Democracy and the Forces of Power and Control

Here in the UK, we are grabbling with our government's decision to abandon our EU membership. As the country is divided and hate incidents are increased by almost 50%, I wrote a think-piece with the aim of presenting a critical analysis of Europe’s missed opportunity for social justice. The paper has been published in the peer reviewed journal Social Sciences and it is open access. Full article here

It presents evidence by analysing the civil and political rights jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights in order to explore the potential of what it calls the “human rights project” for a regional democracy. The paper shows that a key objective of the European Convention of Human Rights was the development of case law that would construct a regional democracy for bringing consistency in the enjoyment of civil and political rights across the continent.

This “human rights project” was well underway, but is now hampered by contemporary forces of power and control that are ridiculing the work and status of the Council of Europe. I identify three levers that move these forces, namely: financial and security terror as well as nationalism. The paper warns that if these forces are not managed, the backlash in social justice will continue while the human rights project for a regional democracy will come to its demise.

Despite the sense of pessimism underlying my paper, I think we are living in opportune times. Institutions and policies are being reviewed globally (and nationally), and we are slowly becoming a bit more honest about our thoughts and feelings for each other. Public authorities are forced to become more accountable and partnership between states and civil society is encouraged particularly through funding structures and research projects sponsored by the EU (e.g., see FP7, Horizon 2020), the Council of Europe (e.g., Europe for Citizens), and the UN.

It is naïve to believe that the law alone can bring social justice (and this coming from a lawyer)! History has shown that it is through the result of millions of small actions that we change the status quo. These are mostly undertaken by people not in government nor with power. Historic examples include: votes for women, civil rights in America, or Indian independence. The role of civil society has long been underestimated and it is now becoming clearer that without the NGOs, movements and campaigns that comprise it, governments and other vessels of power would not be held accountable. It is also important how we accept “social justice” and “justice” and how much room we allow those in power to manoeuvre.

Human rights are not panacean and it is not my intention to present them as the answer to all evils. They are merely a modern construct that through their legal dimension (articles) or value-based nature (standards/values) can provide some sort of uniformity in the protection of our dignity and respect.

Returning to Roosevelt’s reminder “Where do human rights begin?” they are indeed the microcosm of each one of us. Not just legal articles. I summarised these value-based entitlements as: human dignity and respect, equality, fairness, justice and the rule of law, liberty and individual empowerment, equity and proportionality, brotherhood and solidarity, effectiveness, transparency and confidentiality, community duty and individual responsibility, and freedom from fear (Gavrielides, 2012). Who can disagree that these are the core ingredients of our humanity and social justice? The human rights project which started with the Enlightenment and continues today has evolved from protecting individuals from state brutality to establishing a set of ethical standards essential to creating a decent society. It has been argued that while all religions, secular traditions and schools of thought prior to the Enlightenment shared basic visions of a common good and championed certain individual standards within the human rights discourse, the collective understanding of the term “human rights” was not captured. Most importantly, they did not perceive all individuals as of equal value. From the New Testament to the Qu’aran, Hammurabi’s Code and Plato, one can easily identify a lack of common vision towards certain groups such as women and homosexuals, servants (or slaves), the disabled or the elderly.

Long battles have been fought and many have died setting up the human rights project in Europe and internationally. The three levers that motivate the abuse of power and creation of control are not made of steel. They can be broken. Reversing the backlash of social justice in Europe is not impossible. In fact, what I am arguing here is the missed potential of the ECHR and the counter-power that the Court’s case law can introduce consistently across Europe. So, the first step for everyone to take, whether with or without power, is to acknowledge the existence of forces of power and control and, post this acknowledgement, believe that the status quo that they create can indeed change.

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