Here in the UK, we are grabbling with our Prime Minister's decision to call for a snap election. The election results have been shocking and indeed embarrassing. But unlike other political commentaries, this piece is not about party politics. It is about division and my growing fears of a dying democracy.
Apparently, the "people have spoken" on the issue of the UK's EU membership. Let's park this one then! As our weakened PM enters into negotiations with the Democratic Unionist Party in order to remain in government, I must ask what will happen to the threats she launched against our human rights. You might think that it is not the time for yet another human rights paper. But my warning could not be more timely given the published intentions of both parties on human rights.
After the atrocities of World War II, humanity came together to say "never again"! We wrote the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and promised to protect the weak against abuses of power. I have presented evidence that showed that the ECHR has acted as the biggest tool for building a "regional democracy" that is consistent in its values. 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 today I must conclude that it is hampered by contemporary forces of power and control that are ridiculing the work and status of the Council of Europe. This is not about the EU. It is about our post war intentions to create minimum standards for all Europeans. Standards that would allow us to live freely, equally and without fear.
Having watched the way our strong and stable democracy performed over the last few months, I identify three levers that move forces of power in order to control us, namely: financial and security terror as well as nationalism. In the last 3 months, we've had three attacks and five another attempts to cause terror and divide us. Our PM was quick to say that she will be removing human rights in the name of security. She also warned us about the economic downturn and cut down further social benefits, NHS and public services. She also reminded us that she wants to make Great Britain great again. Well, it is my turn to warn 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.
And here is my message of hope. I do believe that 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.
However, it is naïve to believe that the law alone can bring social justice. 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.
Yesterday, our young people made us proud with over 72% of them voting. For the first time, we also elected more than 200 female MPs. The role of civil society is also becoming clearer since 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.
Remembering Roosevelt’s words: “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. As the post election blues will diminish and the hard talk will start again, remember not to allow the rhetoric (independently of party politics) to create fear in you. Things can be reversed and democracy can be saved. We owe this to the young people who voted. 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.