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August 7, 2000

The Wrongs of Human Rights
How a noble concept threatens to cancel itself out.

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER REVOLUTION

You've heard it all before, the world's been turned upside down, again. Cherished traditions, pounds and ounces, port and stilton, broken records. I know I get very excited about things, and so apologies to all those who've heard this (too many times) before. As always there's a new variant to this "the rest of the world's interfering with my life" guff, and this time it's human rights. I'll address the outrage at even mentioning this sacred phrase later on. In the last week we've had everything from parking fines to deportation of international terrorists overturned all in the name of the European Convention on Human Rights. It's hardly started.

THE OFFENDING DOCUMENT

The European Convention of Human Rights is a document with many noble ideas. People deserve a fair trial, freedom of speech and organisation – in fact, it reads, like a long-winded and twentieth century version of the Bill of Rights. However, it is more sinister than that, in that while the Bill of Rights tempers the excesses of democracy, the Convention replaces democracy. This is not a claim to be made lightly, making this claim too much or falsely can label you a crank (well, label you a crank with those who don't think you are already). Nevertheless, the fact is that the British government has committed itself to incorporating the Convention into law, which sounds highly noble, but will have the most farcical and stupid consequences.

HOW'S THIS FOR STUPID?

The Convention has in the past month been credited with a large amount of decisions which overturn British law or procedure. Some are good, from my point of view, while some are terrible. Most are purely silly:

  • Terrorists who threaten national security can no longer be sent back to their country of origin, if they can show that their is a good chance of torture being applied.
  • The military is no longer allowed to exclude people on the basis of their sexual behaviour.
  • Homosexual orgies are no longer outlawed. There is a real question as to whether the government can now ban public acts of indecency.
  • Police can no longer ask drivers whether they were driving their cars when a speed camera captures their car registration.
  • Historic buildings can no longer be protected by democratically elected ministers.
  • Unpaid parking tickets no longer attract an increased penalty – as this would be a breach of due process.

Now the point is not that these were all bad decisions in themselves, but that they were bad decisions for the courts. Remember that these decisions have been made before the convention has been built into British law – we have to wait until September for that joy. Can one pretend that Democracy is not being bypassed? If you are going to give Government a large amount of discretion over your life, then you should have a large amount of discretion over the government. If we can't decide how approaching half of our income is spent, or how some of the most fun ways to spend our spare time are outlawed then at some point or other we will want to have a say. Democracy is a remarkably efficient way to both let off steam and to lose gracefully.

NOT FIT TO JUDGE A CAKE STALL

Of course, this would not be acceptable even if these judges were masters of jurisprudence, loftily independent yet aware of the cultural and political nuances of the countries on which they were pronouncing. However, it would make it far less humiliating. Every country that has signed up to this convention can appoint a judge to the European Court of Human Rights. There are some pillars of the independent judiciary in those countries, you know like Albania, Romania and Greece. Every country large and small, including Monaco and Liechtenstein, can appoint a judge. With the sort of talent that is on offer let's say that the educational standards vary, somewhat. Not only is their understanding of the principle of law worse than in most of the "lesser courts" that defer to them, but it is worse than that of the legislatures that defer to them. Instead of judges we have bureaucrats, and poor bureaucrats at that.

HUMAN RIGHTS CAN BE WRONG

It is relatively easy to oppose the cake-mould approach to human rights when it involves cluster bombs and child starving, but when it comes peacefully and with the connivance of the democratically elected government it is somewhat harder. To oppose what was happening in Iraq or Kosovo was to oppose war, surely a greater threat to human rights than anything it was aiming to rectify. To oppose the convention seems to oppose human rights per se. "Donít you believe in free speech and fair trials?" is the sort of question that will instantly put you on the defensive. I do happen to believe in things like natural law (not the party Ė more Aquinas or Rand style natural law) and therefore rights in things like our life, our person and our property. Similarly, I am not a relativist so none of that rubbish about morality differing from culture to culture. Nevertheless, strategically the imposition of rights is a huge blunder. If gay people say "we donít need to be accepted, weíll just go to a load of foreigners with a bad understanding of law and appeal to their better nature, ducky" would that improve tolerance? Would gay rights become part of the consensus, as it is now albeit slowly? If people have to accept rights involuntarily rather than accept them through debate and persuasion then they will resent those rights. A man convinced against his will is a man unconvinced still.

SO WHAT?

How does this affect us? The simple fact is that becoming a member of an international organisation is no longer a question of united fronts at diplomatic conferences and moving battalions around a map – it is interfering with the very stuff of democracy. To take an unconnected example, here in Britain it is now illegal to sell goods in imperial measurements. Why? Because the European Union has judged that Britain needs to sell cheese in kilograms to help free trade. The very measurements that we use are now at the mercy of unelected international organisations. If we give them an inch, they will take a mile; or an acre, gallon or non-metric tonne.

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Emmanuel Goldstein is the pseudonym of a political drifter on the fringes of English classical liberal and Euro-sceptic activity. He is a former member of the Labour Party, who knows Blair and some of his closest buddies better than they realise, yet. He has a challenging job in the real world, working for a profit-making private company and not sponging off the taxpayer in politics, journalism or the civil service. "Airstrip One," appears Mondays at Antiwar.com.

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