Whether enshrined in international treaties or national law, a commitment to a universal set of human rights is a basic feature of national and international politics. But from crackdowns on protest to restrictions on socialising, governments around the world have adopted sweeping new powers to respond to the coronavirus pandemic which have called into question many of our so-called human rights.
In theory, human rights protect individuals (and sometimes groups) from harm or interference by governments – everyone has a right to things like health, security or family life. In the case of the pandemic lockdowns, many have used the framework of human rights to challenge government overreach, demanding visiting rights in care homes and hospitals, support for affected businesses or greater attention to the plight of families and lovers separated by the restrictions.
In reality, however, human rights give rise to numerous controversies. In April, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled in favour of allowing compulsory vaccinations – a ruling that many believe goes against the rights of individuals to refuse medical treatment or their right to privacy. The UK’s adoption of the Human Rights Act did not stop the UK government engaging in mass surveillance of its citizens, amassing a huge DNA database of innocent people, deporting citizens in the Windrush scandal or waging a series of wars in the Middle East. Some have pointed to the hypocrisy of human-rights legislation when China, widely condemned for violating the human rights of ethnic minorities and political opponents, recently re-joined the UN’s Human Rights Council.
For lawyer and writer Luke Gittos, human rights are not only impractical (or ‘nonsense upon stilts’ as Jeremy Bentham famously dismissed them) but a block on the political pursuit of freedom. In his latest book, Human Rights – Illusory Freedom: Why we should repeal the Human Rights Act, Gittos argues that unaccountable judges in the UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights have presided over a catastrophic loss of freedom. Rather than improving citizens’ quality of life or winning progressive battles, Gittos argues that human rights arose as a new language for western governments following the collapse in their collective authority in the aftermath of the Second World War.
But, given the extension of state power during lockdowns, have worldwide lockdowns revealed the need for stronger, more hard-wired human rights legislation, like the Bill of Rights in the United States? Or has the whole framework of human rights been revealed as little more than symbolic? Putting the progressive case against human rights, Gittos asks whether it is time to do away with human rights in favour of a new way of thinking about our personal and political freedoms. Join Luke Gittos and Academy of Ideas’ director Claire Fox to discuss whether it’s time to call time on human rights.
Luke Gittos is a solicitor practising criminal law and legal editor for the online magazine spiked. His latest book Human Rights – Illusory Freedom: Why we should repeal the Human Rights Act was published published by Zero Books in in February 2019. Luke is director of the Freedom Law Clinic and he regularly appears in the media to comment on legal and political issues. His first book, Why Rape Culture Is A Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans, was published in 2015
CHAIR: Claire Fox is the director of the Academy of Ideas and member of the House of Lords as Baroness Fox of Buckley. Claire is author of a book on free speech, recently republished as I STILL Find That Offensive! (Biteback, 2018), and No Strings Attached! Why arts funding should say no to instrumentalism (Arts&Business, 2007).