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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 10-Dec-14 11:02:26

Guest post: Clive Stafford Smith - 'to suggest that there are too many human rights is fatuous'

This Human Rights Day, as details of the CIA's torture programme emerge, Guantánamo lawyer and Reprieve Director Clive Stafford Smith argues that our rights still require protection - and considers the UK establishment's attitude to them

Clive Stafford Smith

Director, Reprieve

Posted on: Wed 10-Dec-14 11:02:26


Lead photo

'Americans just do not like to be told that they must provide the same rights to the rest of the world.'

Some time ago I was at a lunch with Nigel Farage. He was exhibiting his habitual beer-swilling geniality. I decided, casting aside British don't-talk-about-politics-sex-or-religion etiquette, to challenge him on a key plank in UKIP's political edifice: that Britain should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) at the earliest possible opportunity. Apparently the ECHR is an infringement on our sovereignty. The dedication of Britain's right wing to this goal is beyond my comprehension - should we opt out of the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) to stop irritating foreigners from telling us not to abuse people, too?

I asked Mr. Farage whether he could identify how the ECHR ever did him any harm. He went through his hail-fellow-well-met obfuscation but, when pressed, he could not come up with a single example. That is understandable: there are none. Furthermore, we are a long way from a world where there are too many protections for the most powerless people among us.

To suggest there are "too many human rights" is fatuous. Of course, our rights are occasionally in conflict - the right to free speech versus the right to privacy, for example - but most of these tensions don't actually exist. Take yesterday: the U.S. Senate published a heavily redacted report on how the CIA got itself mixed up in torture. The CIA had insisted on its right to keep certain matters secret, and for the most part the Senate acquiesced, despite the citizen's right to freedom of information. In fact, the government has no "rights" at all, and certainly not the right to cover up evidence of its own criminality. This was merely an example of "might makes right" (which it invariably does not).

Police can infiltrate a peaceful NGO and father the children of members without redress. The security services can snoop on us with impunity. Liberty is eroded at the margins, and today's hate figures, who are vilified in politics and the media, are the people whose rights require most protection.

Ironically, I find myself in Guantanamo Bay as I write this, meeting with the last remaining British resident, Shaker Aamer. If ever we needed a reminder of the importance of the ECHR and CAT, it is Shaker's predicament: he was horribly tortured when first sold to the US for a bounty in 2001, and he is now being held under terrible conditions in an isolation cell, notwithstanding the fact that he was "cleared" for release more than seven years ago.

While his rights not to be tortured, or arbitrarily detained, clearly need to be enforced, so does his human right to be reunited with his family - including his youngest son Faris, who he has never met. The lad was born on Valentine's Day 2002, the same day Shaker arrived in the world's most notorious prison. Yet the American courts have held that, while they have the power to declare Shaker's detention illegal, they have no authority to order his release in the face of the Pentagon's insistence that he may be held indefinitely. In other words, there is a legal right, but no remedy, which means there is not really any legal right at all.

The antipathy of the Americans towards human rights is, at the very least, conflicted. These rights are at the heart of the US Constitution: since 1789, the U.S. has had a Bill of Rights, and nobody seriously contends that we should abolish that. Americans just do not like to be told that they must provide the same rights to the rest of the world. Hence Guantanamo, where there are no Americans (they would have rights), only foreigners. Since animals have privileges under the U.S. environmental laws, the bizarre conclusion is that the iguanas that freely roam the base should have more protection than the Muslims who are locked up there.

The hostility shown by some British people - including, sadly, David Cameron - to human rights is even harder to understand. It is not as if the average Briton has a superfluity of protections. Police can infiltrate a peaceful NGO and father the children of members without redress. The security services can snoop on us with impunity, with or without parliament's permission. In any case, the "Average Briton" is not the person who is most at risk: liberty is eroded at the margins, and today's hate figures, who are vilified in politics and the media, are the people whose rights require most protection.

The malaise that afflicts the British right is that they seem to think that misfortune can only ever visit the homes of others. They feel that they do not need to stand up to government for themselves, let alone for those less fortunate. They hear a term like "Parliamentary Supremacy" and they believe that Cameron (or even Theresa May) can be trusted to respect liberty even in an election year.

Rather than accepting a wholesale retreat from the front lines of civilization, we would do better to contemplate how our society might move forwards. This is worth a book rather than a couple of paragraphs but, to give an example, the human right to a roof over your head could force the government to reconsider its tax breaks for the wealthy, and require that some funds be spent on low income housing instead. Or what of the right to procreation, first recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court (for Americans) more than fifty years ago? My wife and I benefited from a gruelling struggle with IVF, culminating in our wonderful little boy. It makes me wonder how long it will be before the world recognizes the right to IVF for those otherwise unable to have children? And yet the miserable critics of the NHS complain that IVF is a luxury, as if somehow we should have the right to treatment for spraining an ankle, but not for infertility.

Today, as we contemplate our achievements, we still have a long way to go before we attain nirvana.

By Clive Stafford Smith

Twitter: @CliveSSmith

BobbyGentry Wed 10-Dec-14 13:25:38

sorry must be regional or colloquialism but 'to suggest that there are too many human rights is fatuous' doesn't read right... 'to suggest that too many human rights is fatuous' sits better (perhaps I'm nor getting the argument.) Nonetheless, it's nonsense, of course Human Rights aren't silly.

BobbyGentry Wed 10-Dec-14 13:27:03

* not

BobbyGentry Wed 10-Dec-14 13:30:41

ahhh... it's to suggest that's silly smile (shall get my coat.)

LineRunner Wed 10-Dec-14 17:13:32

The suggestion is fatuous.


I first saw Clive Stafford Smith appear in the documentary Fourteen Days in May. I really admired him. Was just a kid then.

atoughyear Wed 10-Dec-14 17:20:26

I don't disagree with anything in the blog but what I REALLY dislike about the human rights supporting fraternity is that they only seem to want to discuss high profile, glamorous issues, usually with an International flavour. They don't ever seem to give a shit about things like lack of social mobility in UK seaside towns or zero hour contracts in the cleaning industry. I could give other examples. I guess it's not sexy to talk about such things over the achingly trendy dining tables of Islington and Fulham. That gets on my tits to be honest.

atoughyear Wed 10-Dec-14 17:34:57

I'm speaking generally about HR by the way.

TeWiSavesTheDay Thu 11-Dec-14 12:28:27

I am never going to understand people who are happy to give away their rights not to be a slave etc.

TheXxed Thu 11-Dec-14 12:59:05

A tough year I think equal pay in Birmingham was a human rights case.

atoughyear Thu 11-Dec-14 13:25:44

TheXxed I am of the opinion that most cases dealt with by the courts, whether criminal or civil, are actually Human Rights cases! That's why I don't understand people who describe themselves as Human Rights Lawyers. It doesn't in any way alter my opinion that high profile human rights campaigners and the media who give them coverage mostly focus on matters with an international angle.

JaneAHersey Thu 11-Dec-14 13:32:51

There are men, women and children in the UK who have no human rights.

Malnutrition cases are on the increase.
Child poverty is the highest ever recorded.
Recent reports highlight that many children across the UK are so hungry they are turning to prostitution to eat.
Shelter report almost 100,000 + children will be homeless this Christmas. 212,000 people beaten up for being on benefits.
Many people living in Blackpool are turning to crime just to eat.

We need a Civilised Government and society that ensures basic human rights for the majority.

ktd2u Thu 11-Dec-14 13:47:00

I thought free education was a basic human right - one that's seriously been diminished in this country.

Rights of convicted criminals is one area that perplexes me - especially murderers. What rights did the victim have? I'm not saying an eye for an eye but I think certain rights are forsaken if you commit criminal acts.

MrsSquirrel Thu 11-Dec-14 13:47:22

I support human rights, but am not in any fraternity.

I don't think social mobility is a human right atoughyear. Human rights are specific rights that are set out in various international agreements, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UK has signed up to most of these agreements.

Human rights are things like the right to a fair trial, the right to life, the right to freedom of thought, the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of religion, the right not to be held in slavery, the right not to be subject to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment.

atoughyear Thu 11-Dec-14 14:46:15

What defines a human right is a moot point. Lack of social mobility could arguably be covered number of 'human right.' Right to education for example. Children's' rights are supposed to be well protected yet many children live in families who survive on food bank food because their parents are on zero hours contacts. It's incredibly vague and thus far reaching (and this is just my opinion based on my understanding) but those with the ear of media don't find girls being groomed in Blackpool and slum landlords in Rhyl exciting enough to campaign about.

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