Pædos, Prisoners, and Cameron's Attack on Human Rights

First they came for the prisoners.

A few weeks ago, MPs voted to ignore the European Court of Human Rights. The court in Strasbourg had said that a blanket ban on prisoners voting was incompatible with human rights law, and that the British government should rectify this. Following a debate in the House of Commons, Parliament thumbed its nose at the Court, as MPs voted 234 to 22 to keep a full ban on prisoners. Our Prime Minister put blatant populism above politics, declaring that “giving prisoners the vote makes me sick” (even if that means paying £143 million in compensation from the barren public purse).

Then they came for the paedophiles.

This week, we heard that those convicted of sex offences might not have to stay on the sex-offenders register for life. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that those included on the register should be able to appeal against permanent inclusion on the list, and on Tuesday it rejected a Home Office appeal against the ruling. The Government now has to formulate a policy based on this decision. At PMQs, David Cameron called the situation “appalling”.

There are clear similarities between these two stories. Both present issues where what might be considered the popular and common-sense approach is over-ruled by judges, forcing the Government to do something counter-intuitive. Both stories will inspire tabloid frothing at judge-made law. And in both cases, there are actually good and sober reasons why the judges ruled as they did, and why we should support their decisions. In the case of prisoners voting, such a change could catalyze the reform of prisons into places that offer better rehabilitation for convicts. Moreover, if a person will be released within the lifetime of a parliament, why shouldn’t they have a say on who will be representing them once they’re out? Similar arguments exist for sex offenders: In cases where a prisoner has been rehabilitated, coming off the sex offenders register might help reintegration.

It is crucial to remember that in both cases, all the courts did was rule against an absolutist approach: No ‘blanket’ ban on prisoners’ votes; and sex offenders have the right to appeal, not an absolute right to come off the register. The best comparisons for these issues are with parole or bail – you have the right to apply for it, but you might not get it. It is left to magistrates and judges to decide, depending on the actual circumstances.

So there may well be good reasons why extending the rights of some pretty unpleasant people might improve the whole of society… but it is for the penal reform groups to advance that argument. My concern is with how both these stories have been discussed by politicians – The Prime Minister in particular. With his bully-pupit, he has set a terrible example, placing the blame with the judiciary. His comments are clearly designed to undermine the European Court, the Convention on Human Rights and its manifestation in British law, the Human Rights Act (HRA). David Cameron and his allies have never been comfortable with that document, and these outbursts are designed to soften MPs and the public into agreeing to a watered-down Bill of Rights that will make our standing as citizens more tenuous.

Everyone remembers Pastor Martin Neimöller’s famous poem, which begins “First they came for the Communists” and ends with the narrator alone, with no-one left to speak in his defence. The moral should be clear: If you don’t stand up for the human rights of others, then eventually you will lose your own rights; stand up for the rights of others, and you protect yourself. But while we remember the poem, I think we fail to relate it to the present day. Neimöller’s victims, the Jews, the Trade Unionists, and the Communists, are all inoffensive and mainstream today, so we assume we are far away from the oppression described. But what we forget is that during Neimöller’s lifetime, all these groups were among the most vilified: the rhetorical equivalent of paedophiles and prisoners today.

What the Prime Minister seems to forget, is that Human Rights laws are designed to protect the most hated in our society, not least because these people are always amongst the most vulnerable too. They are supposed to frustrate our gut reaction. They are meant to be inconvenient. That the Courts’ rulings have caused outrage is actually a feature of our democracy, and not a bug. Kudos to the 22 MPs who recognised that, and shame on the Prime Minister. By undermining the principle of human rights, he undermines us all.

Update

This was crossposted over at LiberalConspiracy.org in a more succint form.  It got a fairly good response in the comments, although Tyler makes a good point:

Voting is not a human right. As is so often confused by so many on the liberal left, it is a CIVIL right. It is thus conferred on people by the laws of the land. It is granted to an individual by citizenship, and is not unalienable or transferrable, unlike free speech etc.

If it were a human right there would be no real reason why children shouldn’t have the vote, for example…

As such, this argument that voting is some form of human right is simply the wrong one.

Mea culpa, but the central points remain intact.

5 thoughts on “Pædos, Prisoners, and Cameron's Attack on Human Rights

  1. OK I’ll bite.

    Freedom of movement is a human right. I ought to be free to live and work where I wish. Sending a person to jail is a direct removal of this – far more fundamental and genuinely inalienable – right.

    The deal in any society that operates under the rule of law is that, should you break the law and be found to do so by an impartial court following due process etc etc, prisoners lose certain rights.

    Voting is one of these rights lost and it’s a much smaller loss than the loss of liberty, viz being banged up. I can accept that you may object to any loss of rights for a prisoner and that it is wrong to restrict their liberty at all (I would disagree but it would a consistent position that could be argued), but once you’ve accepted that, voting seems small fry.

    I would much rather live in a system that denies prisoners the rights to vote, but enforces habeus corpus than the other way round…

  2. There is so much to say I don’t think I can cover it all here.
    Firstly, thank God for reading your post, the only sense I have heard on these topics anywhere. Bar anywhere.
    I have not worked with prisoners but I know several people who do and have – they all say a similar thing about the life-choice of the criminal: “…there but for the grace of God.” None of us can stand apart and say we are not in prison because we are worthier citizens. We are not in prison, most of us, because life has given us a range of attractive choices none of which involved hurting anyone else.
    I cannot agree with the argument that by committing a criminal act one gives up one’s right to participate fully in society. Look at the socio-ethnic mix in the prison population. As a well-educated, white, bourgeois person I cannot in all conscience judge those people’s actions while blithely imagining they are as socially and materially-resourced as I am because the vast majority quite simply are not. There is no comparison. I do not understand therefore I have no right to judge.
    Denying any citizen of voting age the vote sends a signal that their input is valueless. To so many people in prison this would only confirm and also sustain the experience and the outlook that put them there in the first place.

    Perhaps I am wrong – but how would I know? This entire subject is reported in hysterical and anachronistic terms. Cameron speaks like a man who still believes that there is such a thing as a criminal class. What would his ideal solution be? Transportation? To Mars? He does not speak like a man who trusts in the rehabilitating power of our judicial or criminal systems. He clearly thinks prison is somewhere you go “for” punishment and not “as” punishment and I thought we abandoned that idea around about when we stopped trading slaves. I am shocked to be so wrong.
    Nothing has ever made me feel as alienated in this country as this discussion.

    The subject of peadophiles similarly. There was a commentator very recently on Radio 4 who spoke with authority on this subject, he drew an analogy with alcoholism. He said something like (I paraphrase) “an alcoholic in recovery is only an alcoholic who has not yet had his next drink.” It is true this is more or less how the AA defines “recovery”. But it is analogous? The parallel was utterly unsubstantiated and yet went unquestioned.
    Is rehabilitation possible for a peaedophile? I have no idea. Furthermore, I would be nervous about trying to find out. That is how ludicrous the whole subject has become.
    As a parent, I am expected to be hysterical on the subject, to want the right to know who in my street is a sex offender – but I really have no idea how that information might be useful… I do know that it is permission to hate another human being.
    And that is what is so objectionable and also infuriating and ultimately terrifying about this entire area. Our own government is condoning hatred and intolerance and dismissing hope.

    And, like you I do wonder who, in the end, will be left standing.

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