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.
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.