When Defending Human Rights, We Must Tell Pragmatic Stories That Appeal To Self Interest

The idea of human rights being valuable in themselves doesn’t wash with a lot of people. Instead, they want to see a practical benefit to rights. Seeing horrible people benefit from the same rights as the rest of us undermines people’s support for such rights.

I worry about this a lot.

This attitude is particularly apparent this week due to the horrific knife attack in Streatham, which mirrored the awful murders at the Fishmonger’s Hall in December. In both cases the perpetrator had been released from prison following a conviction for terrorism, and so now there is discussion about retrospectively changing the release and parole procedures for such criminals.

Doing anything retrospectively is deeply problematic for the rule of law and for human rights reasons. Article 7 of the ECHR prohibits anyone being convicted of a crime that was not a crime when they did the deed, and can also extend to how people are punished.

The two knife attacks have an additional human rights element in that armed police shot both attackers dead at the scene. This was probably ‘proportional’ given the circumstances, but that does not and should not stop lawyers and human rights activists opening a discussion about the use of deadly force.

The problem is: many other people see this as sophistry… or worse, a signal that the activists care more about the terrorists than their victims.

What about the human rights of the victims? they ask.

He surrendered his human rights when he picked up a knife, they say.

There are answers to these statements. Hunan rights are for every human or they are no longer ‘human rights.’ And such rights are not things you can forfeit when you fail to respect other people’s rights (you will be punished, but in a different way).

The counter to this is, of course, a better long term understanding of what rights are, and how they operate. But that is a generational project, and human rights defenders need arguments that work in the here and now, speaking to the current set of citizens that actually exists, not the philosopher-citizens we wish we were.

The British Institute for Human Rights has done some great work with Amnesty and Liberty on bringing positive stories of human rights to the fore. Essentially, showing how people that the public considers ‘deserving’ can use the human rights framework to secure justice or the public services they are owed. Proper treatment in care homes, for example. Or fair access to services for people with disabilities.

These are pertinent and useful case studies, though they often involve people in unusual situations who are not always relatable. So I think there is room for another kind of human rights story, which appeals to self-interest and is unashamedly pragmatic. I suspect such stories may reach people that an appeal to justice may not.

Data privacy rights are a good example of this. The high-minded liberal might consider that everyone has a right to a private life and should not have their internet activity logged… even if that activity involves looking at porn or radical YouTube videos.

But a more pragmatic argument is that without data privacy you’re more likely to be a victim of internet fraud.

Similarly with freedom of expression. I believe it is an end in itself, and that facilitating people’s ability to speak their minds supports the nebulous aim of human flourishing and the good life.

But sometimes we need to point out that free speech has marked practical benefits in the moment, too.

We are experiencing a good example of this right now with the coronavirus outbreak. It has emerged that China’s suffocating censorship practices meant that information and warnings about the disease were disseminated far slower than they should have done. One of the doctors who sought to raise the alarm was censored, and he has since died of the disease.

It is not unreasonable to say that a country with more respect for free speech would have done better at containing this virus.

Li Wenliang
Li Wenliang

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.