The laws that enforce the concept of human rights are incredibly recent, less than 100 years old. They came about after the world witnessed the extreme degradation of humanity that was the Holocaust, when value for life had become so cheap that in the aftermath of World War II the international community realised ordinary citizens needed legal protection, not the rhetoric of intention.
Human rights law was never about majorities, nor the powerful. It is designed to reach out to the Jewish child in a Nazi state, the tortured Chilean activist disappeared from her family, the Russian dissident sent to a hard labour camp. Human rights law was and remains about the protection of the people whose cultures and ideas are in the minority and, sometimes, unpopular. Human rights laws are not about persuasion, they are about protection.
Of course that is often compromised. Aleppo should wake us all up to the weakness of international law in the face of political determination to obliterate these desperate citizens. The International Criminal Court must seem very far away to that city’s hospitals and morgue.
However, human rights law remains humankind’s greatest and most ambitious determination that we will not allow the darkness to win, and that we will strive through peaceful means to preserve human dignity.
When the British Prime Minister attacked “left wing, human rights activist lawyers” last week she was attacking human rights themselves. While derogation from some human rights standards in times of conflict may not be unusual, it must surely be exceptional to frame any derogation in such terms.
Particularly so when the British government is implicated in the procurement and cover up of the murder of human rights solicitor Pat Finucane. Maybe she sees John and Michael Finucane, both now leading human rights activist lawyers in their own right, pursuing the truth about their father’s murder and using law and the courts in the absence of government good faith to do so, as the type of activity she has set her eyes on.
Her comments are definitely targeting the activity of lawyers representing the family of 15 year old Ahmed Jabber Kareem Ali forced into an Iraqi canal by British soldiers who then watched him drown. And those representing the family of Baha Mousa, tortured and murdered by British soldiers in Basra, Iraq.
Framing the protection of human rights as somehow unpatriotic or undermining the morale of state forces is something we in these six occupied counties recognise all too well. This narrative insisting any conversation on collusion or shoot to kill begins with reference to the“brave majority in the RUC and British army” is part of that.
The truth is this community somehow survived a stinking, dirty war where the British state viewed human rights as inconveniences to be side stepped. Accountability for all of that is now the site of political and legal contest, which invokes victims’ human rights and states’ human rights obligations.
That the oppressed and violated can utilise law to realise their rights should be hailed as a victory for the rule of law. But for this Prime Minister they have become a target, echoing the darkest days of conflict. This is of course a sign of lawyers’ and NGOs’ effectiveness and necessity and why we must defend the human rights defenders.