The Ranting Kraut

19.3.2006 – 27.9.2010

More on that Bill of Rights and Freedoms

Posted by rantingkraut on August 15, 2008

Almost a year ago, I commented on plans for a UK Bill of Rights and Responsibilities (now renamed to Bill of Rights and Freedoms). I concluded at the time that: “A UK version of the EU charter [of fundamental rights] is then probably the best one can hope for. A more authoritarian document should come as no surprise either.” A draft outline for a “UK Bill of Rights and Freedoms” has now been published by a Joint Committee on Human Rights.
As expected, and as the countable Freedoms in the working title suggests, this draft is based on positive rights. The conclusions and recommendations of the main report make it clear that this approach is seen as establishing an extension to the rights already granted by the European Convention of Human Rights. There does not seem to be any awareness of the inherently restrictive nature of a finite positive rights catalogue or the potential contradictions between classic human rights and social rights or post-modern additions such as a right to an abstract environmental policy (so called third generation rights).

Liberty is not only given a very low profile in this outline, there is even some explicit confusion of individual freedom and democracy when it is stated in the preamble that democracy amounts to “giving as much control as possible to individuals over the decisions which affect their lives.” Such individual control is maximised by allowing individuals to decide as much as possible for themselves. Democracy, in practice, gives individuals no more than a right to periodically participate in a collective decision to remove the current crop of representatives.

In addition to emphasising positive rights and adding “rights” to currently fashionable policy agendas, the outline explicitly endorses the establishment of group rights (for minorities and crime victims among others). Clearly, group rights are generally a problem. One group’s particular right establishes a corresponding added duty for those outside the group or at least a privilege over non-members. The notion of differentiated group rights is inherently at odds with equality before the law.

The term minority is rarely used in its literal sense any longer (women are not a minority, millionaires are). It has instead come to refer to any group politically endorsed for special attention or concessions. Including minority rights among the group rights therefore would generally define identity politics as a fundamental feature of UK politics.
A separate category of crime victims’ rights is not normally included in bills of rights, and it is not immediately obvious what these would be. Considering recent changes to the justice system and the workings electoral populism in general however, it is easy to anticipate that this item will simply function as a counterweight to any right to a fair trial.

The outline for the Bill of Rights and Freedoms is unusual in other ways. Unlike many of its counterparts, this Bill is not even intended to be used to protect individual citizens’ rights directly: “The rights in this schedule are not enforceable by individuals against the Government or any public authority.” (source)

This, coupled with the emphasis on group rights and third generation ‘rights’, makes it clear that this ‘Bill of Rights’ is not designed to limit the power of the state. Instead, the proposed outline provides the contours of a long term legislative agenda, a rough blue-print for social engineering based on a centre left perception of an ideal society.

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