“Tory MP Douglas Carswell attacked the court’s ruling as ‘shocking and outrageous’. He said: ‘There can be no clearer illustration that human rights are not working in the national interest’.”
Are human rights working in the national interest? In this particular case, it can be argued that human rights are working against the best interest of the nation. However, looking just beyond the
“terror suspects,” human rights are working for the UK. The right to free speech allowed Douglas Carswell to express his opinions, for example. But how do we weigh risks with rights when we come face-to-face with the line between them?
We have struggled with this conflict long before “human rights” ever had a name. We decide what is worth it, whether the end justifies the means. If we win the war, is it acceptable that we kill and are killed in the meantime? If someone had had the opportunity to assassinate Hitler, knowing what he was doing, would it be morally acceptable? If we find terrorists plotting to destroy us, what is the appropriate response? Do we stop seeing them as human, stop caring about their rights?
Many do think it entirely appropriate to suspend or even terminate their rights. Criminal systems around the world are based on the argument that when someone commits a crime, they give up certain rights. But do they stop being human? Do they stop deserving human rights?
In jail, one is not “free,” neither is one “owned.” I would argue that there is not a complete denial of human rights in this specific example. Furthermore, one is fed, given shelter, and [ought to be] free from torture. Criminals are still humans, just humans who pay the price of limited access to their rights.
Human rights were conceptualized, documented, and agreed upon by those who signed the documents as such because they are in fact in the interest of the signers, and everyone else. It is in everyone’s better interest to have protection under the law, to be granted access to the resources necessary to live a life of dignity. Perhaps some criminals give up some of the dignity in their lives, or have some of the dignity taken away from them, but it does not eliminate their humanity.
The line between risk and rights is challenging. How much dignity can we take away? Under what circumstances? How do we establish the hierarchy? Under what circumstances, if any, do we simply toss human rights out the window in the name of something like national security?
My response is never. The moment we toss human rights out of the window in the name of anything is the moment we say they are less important than we make them out to be; some deserve them, some don’t; human rights are too idealistic for practical application; and so on. We give in to our critics. We give in to our enemies, those who would have murder and torture be acceptable in our day to day lives. We tell them that there are people who are less than human and deserve to suffer as such. And then what?
What becomes of our human rights when we sacrifice the rights of others to protect ourselves? They are perilously threatened. The moment we allow the human rights of others to become less important than our own, we risk our rights becoming less important than theirs, or simply not important at all.
So are proponents of human rights all simply and selfishly in it for themselves, to ensure that they are part of the everyone who has human rights? There are philosophical branches in ethics that address this, but in this practical application, I take it away from the individual and back to the foundations of human rights: we are all equal. If we decide someone is lesser or greater, the equality which forms the basis of the theory and practice of human rights is eliminated. Furthermore, they are interconnected, interrelated, and indivisible (see Jack Donnelly’s Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice for a nice description of this concept). Each human right individually requires the recognition and respect of other human rights.
And last, but certainly not least, Article 30 of the UDHR states: “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.” Yes, we all have the right to safety and security, but that can’t be used against those who threaten it.