In the UK in 2018, we must defend our human rights

By Bernadette Meaden
December 10, 2018

Decades ago, I joined Amnesty International. Naively, in those days I thought human rights were something that needed to be defended in other countries. I never really thought about human rights in a British context, and never imagined I would ever feel the need to defend the human rights of British people against the policies of a British government. 

But in the last decade, the human rights of many of our neighbours, particularly the most disadvantaged, have been relentlessly eroded by governments that seem to believe rights are largely the preserve of the strong and powerful  – a luxury that cannot be afforded by, or for, the poor and relatively powerless.

This is becoming more obvious and more visible by the day. From the people on our streets denied their right to a home, to the malnourished people at foodbanks denied their right to food, it’s increasingly clear that human rights are under threat in the UK in 2018.

Thousands of children with special educational needs and disabilities are being denied their right to an education after being 'off-rolled' by schools which haven’t got the resources to support them. Some are losing years of precious education, which as the UN says “is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realising other human rights.”

And of course, in order to uphold their rights people need access to justice, but the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 withdrew legal aid from several areas of law, including family, welfare, and housing. So those most likely to have been deprived of their rights due to austerity have also had their ability to secure those rights removed.

This has not gone unnoticed on the international stage. In 2016 the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities found that, through legislation, cuts, and negative propaganda, the government had committed ‘grave and systematic violations’ of disabled people’s rights. You can read their report here 

Then this year, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, having made extensive investigations into the situation in the UK, and listened to the people directly affected, concluded that, “British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instil discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society.” You can read his statement here

It’s no coincidence that this year is not just the anniversary of the UN Declaration, it’s also the anniversary of the founding of the NHS and our welfare state. The same ambition, the same impulse, to enable all people to live a dignified, safe and secure life lay behind all these initiatives.

This impulse is also a fundamentally Christian impulse. Most people are aware of the 1942 Beveridge Report as a founding document of the welfare state. But perhaps fewer people are aware that Beveridge was strongly influenced by the work of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 to 1944. In his book, Christianity and Social Order, Temple outlined a vision of a post-war society in which the innate dignity of every person would be honoured. The welfare state was a concrete manifestation of that vision, and of the rights contained in Article 25 of the Declaration:

“(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

When we judge austerity and welfare reform we should judge them by these standards, and ensure that any 'reforms' to the welfare state or NHS are consistent with these principles. So on this 70th anniversary, we should be aware that the UN Declaration of Human Rights is as important now as it was when it was written, and is as relevant to the UK as it is to any other country in the world.

* Read the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights here


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.