UK Liberty

Yet another Straw speech – when is he going to enumerate our responsibilities?

Posted in Bill of Rights (and Responsibilities), politicians on liberty by ukliberty on February 9, 2009

Jack Straw gave the keynote speech at the annual conference of the British Institute of Human Rights.  Usual guff.

People are now well aware of what we are entitled to but less cognisant of those duties beholden upon us. ‘Liberty means responsibility’, wrote George Bernard Shaw, ‘that is why most men dread it’. It is perhaps not surprising that we have so far been less willing to accept what we owe than what we are owed.

I think Shaw said most men dreaded liberty because they would have to take responsibility for themselves rather than displace their burdens on to the government. I’m not entirely certain that he would have suggested “we owe” anything, unless of course he was being terribly witty and arch.  Perhaps Jack’s researchers will find us an apposite  quote.

… Some in the field of human rights appear to recoil at the very mention of responsibilities in the same sentence as rights.

But throughout the ages, rights and responsibilities have been seen together. Take Jeremy Bentham: ‘Rights and obligations, though distinct and opposite in their nature, are simultaneous in their origin, and inseparable in their existence’.

Er yes Jack, but really one has to read the whole thing rather than just selectively quote.  Indeed I could quote from the same piece something that Jack wouldn’t like at all:

The legislator ought to confer rights with pleasure, since they are in themselves a benefit; he ought to impose obligations with repugnance, since they are in themselves an evil.

 As with Paine (see below) they are reciprocal:

According to the nature of things, the law cannot grant a benefit to any, without, at the same time, imposing a burthen on some one else; or, in other words, a right cannot be created in favour of any one, without imposing a corresponding obligation on another. 

Back to Jack:

Or Thomas Paine: ‘A Declaration of Rights is, by reciprocity, a declaration of duties also. Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess’.

Er, as I’ve said about Jack quoting Paine before, perhaps it’s best to read it in context (perhaps the whole thing, if so inclined):

While the Declaration of Rights was before the National Assembly some of its members remarked that if a declaration of rights were published it should be accompanied by a Declaration of Duties. The observation discovered a mind that reflected, and it only erred by not reflecting far enough. A Declaration of Rights is, by reciprocity, a Declaration of Duties also. Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.

Back to Jack:

The issue is that they are sotto voce, implied, inherent. If they are already the ‘other side of the same coin that stipulates our fundamental human rights and freedoms’ [Professor Robert Blackburn, evidence to JCHR 29th report], why should this not be made more prominent, explicit and clearly articulated? This is not to make rights ‘earned’ any more than they already are.

They already are fairly explicit – Article 10 for example:

The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

What more needs to be said?

Look, if I have “freedom of speech”, I shouldn’t really abuse it, in the sense of causing harm to others (say, falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic).  But if we feel such actions amount to something that should be prohibited by criminal law then we should create a criminal offence that prohibits it.  

The approach should be that we may do anything unless it is prohibited.

The Government’s approach seems to be that we may only do that which they allow and impose on us their moral direction.

And this relates to what people such as the Earl of Onslow keep saying in JHCR evidence sessions:

what a Bill of Rights is there to do is to restrain executive over-exuberance, to put it at its mildest, and the responsibility of everybody in this room is to do nothing else but obey the law, and if you do not obey the law you accept the consequences.

Jack isn’t genuinely interested in Bentham’s brand of utilitarianism or Paine’s (literally) revolutionary ideas: he isn’t interested in the greatest number being happy, he wants us to be happy on his terms; he isn’t interested in limits on government, because they would be limits on his government.

It would help us if Jack would stop mis-interpreting what better minds have said and finally enumerate the responsibilities that he thinks we ought to have enshrined in law.*  

Until then his speeches will merely be about appeasing people who think human rights acts are “villains charters” rather than anything useful.  

I await the forthcoming Green Paper with waning interest.


(check out the 2007 Green Paper where responsibilities / duties / obligations are mentioned god knows how many times but there is not one example, so far as I can see.)


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