This article was published first in The Human Rights Essay
Britain is a very unequal society and austerity has seriously damaged our welfare system and our social fabric.
UN bodies have issued damning reports about the state of human rights in our country. Last year, for example, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights strongly criticised “the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups”.
We are witnessing historical changes in politics and society in general. The mentioned UN report came out only three days after the referendum. As I write this, the Government continues to refuse to bring into the UK law the rights contained in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which includes some social rights. Unless Parliament introduces the necessary amendments, citizens will no longer be allowed to demand the enforcement of the rights as recognised in the Charter. In the meantime, the Government is determined to deliver a heavy blow to democracy with power grabbing Henry VII clauses, and fails to dispel the suspicion that they would like to see lower and fewer employment rights once EU law is off the table.
Whatever one thinks of the reasons why people voted out and of the prospects of leaving the European Union, there is no question: Defending social rights is now more pressing than ever.
Brexit must not be an excuse to diminish our rights. That’s not what people asked for in the referendum.
As part of our work monitoring and advocating economic and social rights in the UK, Just Fair regularly holds events and talks about the meaning of these rights as recognised in international law, and what difference they could make if they were enhanced in our laws and policies. We have been doing this for years and if we have learned one lesson only, it must be this: There is an anxious appetite for economic and social rights in this country. Not everyone draws on human rights explicitly, but Britain is packed with groups and activists campaigning for social justice and against austerity and inequality.
Human rights are not merely a shield from the almighty state. Just like the economy with economists, human rights are way too important to be left to lawyers.
Human rights have something valuable to offer. This is the argument eloquently presented by Paul Hunt in a new wake up call recently published by the Centre for Welfare Reform.
Paul highlights real life examples of solidarity and coproduction of rights. Since 2015 the Scottish Human Rights Commission and Edinburgh Tenants’ Federation have been working with residents in Leith to use the right to an adequate housing to demand better housing conditions. Using the rights to social security and to work, Participation and the Practice of Rights campaigns for fairer welfare and jobs for the long-term unemployed in Belfast. And in Spain hundreds of people affected by foreclosure procedures are members of the PAH, Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform of People Affected by Mortgages). They support each other and protest peacefully to stop or suspend evictions. Inspired by the right to housing, the PAH has lobbied effectively to achieve important law and policy changes at the local and regional level.
In these and other places communities are using social rights to improve their everyday lives and to legitimise resistance.
As pointed out by Paul Mason in his foreword to Paul Hunt’s paper, “as we resist austerity and prepare for a transformative change in British politics, we need to expand the tools at our disposal.”
In spite of its significant gaps when it comes to safeguarding social rights, in the face of the never-ending threats from the UK Government, we must close ranks to defend the critically important Human Rights Act.
But we must do more than that. We are the main characters of a defining moment for human rights in Britain, and beyond. Like all other progressive causes, human rights are nobody’s concession. They are conquered, fought for. They are defined by who we are and what we do with them. Social rights are human rights and we will be losing out until we champion them as such.
We have the privilege of living in one of the richest countries in the world and it is precisely for that very reason that we cannot afford low social rights standards. The present times are full of challenges but we must seize the opportunities to build a broad movement for social rights in Britain.