This weekend we mark Human Rights Day — the anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10 1948.
We do so as our rights are under sustained attack. The British state is targeting the right to protest, the right to strike, the right to vote, the right to asylum, the right to freedom of speech and debate.
“Human rights” have often been a propaganda tool for leading imperialist countries to attack developing nations, especially those which do not fall into line with US wishes.
This double standard is identified fairly frequently when it entails contrasting Western criticism of, say, Venezuela with relative silence over an ally like Saudi Arabia, though too many on the left still show too little scepticism of the claims of our political and media elites about “enemy” countries.
Less often do we note the irony of human rights lectures by the most powerful and predatory countries in the world — the United States and its Nato entourage, including Britain — and what these say about a continuing mindset of imperial supremacy.
At the very least, severe attacks on basic political and civil rights by our government should prompt us to reassess Britain’s holier-than-thou posturing on human rights.
Even before 1948 human rights were contested territory, the UN talks counterposing Western definitions that focused exclusively on individual liberties such as freedom of speech with Soviet emphasis on social rights like those to shelter and healthcare.
Naturally, since the rights were being defined by different social systems. Senior Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg caused an uproar in September when he asserted that the right to paid holidays was not “an absolute moral right,” but really the controversy should remind us that all rights are socially determined: unless you invoke a deity to hand down rights like the Ten Commandments, what is and isn’t a right is a political question we decide.
For the working class, the fight for political, economic and social rights has been one struggle, the battle for the vote arising from economic depression and the hunger caused by the Corn Laws.
It is therefore no surprise that the ruling class too sees a need to roll back civil rights at a time when it seeks to destroy economic and social rights, from holiday pay to the “social wage” of access to healthcare, education and other services.
Understanding this game is key to avoiding the trap of accepting individualised “rights” that actually threaten the most vulnerable. Advocates of normalising “sex work” seldom address what this might mean for women in the context of attacks on social security and a punitive benefits system that sanctions those who refuse jobs.
Similarly, when Parliament takes evidence on the “right to die” next year much of the left will cheer this on, despite evidence from Canada that disabled people are being offered “assisted death” as a treatment plan where actually alleviating their problems — from supported housing to expensive treatments — is beyond their financial means.
Waffle about abstract principles and supposed safeguards must be set against the reality of resource-starved healthcare systems, bleak poverty and rampant ageist and ableist prejudice. It will not by and large be the rich who “choose” death.
We need to challenge this liberal narrative with a reassertion of the collective rights of the working class, rights we formulate, fight for and win.
The right to bargain collectively over the terms on which we work and the right to withdraw our labour.
The right to free, high-quality healthcare and education. The right to a decent job and a comfortable retirement.
The right to affordable transport and housing. The right to a fulfilling and purposeful life.
The struggle for these rights will run up ultimately against a capitalist system that cannot deliver them. That’s no reason to scale back our ambitions, but to replace that system with something better: socialism
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