The language of human rights has proved powerful for community activists seeking to change conditions and challenge unequal power relations in many parts of the world. From national NGOs working locally in communities like Treatment Action Campaign to the Deep Sea Community in Kenya to the creation of Human Rights Cities – people are expressing the issues they face in human rights terms and calling on their governments to act on their obligations under international law.
In my experience human rights haven’t been explicitly used as much by activists and campaigners working in the UK. Perhaps because of feelings that the issues we face here aren’t so serious, we do after all live in a pretty stable, mature democracy which does a lot of things well. Or maybe because of the toxic image of human rights perpetuated by parts of the media and some of our politicians, Prime Minister included. Mostly based on myths and misunderstandings but still – unfortunately a certain amount of mud sticks.
I’ve recently become involved in two projects seeking to explore what understanding more about human rights can add to the toolbox of grassroots community groups working on local issues in the UK. Human Rights in the Community has been working with a disability arts organisation, an environmental justice charity and a network of carer’s advocates to discover what human rights mean to the people they work with and for, and how they can use human rights law to strengthen their cause. The project has also reached hundreds of community organisations through outreach events. Human Rights in Healthcare works to a similar model, but with many more organisations who are all working on health and social care issues, whether campaigning, lobbying or providing direct services. These initiatives are following in the footsteps of BIHR’s longstanding work with community organisations and other established projects like the inspiring Participation and the Practice of Rights.
Feedback so far suggests that human rights can add a lot. It is an idea rooted in a shift of power from the state to the individual. Human rights standards are found in international and domestic laws that our government has committed to upholding. It is a concept focused on empowering the most marginalised and least powerful in our society. It is based on the premise that we are all valuable, that we all should be treated with dignity and respect simply because we are human. Many groups working with BIHR on the projects have found that human rights can be a useful way of engaging groups in identifying issues in their communities, a common values framework within which to have difficult conversations and ultimately a useful tool to challenge poor practice in public bodies – whether through dialogue and negotiation or litigation as a last resort.
I find these initiatives fascinating and inspiring. Human rights can only really be made a reality in practice if they are used – not only by our judges – but outside of the courtroom by people in their communities. And despite being a relatively stable democracy, there are still human rights issues in the UK. As the public sector cuts begin to bite ever deeper I wonder whether human rights might become a more common ‘lens’ through which more activists seek to challenge inequality and achieve social change at home.