The right time for rights

The modern international human rights framework was born out of the chaos and trauma of the second world war. In the 1940s when the global community stood at a crossroads asking itself which way next, one response was the UN Declaration of Human Rights which sought to codify a set of universally held values: freedom, respect, equality, dignity and autonomy.

Over the past year this human rights framework, which to many in 21st century Britain had felt remote and was perceived by some as only benefitting groups at the margins of society, has become central to all our lives. The Government has been forced to take decisions which have curtailed our rights. The right to private and family life, the right to protest, the right to practise religion, have all been restricted in order to protect the right to life. Opinions about whether the correct balance has been struck between these rights have varied and many will argue that at points it has been wrong but the widespread acceptance of human rights as the right language for having the conversation has been striking. It has put those universal values centre stage once again.

As we look to the future, the challenge is shifting from protecting the right to life to the question of how we rebuild lives and livelihoods. That conversation again needs to be conducted firmly in the language of human rights and be rooted in the values they embody. It must be not only about civil and political rights, but also about how to protect the right to food, the right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to health, the right to education and the right to play. These rights are referred to as economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights and they are protected in international law in treaties such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IESCR). Protection for them in our domestic law is weaker although that has begun to change in some parts of the UK; Scotland has recently become the first country in the UK to directly incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes many ESC rights.

What has been clear for a long time and has been brought into even sharper focus by the pandemic is that our economic and welfare systems are not upholding these rights for everyone. The shocking child poverty figures published this week (25th March) are testament to the fact that too many in work do not receive a wage that provides an adequate standard of living and that the safety net which should protect this right for those not in work and in low paid work is broken. The result of this failure is that children and their families are denied the freedom and dignity that others enjoy.

The good news is that in some quarters the language of values and rights are already very much part of the conversation. Children England’s Child Fair State young leaders are well ahead of the game and have done inspirational work, reimagining the welfare state in a way that put values back at the heart of the system. The original welfare state was developed in the same era as the international human rights framework but was not an overtly rights-based system. If we are to emerge from the pandemic a more equal society, free from child poverty, it is time to put that right.