I know it. You know it. As a conservative, it’s almost expected of me to say it. I’d feel bad about saying it, but it undoubtedly true.
Human Rights Day is an excuse for lefties to pretend that their assertions are objective facts.
The past two years have taught us a little bit about the word ‘Rights’ and how it’s wielded like a weapon against heretics. If libertarians ran the Australian Human Rights Commission, you’d see greater emphasis on property rights. The true champions these past two years are those martyrs who suffered for freedoms against the Nanny State and other forms of regulation. Andrew Bolt was persecuted by the draconian and illiberal Racial Discrimination Act, yet remained resolute about the importance of freedom of speech. Tim Wilson championed the intellectual property rights of tobacco companies against acquisition by a non-acquiring State.
And so on and so forth.
We are correct to think we’re better off without those lunatics in charge of the asylum, yet we would be incorrect not to spot the problems with the current arrangements. The Sydney Peace Foundation, for example, gave their highest award to Julian Assange — a person who’s made it his life quest to make diplomacy more difficult and who refuses to face sexual assault charges. Ron Merkel, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case against Andrew Bolt, won the 2011 Human Rights Medal — the Human Rights Law Award went to the legal team involved in the ‘Malaysia Solution’ court case. And Phil Lynch of the Human Rights Law Centre lists increased deference to the United Nations as a success of the human rights movement.
It might amuse a few of my readers that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship is a major sponsor of the awards…
It is impossible to detach the idea of celebrating human rights from ideology. The way we talk about rights necessarily imports our assumptions and intuitions. The libertarians import ideas about the individual; the progressives import Rawlsian ideas about protecting the disadvantaged.
But unless you share those assumptions, no conversation is possible.
There’s a strong parallel between this conversation and the conversation about religion in politics. Howard Schweber made a great point in a lecture about the Republic of Reason: we can have a common society with laws and enforced norms because we don’t have private facts taking on authoritative force. Religious facts that weren’t shared with others were unreasonable and thus crippled the Republic of Reason.
But he then went on to import the idea of rights into his theories about how the State should work…
As a person who is completely atheistic when it comes to rights, this idea espoused by both groups mentioned above is entirely alien to me. There isn’t a common ground for the discussion to take place when one group thinks that these magical pixie-dust constructs called ‘rights’ are inalienable to a person and entail particular behaviours towards that person. Thus we get to the position of turning our assertions into objective facts. ‘No, no,’ I’m told, ‘Rights really do exist and the government is bad for doing everything that it’s doing because of human rights. Check out this awards ceremony. Would this awards ceremony exist if rights didn’t exist?’
When Australia Federated, the lack of a Bill of Rights was a sign of how modern and progressive our Constitution was. I still hold that view. We have a system of parliamentary sovereignty where the protection of human rights is the job of parliament — not the job of the courts. Importantly, under the current system, both the libertarians and the progressives are on an equal playing field: they have to convince people to vote for representatives who will pass laws in their favour. If progressives feel that not enough has been achieved, then they are admitting that they haven’t done enough to convince ordinary Australians to get on the rights bandwagon.
Human Rights Day is a celebration for the other side of politics. It gives them a platform to get some media exposure to test how interested the broader public is in their campaign to normalise their particular view of rights. But the public mood on issues such as asylum seeker policy suggests the the human rights movement is suffering the excesses of ivory tower syndrome (and, as an inhabitant of my own personal ivory tower, I’m certainly not one to throw stones). Perhaps naming a swimmer as a human rights hero (I didn’t quite understand the link) was an attempt to bridge the gap.
The concept of human rights had done enormous good in the world, but the conversation isn’t going to go anywhere while advocates refuse to engage with dissenters.