The Connexions Annual:
Introduction to Human Rights & Civil Liberties

Western society is strongly coloured by the idea that there are rights which belong to all human beings “by right”, rights which no authority is entitled to deny or to take away.

At the same time, however, we also know that whatever rights one thinks there ought to be, or whatever rights people are said to have, the rights that people actually have exist only because they fought for them and achieved them. Rights are won.

And rights can be lost. They can be lost if those who are concerned with defending them are isolated, weak, not organized enough, or not vigilant enough.

There is no universal agreement on the definition of human rights. On the contrary, competing definitions — and more precisely attempts to legislate and implement particular rights — give rise to some of the sharpest conflicts of our time. This is because in many instances, the assertion or expansion of a particular human right brings it into conflict with what some other groups see as their rights, or has costs associated with it which others are reluctant to pay.

In our day we can see this as a wide range of groups attempt to assert their rights, including many rights that have a strong social or economic component. Thus the French–speaking majority in Quebec trying to assert its right to a francophone Quebec comes into conflict with the English–speaking minority seeking to preserve its linguistic rights. Tenant groups who see housing as a human right, and workers wanting the right to change unsafe workplaces both conflict with those defending the rights of property. Those advocating affirmative action clash with those who believe that the principle of hiring strictly on merit is being attacked.

In question too is how real ‘paper’ rights are in the absense of the conditions needed to exercise those rights. How real is our right to free speech when a few conglomerates control nearly all the mass media? Are a forestry giant and a citizens’ group really equal before the law when the company is able to bankrupt the tiny challenger simply by dragging them into court and letting legal fees mount?

And what about more radical extensions of our rights? If we have the right to democracy, can’t one argue that this should also include the right to democratic control over the corporations which now control most of our economy?

Perhaps the single most crucial question facing any group concerned with extending or defending human rights is that of its attitude to the state. While people and organizations concerned with human rights know that it is vital to win support and allies in the wider society, they also know that the most powerful potential sponsor of all may well be the state itself — the government, the courts, the police.

Therein lies a fundamental dilemma. The state is a dominant force in society whose help often seems essential if a particular right or policy is to be achieved effectively.

Indeed, we are often told that in order secure our rights, it is necessary to extend the powers of the state. In order to have the right to be safe from crime and terrorism, we are expected to give more power to the police and the state security agencies. So that we may have the right to enjoy essential services, the government has to have the right to ban strikes. To be protected from hate literature, we have to yield to the police and the courts the right to decide what we are allowed to publish or read. In other words, to gain certain rights, we have to give up other rights, especially our civil liberties, our right to be free of state interference.

As a result, we have witnessed a steady erosion of our liberties. We are subjected to restrictions and forms of surveillance that would have been unthinkable in the past. If one trend is clearly visible in virtually every society, it is toward greater centralization, bureaucracy, and social control, and a corresponding curtailment of individual freedoms.

This is a tremendously dangerous trend, especially for those who are hoping to bring about social change, because those working for change frequently attract the hostility of the powers that be. The more we acknowledge that the state has the right to grant or deny us our liberties, the more it is likely to use it in ways we will regret.

For example, the more it is considered permissible to curtail freedom of speech, the more groups working for change become vulnerable to having their freedom of speech curtailed. This has been demonstrated regularly even in Canada, where laws originally targeted at Nazi hate literature have been used against groups protesting American domination of Canada, and where anti–pornography laws have been used against gay liberation publications, feminist videos, and sex education materials.

Consequently, a strong case can be made that a serious strategy for promoting right and liberties should challenge the right of the state to grant or withhold our rights and freedoms. Those who seek a freer or more just society are in danger of subverting their own goals if they expect the government or the courts to achieve them on their behalf.
There are times when using them is unavoidable, but there is always a cost: a hidden but real shift of power away from us to the government and the courts. In the long run, our goal should be to create a society that is less, not more, state–dominated.

To do that, we need to look to each other for help. We can better secure our own rights and freedoms if we support the rights and freedoms of others. Groups working to win or defend one set of rights greatly increase their chances if they form alliances with other groups, especially if such alliances are not merely expedient, but rooted in an understanding of how different causes are contributing parts of a larger struggle for justice and freedom. We should try to be guided by the idea that “if one of us is not free, then none of us is free”.

For example, most of us may hope never to be in prison, but as long as we tolerate prisons that cage human beings under conditions that would be illegal for animals in a zoo, we lend our acquiescence to the idea that it is permissible to treat human beings inhumanely. If we tolerate discrimination against women, or racial minorities, or the handicapped, we give our consent to injustice. If we accept that anyone may be denied their rights, their freedom, then we undermine our own rights and freedoms even as we undermine social solidarity.

Ulli Diemer

Aussi disponible en français: L'Annuel Connexions: Introduction aux Droits Humains et aux Libertés Civiles
También disponible en español: El Anuario de Conexiones: Introducción a los Derechos Humanos y Libertades Civiles

Other Overview Articles from the Connexions Annual:
Introduction to the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Arts, Media, Culture section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Community, Urban, Housing section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Development, International section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Economy, Poverty, Work section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Education, Children section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Environment, Land Use, Rural section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Health section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Human Rights, Civil Liberties section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Lesbians, Gays section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Native Peoples section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Peace section of the Connexions Annual
Introduction to the Women section of the Connexions Annual
Resource and Reading List from the Connexions Annual

Other Resources and Links:
Connexions Library: Selected Documents on Human Rights and Civil Liberties

Connexions Online: Human Rights and Civil Liberties Links

Rights and Liberties: Introduction to Volum 9, Number 2 of the Connexions Digest (Rights & Liberties issue)