Human Rights: 50th Anniversary of the Adoption of ICCPR and ICESCR by UNGA

Deputy British High Commissioner to Malaysia, Paul Rennie says human rights is a process, and we must constantly seek positive changes for a better tomorrow.

Paul Rennie OBE

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It is the depressing reality of human history, and indeed our present, that war has been every present. And it will come as no surprise that it is often during conflict that some of the worst human rights abuses have taken place.

But it is also interesting that in the heat of conflict, when human emotions are at their most raw, that the cause of human rights can still be advanced though sometimes for surprising reasons.

A case in point is the treatment of Prisoners of War. In spite of our long history of conflict, the term ‘prisoner of war’ didn’t exist until around 1660. Why? That’s because people didn’t take prisoners. Back then, when two nations entered an armed struggle, the objective was simply to eliminate as many of the other side as possible. Prisoners were an inconvenience.

In Roman times, those who were captured were generally sold into slavery. While in later years, any prisoners taken were simply executed – often in tit-for-tat exchanges.

But around the 1800s, things started to change. War had become more professionalised and more costly, and the pressure on generals for swift victories, particularly when an emerging national press were watching, increased.

And here was the challenge. If the enemy you were fighting knew that, should they be captured, they were likely to be executed, it made little sense to surrender. In the balance of self interest it made more sense to fight to the last in the hope you might just make it through. This in turn made victory more costly, and time consuming, for your opponent.

So the British began trialling a new, some would say radical idea, of keeping prisoners alive. In 1797, the earliest known purpose-built prisoner of war camp was erected at Norman Cross in the UK, to house prisoners from the Napoleonic wars. And it was not simply a cage to keep them locked up, it was intended to be a model of humane treatment, with quality food rations and hygienic bunking.

Why go to such lengths? More than a hundred years before The Hague and Vienna conventions would set legal standards on the treatment of prisoners, why should British generals want to handle them so fairly? The answer was simple self interest. If enemy combatants knew that good food and a warm bed awaited them should they surrender, it made the prospect of fighting to the last much less attractive, and victory that much easier.

But why such a long intervention on this? It is because I am economist by profession, and much of economics speaks to the reality of human self interest. Adam Smith’s idea that with the right incentives, people’s own self interests can work for the good of society as a whole. And I believe much of the same is true for Human Rights.

There is space, always, for idealism and lofty goals to which we should aspire. But my belief is that on a practical level, where we are looking for nations and regimes to improve their standards, we must demonstrate to them that it benefits their own ends.

Why should you not execute the enemies’ soldiers? Because it is likely to save the lives of your own soldiers and shorten the duration of a campaign.

Why do fair and transparent judicial processes matter? Because it increases confidence and reassures inward investors that they will be treated fairly, thereby boosting the country’s wealth and the government’s revenue.

Why hold free and fair elections? Because it gives you a clear sense of the will of the people, and reduces the risk that pressure will build and break out in revolution.

In each of these scenarios, human rights are advanced through simple self interest.

For anyone that would bring change, not just on human rights but on any of the biggest problems affecting our world today, there is always the challenge of talking to the echo chamber.

We are angry about the destruction of our forests, and assemble a hundred people in a room who agree, before they all go home. Or we are outraged about abuses of human rights in conflict, and attract ten thousand hits on Facebook, before people click over to the next link. Or the world is stunned by the image of the body of a migrant child washed up on the shore, and after a few days on the front pages, everyone has moved on.

It is not to say that such incidents do not matter, or do not change minds. But it is the practical steps we take to embed fundamental change in societal reactions to a situation that delivers change for the long term.

I am conscious that today, it will be 50 years since the UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. That is significant, and should be applauded.

But it is not the paper that makes the rights, it is the people.

As a man who had worked for the UK Mission to the United Nations, I am all too aware of the gap that can often exist between the beliefs of the policy makers, and those of the people – though it is also true, that sometimes you must step further forward than the group to lead change.

The UK is a case in point. The death penalty, for example, remained on our statute books until 1998 (though in truth only for treason and piracy with violence). And yet the last person we executed, was Peter Anthony Allen, on the 13 August 1964. Why? Because the political tide on the death penalty had receded long before the final legal waters would.

Another case in point is detention without charge in the UK. Until 2011 you could be detained for up to 28 days under the Terrorism Act without charge, before being subsequently reduced to 14. Yet under the old rules how many people had actually been held for over 14 days – six.

In spite of all the attacks in the UK, and all the threats, only six people had ever been held for that long, even though it was perfectly legal to do so. Why? Because the police knew that the judiciary would have stood firmly in the way of any wide ranging use of the power – and done so with the weight of public opinion behind them.

All of which is to say that the struggle for Human Rights is a process, not a destination. It must have ideals and aspirations, but it must also be grounded in practicalities – as a colleague once put it, you must choose the battles that are small enough to win, but big enough to matter.

A society’s decision to observe certain rights can exist even when such rights are un-codified. And their decision not to violate certain rights can exist even when the law would allow it.

I believe our role as policy makers is to understand what motivates those we would wish to change, and find opportunities that play to those motivations to bring about that change.

Some steps will be small, some large. Some will lead ahead of the change, while others may lag behind as change overtakes us.

But our goal should remain to ensure the rights of those we wish to protect are better tomorrow, than they were today, no matter how small the change.

Thank you.

Published 9 January 2017