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Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Mummy Speaks, and He's Not Happy

This caught my eye because the byline says it's by Jeremy Bentham at University College London (who's a mummy, or properly, an auto-icon). But it's actually by the Jeremy Bentham Professor of Law which, if Google is correct, is Ronald Dworkin:

Do not sacrifice principle to the new tyrannies, by Jeremy Bentham, Commentary, Financial Times: When a terrorist plot to blow 10 planes out of the sky was revealed in August, John Reid, the British home secretary, said that those who worry about protecting human rights in the campaign against terrorism “still don’t get the point”. ... But it is Mr Reid and others who think like him who still do not get the point. They do not understand what human rights are and why the honour of the British nation would be soiled by their proposals.

Mr Reid thinks that human rights are like speed limits that may be high when the risk is minimal but should be lowered for dangerous stretches of road. That is a misunderstanding of the concept of human rights. It was, indeed, the horror of the 20th century tyrannies that brought [human rights] into prominence and produced international treaties such as the European Convention on Human Rights and domestic statutes such as the British Human Rights Act. ... This is the abstract principle, from which all concrete human rights flow, that the existence and dignity of every human life is of high and equal intrinsic importance.

It is this principle that Mr Reid and his colleagues apparently think now obsolete. It is not, I agree, a principle that seems natural to human beings – we are by nature tribal. But we have struggled for centuries to recognise and enforce equal human dignity, provoked, finally, by our revulsion at the 20th century dictatorships. We think the principle represents the best in us ..., and it is depressing that so many of us seem willing to give it up out of fear of the new tyrannies of jihad.

I emphasise that human rights depend on the abstract principle of equal human dignity, not just to explain why they are so important that we must accept sacrifices to protect them, but also to explain that they may be violated in different ways. There are some acts of government that in themselves reveal a disdain for the value and dignity of a human life. Governments kill or jail people for their political opinions, or torture them for information, or force them into religious practices against their own faith, or rape or humiliate them, or aim to eliminate their race or kind. So, any list of concrete human rights must include rights against such treatment; these acts must be condemned in any nation no matter what its laws and traditions. Nations disagree, however, about what respect for human dignity requires beyond these basic protections and adopt different provisions defining the rights of people suspected or accused of crime. In that way, a nation establishes a distinct conception of what human dignity demands and it shows contempt for a group when it denies them the benefit of that understanding.

This is what politicians of both major parties ask Britain to do now. They want to jail people, who might be innocent, for 90 days without charge, which is a substantial punishment likely to damage the prisoners’ lives even if they are then released. They want to deport aliens who may be innocent to countries where they might be tortured and killed and to introduce evidence in UK trials that foreign torturers have obtained. They ridicule judges who stand in their way and they demand that the law be changed to give them licence to do what they want.

All these proposals contradict central features of British justice that mark this country’s conception of what human dignity requires. The politicians say that the dangers to security are too great to continue to respect established rights. Is the danger really so great? Religious fanatics bent on murder are not the only enemies of society. We face serial killers, drug dealers, muggers, industrial polluters, train operators who skimp on safety and white collar criminals who destroy lives. It is unclear that the dangers these people pose to our security is any less than the danger of terrorism. But no one advocates jailing suspected pension fund embezzlers for 90 days without charge while their hard drives are scoured for encrypted evidence.

If we want to change our practices because we need more security, we must do so at the cost of our own wealth and convenience, not the human rights of others. We must pay more in fares and charges to support more rigorous airport and import security. We must be imaginative in exploring other measures. More effective detection devices than those in use are available. ... But we must not try to steal a little more safety by destroying the lives of people not like us, many of whom are innocent of any crime or conspiracy. Sacrificing principle in the face of danger is a particularly shaming form of cowardice. Where has our courage gone?

    Posted by on Sunday, October 8, 2006 at 02:09 PM in Economics, Politics, Terrorism | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (4)


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