29 June 2007

Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights yesterday ruled that Human Rights aren't really rules as such, more sort of guidelines towards the sort of policies that governments might like to consider following, if convenient. (Judgement in O'Halloran and Francis vs United Kingdom [word document {blech}])
Those who choose to keep and drive motor cars can be taken to have accepted certain responsibilities and obligations as part of the regulatory regime relating to motor vehicles, and in the legal framework of the United Kingdom, these responsibilities include the obligation, in the event of suspected commission of road traffic offences, to inform the authorities of the identity of the driver on that occasion.
I did intend to rant enthusiastically about the evil of this decision, calling for all right-thinking freedom-loving folk to take up their pitchforks and march on Strasbourg or wherever the damn thing is.


But at the end of the week, having got to my keyboard, I find I'm not really feeling up to that kind of hypocrisy. I'm just not that into human rights myself. Not that I deny that the individual needs protection from the state — far from it — but a laundry-list of absolute "rights" doesn't really provide much protection, while at the same time throwing confusion onto the normal functioning of the law. See for instance my old favourite case of Begum vs Denbigh High School, and others.


Viewed in isolation, there is nothing unusually obnoxious about the rule that the keeper of a vehicle must identify (to the best of his knowledge) the driver of the vehicle at the time it was being used to infringe a traffic law. Anyone with a view of freedom that is offended by that must agree that there are many hundreds of equally undesirable laws that have no similar close connection with an alleged human right. The only sensible reason for taking a stand against this law is that Rights once enumerated must be defended even in unimportant cases, so that they remain unarguable in the important cases. Reasonable as that argument sounds, it is a lost cause once your "Rights" include such windbaggery as "Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life." (ECHR 8.1)


So, no ranting. Although, to be fair, whatever I think of human rights, there is some question as to what the point is of a Court of Human Rights that doesn't believe in human rights.


Anyway, without absolute rights, how are we to be protected from the state? It's not an easy thing — indeed history tells us that it's about the most difficult thing of all. I would concentrate on limiting the size and scope of the state, rather than micromanaging what techniques it is allowed to use. Define domains that are to be considered none of the state's business, and discourage it from growing. If it is kept small and weak, then the people will be able to prevent abuses without need of fiddly rules. If it is large and strong, then no piece of paper will restrain it.

If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities, and the public charities, were all of them branches of the government; if, in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became departments of the central administration; if the employees of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to the government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name.
J. S. Mill, On Liberty

No comments: