How Theresa May has become seduced by the logic of dictators when it comes to human rights

Theresa May pledges to change human rights laws if they 'get in the way'ITN

Human rights have come under a steady bombardment of disproportionate criticism for about as long as I can remember. Most of this emanates from the tabloid newspapers, a world in which every foreign criminal and potential terrorist – and often just every foreigner more generally – is a Hogarthian grotesque, purportedly scheming to undermine 'our way of life' with the contrivance of unelected men in wigs and frock coats brandishing the trojan horse of human rights legislation.

Britain is no 'banana republic', but if you want to go into politics a winning electoral strategy seems to involve posturing as if you want to turn the country into one. In attempting to forcefully assert 'our values', governments end up aping the very authoritarianism they supposedly stand against. To defeat fascism you must first go fascist yourself, or something like that.

Perhaps then, we should not be surprised that Theresa May has gone where her predecessor David Cameron had already begun to tread as Ukip encroached on Conservative Party territory in the previous parliament.

Advertisement

As we discovered with the announcement of the EU referendum – a tactical move by Cameron to ward off the electoral threat from the Kippers – where Nigel Farage goes the Conservative Party mawkishly follows.

Thus human rights are once again in the government's firing line. Last month Theresa May threatened to do away with human rights laws if they prevented the government from imposing draconian new restrictions on anyone suspected of being a terrorist.

The emphasis here is important: you do not need to have broken any laws to fall foul of the government's tough new line. As Mrs May put it: "If human rights laws stop us from [restricting the freedom and the movements of terrorist suspects], we will change those laws so we can do it".

Yet rather than being a 'gift to our enemies', as a thousand booming Daily Mail editorials would have it, human rights legislation is part of the ideological apparatus that can be used to fight them.

Introduced by New Labour in a moment of radicalism, the Human Rights Act itself helps to undermine the principle on which dictatorship and autocracy are built by promoting the idea of universality: the notion that human beings are basically the same and deserving of the same treatment by the state.

Unrestrained 'sovereignty' - the ideological refuge of every tyrant and cultural relativist the world over - is replaced by the sovereignty of the individual. In a reversal of the usual formula deployed by dictatorship, human rights emphasise a citizen's unencumbered right to interfere in their own internal affairs.

This is one of the reasons Theresa May's latest threat to tear up human rights legislation has been loudly condemned by the United Nations. The UN human rights chief has accused the British government of providing a "gift" to every despot who "shamelessly violates human rights under the pretext of fighting terrorism".

Advertisement

The UN is often guilty of its own double standards over human rights, but this time it is justified in its criticism of the British government. In talking down human rights, Theresa May is giving a subtle boost to the logic used by some of the world's most loathsome regimes to crush all opposition.

The grisliest example that comes to mind is in Syria, where the dictatorship of Bashar al Assad has murdered and tortured tens of thousands of people under the guise of fighting terrorism. The term 'terrorist' is deployed so loosely by the government in Syria as to sweep up everyone from battled-hardened members of Islamic State to teenagers guilty of nothing more than anti-regime graffiti.

The Syrian government has adopted a policy of mass, indiscriminate killing under the sort of Manichean logic used by Western politicians during the 'War on Terror': you are either with Assad or you are with the terrorists.

One does not expect the sorts of people who in this country bloviate and bluster about the Human Rights Act to care a jot about dead Syrians: witness the obsequious stance of many on the right of British politics toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, the man supplying Assad with his murderous arsenal of troops and weapons.

Advertisement

But dictatorship is increasingly the production line for violent jihadism: the conflict in Syria is arguably the greatest source of Islamist radicalisation in the world today. And as the West has stood by indifferently over the past six years, Assad's bloody fight against 'terrorism' has become the world's most significant recruiting sergeant for thousands of battle-hardened Jihadists, many of whom will eventually make their way back to countries like Britain and France to commit murder and sow mayhem.

Dictatorship is at the root of our problem with terrorism, and when countries like Britain rubbish human rights it is dictators and autocrats like Assad who invariably sleep a little sounder. "No more lectures," they will say the next time our Prime Minister stands up to wag a finger at others and talk about human rights violations.

And perhaps they will have a point. The British government is not building a dictatorship, but it is resorting to the logic of dictatorship in its ill-considered pronouncements on human rights.


James Bloodworth is former editor of Left Foot Forward, one of the UK's top political blogs, and the author of The Myth of Meritocracy. Follow @J_Bloodworth


© Copyright 2017 IBTimes Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.