Seventy-Five years ago the nations of the world gathered in New York and after a massive collective effort of discussion, dialogue and debate brought about the creation and publication of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Across the globe tomorrow on Human Rights Day many countries will recognise and celebrate this event and special anniversary.
Almost inevitably there has been a lot of commentary in the national and international media this past week about the anniversary and about the status of human rights so many years later.
That reflection has been against a now almost common backdrop of both resistance and rejection of human rights legislation on the one hand and an articulation of their significance and importance on the other. Undeniably in some parts of the media and political punditry human rights have a negative image or at least the modern articulation and implementation of what human rights legislation seeks to protect and achieve does.
I often think that those who gathered together in New York would have struggled to understand the antipathy or indeed opposition to human rights legislation. I think the reason they would have struggled is because the development of a modern human rights framework was not an exercise in philosophical utopianism or aspirational dreaming but rather it was the result of a traumatised international community where after the horrors and hell of the Second World War millions lay dead across the world and yet more were wandering homeless, destitute and refugees in their own lands. If you read the biographies and narratives of the day you cannot but escape the sense of a whole swathe of leaders and jurists desperate to put something on paper so that we as a world would never go back to the nightmare that so many had lived through. And undeniably there have been over the last 75 years wars and acts of violence which have left their own horrific legacy, but I really do believe that when we put human rights on a balancing scale that the international conventions and laws we saw created have resulted in many more millions having their rights defended and their lives preserved.
The inspiring figures who sat around that table and who framed our human rights were realists in a hard world but they were also trying to articulate what words and concepts such as dignity, equality, non-discrimination, fairness and even humanity meant in the lives of our diverse communities and cultures. So for people like Eleanor Roosevelt, my continual heroine of rights, it was not in the court-room that human rights would come alive and be made real but in the ordinary unextraordinary places of human living and loving, in the ‘small places’ of our being in community with others.
It is in our ordinary living that I feel we witness both the challenge and call of human rights today and I would suspect over the next decades.
Take this past week as an example.
On Monday we saw the Home Secretary James Cleverley announce a host of measures in response to the growth in numbers of people coming legally into the United Kingdom. This was soon followed by plans around ‘illegal’ immigration, resignations and lots of political toing and froing.
I will leave aside commentary on what it says about a nation that we should seek to use another country in Africa, to host those trying to come to our shores. Though in truth it does not say a lot that I would wish to value.
It is the changes to legal migration which are a particular concern for those of us in social care because many social care and health organisations have come to rely on international recruitment both for carers and nurses. What some have failed to recognise is the demographic reality that we simply do not have enough people in Scotland to work in social care and nursing within our own indigenous population. As a result over a long period Scotland has always recruited and attracted women and men to come from different parts of the world. They have come and brought skills and excellence, compassion and care and have become us, become part of who we are as a community, they have nurtured and nourished our place and people, and we have for a long time been better and more because of them and their contribution.
But we now have a set of proposals which will in practice limit the ability of our health and social care organisations to recruit internationally and even if we were to increase salaries exponentially (which by the way I have been calling for for such a long time) we would still need people to come. But it is not the quota restrictions, or salary threshold changes, or changes to the Shortage Occupation List, that I find most galling and appalling – it is the decision to deny people the ability once they have become part of our community, to bring their children and dependents to join them. What does it say for the way in which we value people as a society that we are saying we want you to come and work but we do not want you to create family, settle and put down roots? What does it say of the value we give to social care workers that we feel their families and dependents are so uncontributive that they are dismissed by phrases such as ‘economically valueless’?
The last few days I have taken calls and exchanged communication with quite a few people who are now not coming to Scotland or are probably going to leave their social care jobs to go back home – because of a thinly veiled racist, xenophobic, immigration model directed at appealing to the lowest common denominator of populist demand.
Human rights are when we strip everything away about our humanity. We ask what it means to be human? And we answer in words such as dignity, respect, tolerance, and fairness. We ask what it means to value a person and I cannot see that the ideas and motives behind the immigration announcements this past week enshrine anything other than a twisted and perverse view of human dignity or community cohesion.
We call for human rights to be defended and enshrined across the world, not least in places of violence and strife, but are unable to see them embedded in the actions of our own nation.
We are 75 years on from a time when people searched deeply inside their hurt and brokenness for the answer to the aching question of what did it mean to be human and how could they create a world of human togetherness. I feel we are still asking that question in so many places and the events of the last week show why we must all of us continue to ask that question.
Human rights are not about statute and law books, they are not about courts and conventions, they are about our humanity one with the other, they are about how we relate to difference and diversity, they are about how we value the least by celebrating them the most; they are about making sure all our actions are rooted in dignity and equality of treatment.
Whether for the old or young, the refugee or asylum seeker, the person living with disabilities or those protecting themselves from a pandemic, human rights require all of us to be the agents of dignity in times of challenge. They are as vital, real and necessary this week as they were 75 years ago.
With others I can but dream that in decades to come we will grow more into a community and society that does not simply mouth words of value, but one where we all, politician and people, live out our common humanity in all we do and say.
It is our shared humanity beautifully described in the words of Maria Stella Milani in ‘Being you being me’:
‘Rights, wishes and thoughts.
Face to face, mind to mind, heart to heart.
Vibrations of sights.
We are all the same.
We breathe, we die.
We feel something, we are alive.
Being one when being two,
Being friends, lovers, brothers, individuals, humans.
Suffering and being happy,
Breaking down and standing up,
Why we fight against each other when so similar we are?
We are the authors of our destiny.
Let’s believe that we are one
Let’s feel free, to be free.
Let’s respect who is in front of us.
When we look into someone’s eyes, there is the truth:
You are part of me, I am part of you.’
Happy Human Rights Day.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Last Updated on 9th December 2023 by donald.macaskill