Thought for the Day - Rev Rosemary Lain-Priestley
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, set the feline firmly amongst the pigeons this week by suggesting that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, concerning respect for family life, had enabled a Bolivian man to remain in the United Kingdom because he had a cat.
Whilst the cat story was subsequently put into context, the wider issues around human rights remain up for debate. Most of us would instinctively endorse the freedoms listed in the Convention and might consider some of them to be absolute: for instance the right to a fair trial, to an education and to freedom from slavery. Yet there are others which have limitations. Someone who commits an offence that carries a prison sentence surrenders the right to freedom. And the right to freedom of expression is balanced in British law by a prohibition against deliberately inciting racial hatred. Human rights can only be exercised in a context, not in a vacuum.
The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann illustrates this question of context with reference to global history, pointing out that the notion of human rights is used differently in various parts of the world. Developing nations tend to emphasise economic and political rights, those recovering from fascist dictatorships prize individual rights and regimes reacting against capitalism focus on social rights.
The context for the European Convention on Human Rights, drafted in 1950, was a world emerging from the devastation of the Second World War with a shared horror at the atrocities perpetrated against whole groups of people on such arbitrary grounds as religion, sexuality, ethnicity and mental or physical health. The motivation was to ensure that never again could those in a position of powerlessness be so utterly abused by the powerful. A desire finding resonances in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures: where Hannah the prophet and Mary the mother of Jesus sing the same song of liberation for the poor, the weak and the marginalised.
The most strident cries of ‘It’s my right,’ or ‘I have a right to this,’ often come from those whose lives are characterised by a good deal of freedom and autonomy. Whilst those individuals might have a valid point in their particular context, the ultimate test of whether a society honours its commitment to human rights is not whether the strongest voices are heard, but whether those who through circumstance are effectively invisible and voiceless are by law raised up, to be seen and heard. At the cutting edge of human rights this is what really matters.