A bill of rights and responsibilities?

A couple of weeks back, this blog discussed a piece by Julian Baggini on the libertarian and communitarian approaches to rights, which describes the two as providing the new cleavage in politics but suggests that the way forward is to borrow from both traditions. The communitarian argument, as Baggini points out, has always been an undercurrent of New Labour’s, particularly ‘Blairite’, political philosophy. Monday’s speech by Justice Minister Jack Straw suggests that this strain of thought is to become more explicit, though his speech is illustrative of the challenges presented by attempting to combine aspects of the libertarian and the communitarian.

Straw proposed a Bill of Rights and Responsibility. He dismissed the proposals of the Conservatives to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA) and replace it with a Bill of Rights, suggesting that such a move would mean delays in justice and actually surrender influence to European jurisprudence, pointing to Germany as an illustration of this. While acknowledging that the HRA has its critics, notably amongst the general public and the media, Straw is convinced that the balance to the libertarianism of the HRA is an explicit spelling out of the responsibilities of citizens in the UK, currently these are only implicit. There are two complications with this proposal.

First, he is not explicit on what these responsibilities are. It appears from the speech that determining these responsibilities should be left to Britons themselves, allowing them to ‘have an emotional stake in, and be connected with’ the new Bill. This may be an attempt to combine a communitarian approach to responsibility with a libertarian approach to rights but there has been widespread scepticism towards suggestions that we should attempt to pin down Britishness or core values. Secondly, much of the criticism of the HRA is born out of the perception that certain ‘non-fundamental’ rights are afforded to people who have either done nothing to earn them or have relinquished them due to their actions. While there is probably popular support for the substance of some fundamental human rights, there is concern over the universal application of these rights across civil, political and economic spheres, most notably the perceived change in the focus on delivery of the NHS from contribution-based to needs-based.

There has been little evaluation of the reality of these claims, but the perception here is important. Perhaps, as Bikhu Parekh has suggested in his contribution to this volume, there is a need to rescue core, fundamental human rights from commoditisation (a situation where, Straw says, rights are to be ‘claimed’) and restore them to the centre of this debate. These most basic rights are perhaps the universal and the libertarian, with further rights and responsibilities the conditional and communitarian. For asylum seekers and refugees this is already the case. Asylum seekers are deprived of certain rights, many of which, advocates would argue, are rights that should be fundamental and universal. Refugees have access to more social and economic rights, with further civil and political rights available on being granted citizenship. ICAR’s refugee rights and responsibilities project is currently exploring how refugees perceive these rights and the new responsibilities that come with them. Would a more explicit understanding of what is expected of refugees and other long-term migrants aid their integration or would it be thought of as top-down assimilation?

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