The new equal rights body won't work

I should be rejoicing to hear the proposals for a new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. But I am not.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

On Wednesday, the Government will publish the White Paper proposing a new Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR). For years now, innovative policy advocates have argued that we need a radical re-shaping of our institutions to combat various discrimination and to promote universal human rights. Six years ago, as research fellow at the left-of-centre think tank, The Institute for Public Policy Research, I was inspired to support this idea by my colleague Sarah Spencer and the passionate human rights expert, Francesca Klug. My enthusiasm came partly out of disillusionment.

In a pamphlet, After Multiculturalism, I argued that old responses to inequality and our multicultural policies had become counter-productive, a view which now apparently appeals to Trevor Phillips.

I have come to believe that the existing structures which we have to deal with inequalities are outmoded and divisive. Britain deserves better protection and a greater sense of shared ideals. We should retire the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission (and hand over knighthoods to all who have served nobly for their particular cause). In their stead, we need a national institution with a fiercely independent leader and the power and resources to safeguard the human rights of all our citizens and residents.

Getting to this point has not been easy. Women's groups have been muttering objections for months. The 1990 Trust, an umbrella organisation of black and Asian campaigners, vociferously rejects the single commission and protests that this is yet another trick to dilute the evil of white racism.

There is a new addiction about - victims vying with each other for attention and special consideration. The new film The Saddest Music in the World - written by Kazuo Ishiguro - is a beautiful observation of this growing tendency the world over.

The new commission may help us counter this malignancy by getting people to empathize across their borders and understand there is no top dog in the business of human misery. Even more importantly, the commission has a vital role to change our culture so we deepen our commitment to human rights and to moral principles.

So I should be rejoicing to hear of the White Paper. But I am not. The proposal comes as we experience a deplorable collapse of human rights in our country. Why all this breast-beating about British and American soldiers and the Geneva Convention when both governments have so systematically undermined the spirit and standards of that convention, and other agreements too? We comfort ourselves (rightly) that we are still better than Saudi Arabia and Burma. That is our low benchmark now.

There are Guantanamo Bay and Belmarsh Prison to show how far we have slipped from our ideals. Then there are the asylum-seekers in the UK, most of them hopeless victims of "Bogus! Bogus! Bogus!" claims by New Labour apparatchiks. These politicians tell us that this country welcomes "genuine" asylum-seekers, and only detests sham applications.How wrong they are. As a result of the press campaigns, people in real danger come to our shores and have to prove themselves quickly and effectively, and in English, within the first 10 days. A 19-page form has to be filled accurately. Then there are interviews, appeals which are themselves questionably conducted, and periods of devastating uncertainty and poverty.

Every week, the Government tightens the screws further, and nobody holds it to account within the framework of the agreements we have signed. It would be kinder to say to the troubled world that the UK is withdrawing from the Geneva, and other human rights, conventions; and that nobody, not the most worthy, wounded asylum seeker, will be admitted.

What we are doing is so much more inhumane. When politicians treat groups with contempt, and the press demonise them, professionals change their practices to accommodate these prejudices. They feel they are doing their duty by following the lead given by their betters.

I have heard stories of two deportations this week, which may help to explain why enforcers treat people like animals, whether they are soldiers or policemen.

Forty eight hours before Lithuania joined the EU, on flight TE435 from Gatwick to Vilnius, several witnesses have alleged that three Lithuanian women were put on board in shackles along with three unaccompanied children. One woman was in an arm lock and a child was in a neck lock. Protests from crew and passengers halted the operation.

Newspapers in Kenya report a woman and her six-year-old daughter were admitted to hospital in Nairobi alleging that they were injured by British deportation officials, and that passengers were shocked to see the woman in chains.

I know through the work of relevant organisations that we are sending back real refugees, sometimes to their deaths or torture. Anver Jeevanjee, an experienced member of the Immigration Appeals Tribunal, sent me a paper outlining his fears that on this we are abandoning most of the pillars of our justice system. He criticises "the insensitive language in some of the Government's proposed policies and [on the] Home Office website". Even more alarmingly, he says that members of the judiciary (with some exceptions) now openly refer to African, Sri Lankan, Arab and Kurdish asylum- seekers as "deceitful liars" prior to court hearings.

"Who cares?" I hear some say. These are "criminals" we want to banish from our country. You only had to watch the brilliant Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on the middle-Englanders in Lee-on-the-Solent, on a mission to keep out asylum-seekers, to see the prejudices. Perhaps they'd like public hangings of these interlopers in a properly organised rota in each of their well-tended gardens. Their dogs and cats can, indeed must, have more human rights, but asylum-seekers are now not even human in their eyes.Then there was the recent mob hysteria instigated by the Greater Manchester Police who colluded with the media to brand as terrorists 10 innocent Iraqi Kurds who were supposedly going to bomb a game at Old Trafford. Even decent broadsheets, which hyperventilated over the breaking news across several pages, have only inserted the truth in mini bite-sized portions on the middle pages.

Human rights are not only for racial minorities. Today, more than 500,000 people in Britain are abused, most of them elderly men and women living in care homes. And more than 60 per cent of child abuse happens within the home or neighbourhood, carried out by adults known by the child. And we say we are the model of civilisation.

All these victims could find redress if we had an energetic human rights and equalities commission. But, as Sarah Spencer told me, the success of this new initiative depends on all of us agreeing on "minimum standards for everyone, old people, children, and unpopular minorities too".

Conceived with optimism, nurtured carefully, the CEHR is a baby that will come into this world only to drown in the cesspit of degraded public ethics.