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Can the left rely on human rights laws?

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Issue 1763

what socialists say

Can the left rely on human rights laws?

WHAT ARE socialists to make of the Human Rights Act?

That act of parliament incorporated European human rights legislation into domestic law. It has given rise to a wave of claims by individuals, campaigning groups and trade unions.

For example, refugee advice workers have argued that Home Office policies of splitting up families breach the act. Trade union research departments are busy trying to find ways of using the act to pursue workers’ rights.

But these are not the only people who have tried to use it. The New Labour government recently said it could not renationalise Railtrack by buying up its shares, which have hit a rock bottom price.

The reason, it claimed, was that the Human Rights Act meant shareholders had a right to be paid at a higher price per share (based on the average value over the last few years).

Then two weeks ago the police pointed to the act to defend the Nazi BNP’s “right” to hold a racist festival. These last two cases show how the act is not the clear-cut weapon to help ordinary individuals that many people hoped it would be.

That points to a deeper problem with legally enforced rights under capitalism. Socialists are, of course, in favour of extending into law any gains for working class people.

Those gains that have made it into law are highly specific and limited-the right to a minimum wage (set at a poverty level and with numerous exclusions), the right to join a trade union (but with many hurdles to winning union recognition), and so on.

But what of wider human rights? Seriously implementing such rights conflicts with the priorities of capitalism. The United Nations declaration on human rights, for example, is half a century old.

Almost every state has signed up to it. The list of rights it contains is impressive: the right to shelter, the right to work, the right to be free of repression by the state, and others.

Were these rights to be fully respected then many of the horrors of the world would not exist-homelessness, unemployment, brutality at the hands of police and state forces. Those features of capitalism do of course exist. The grand sounding list of rights is turned into a dead letter.

The hypocrisy is not accidental. It has always been built into capitalism. Capitalism was born out of a struggle against the old feudal order that dominated Europe.

The new capitalist rulers of the 18th century presented themselves as representatives of the whole of humanity. The French and American revolutions both put forward declarations of the “rights of man”.

But the new system meant replacing the old rulers (whose power was based on exploiting peasants on the land) with the new capitalists (whose wealth came from the hidden exploitation of industrial workers).

So there was a conflict between high-flown talk of universal human rights and the continuing reality of class division, exploitation and oppression. The American declaration of rights, for example, reads, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men were created equal.” Some of those who wrote it were slave owners.

For the capitalist system there are two ways round such contradictions. The first is to deny that people have a right to things that they need. Tony Blair denies that there is such a thing as a right to a job. Instead he talks of the responsibility of individuals to seek work and the duty of the state to help them.

Replacing talk of rights with responsibilities is about shifting the focus away from any collective demands by people on the capitalist system and placing the burden on individuals.

The other way is to accept that there are certain basic rights, but to ensure that they are interpreted in such a way as to support continued capitalist rule. By the right to property, defenders of capitalism mean the right of bosses to use their control of production to sweat a profit out of workers. They do not mean the right of workers to enjoy the full fruit of what they produce.

There is a battle under capitalism about what rights mean. The courts are part of the capitalist state and deliver rulings that limit legal rights from challenging the system as a whole.

That is true even when, for the sake of appearing consistent or under pressure from powerful movements, they occasionally give judgements that side with working people over a particular issue.

At times even that is a compromise too far for capitalists. If they feel threatened they will tear up even the most basic rights they claim to support-destroying parliamentary democracy through military coups or fascist takeovers.

For all those reasons workers cannot rely on the Human Rights Act or even more sweeping declarations. Winning human rights means confronting an inhuman system-capitalism. That is true in the long run. It is also true today over every battle against job losses, racism, and so on.

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