Professor Philip Alston believes the perception that human rights are only for criminals or the most vulnerable is damaging.
Tabloid newspapers have “fundamentally distorted and successfully stigmatised” human rights, according to the UN Special Rapporteur investigating UK poverty.
Professor Philip Alston made the comments on his recent visit to the country to examine issues such as austerity, welfare reform and child poverty.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights said one of the challenges facing human rights in countries such as the UK is the perception that they only protect criminals or society’s most vulnerable.
“Thanks to the tabloids and others, my dearly beloved compatriot Rupert Murdoch, human rights have been fundamentally distorted and successfully stigmatised so we all know that human rights are only for drug dealers and terrorists and criminals and sex offenders and I think that has highlighted for many of us in the human rights community the need to start rehabilitating the notion of human rights, to start emphasising what are in human rights for the average person and not just for particularly vulnerable groups,” he said. “I think that’s going to be a long-term process.”
The Australian Professor of Law at New York University found “a real awareness of economic, social and cultural rights” in Scotland, but not in England.
“[Scotland’s] First Minister spoke to me about them at great length with a real understanding of what was involved,” he said. “There is a commitment to move towards sustained action… and you’ve got a society in which social rights really matter and people know what you’re talking about.
“Down in the rest of the country, in England, it is not all that far from what I encounter in my own country, Australia, and that is a ‘for God’s sake, don’t talk about human rights, it’s not going to help’.
“I don’t really get a sense that in the UK people tend to think in terms of human rights language when it comes to their social justice entitlements.”
Having completed a country mission to the US last year, Professor Alston said “the main problem is simply denial of the existence of poverty” there and the biggest difference could be made if Americans saw issues such as healthcare as human rights.
“The challenge for us in relation to social rights is to create what we have in civil and political rights. In civil and political rights, you should have a sense of outrage, so if someone is blatantly discriminated against because they are one particular colour or gender or if they are physically maltreated, we are outraged. We need that same sort of dynamic when it comes to social rights.
“So, in the US, you know all these people have no healthcare, when they’re sick there’s nowhere to go, they’re just left to die. And there needs to be outrage at that. That is true in the UK situation. People are not getting enough food to eat and that should be a reason for outrage and I think it’s useful to see that from a rights perspective.”
Professor Alston believes “poverty is a political choice” and a human rights issue – although others are uncomfortable about this.
“Many people in the human rights field do not wish to get into the issues because it does involve questions of redistribution, it does require a look at fiscal policy, it does require the evaluation of very sensitive issues of domestic policy,” he said.
“My view is that to the extent that human rights proponents marginalise these issues, they are taking their eyes off the main game… If you want to go down to the issues that affect the great majority of people, often it will be at the intersection of poverty and human rights.
“Being in poverty is a grave threat to your civil and political rights. Most of the people who are tortured, most of the people who are killed, most of the people who are abused in prisons or elsewhere are poor. They are easy victims. They don’t have recourse. They don’t have people to defend them. They can’t afford lawyers. They won’t push back against the police. And there will be no consequences.”
Although he has no formal powers to enforce his findings – which will be published in full next year – Professor Alston said his role is about delivering “accountability external to the state”.
Setting out his preliminary conclusions at the end of his two-week visit to the UK earlier this month, Professor Alston produced a damning indictment of the country’s austerity policies, finding that “British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and callous approach”, which was not about economic necessity but “radical social engineering”.