So Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to deny prisoners the vote even though the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that a blanket ban is a human rights violation. But our politicians are on the side of wrong.
First, they say that a consequence of committing an imprisonable crime should be a loss of human rights. But, on going to prison, they already lose their right to liberty, their right to privacy and a family life is restricted and the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly is curtailed. These have a greater effect on a person’s daily life than a simple right to vote.
Secondly, criminal justice is always a hot political issue, particularly at election times. Indeed, in the 2010 election, the Conservatives made a big play about building more prisons. Perhaps, if prisoners were given the right to vote, then politicians would have a much greater incentive to develop a more intelligent and more effective criminal justice and prisons policy that actually meet the real needs of the imprisoned electorate. (Incidentally, this argument also works for lowering the voting age.)
Fundamentally, something is considered a human right because it is considered to be essential to the nature of being human. Therefore, one has to question whether any of the rights specified in the European Convention of Human Rights really are about the nature of humanity. Does being locked up make us any less human? Are we less human if we cannot have some kind of family life? Are we less human if we cannot express ourselves? Indeed, the fact that society has no problem with limiting these rights in respect of prisoners suggest that they are not an essential part of being human. Neither is voting, for that matter.
If one really thinks about it, the overall consensus in Europe suggests that the only real human rights are the right to life, the right to freedom from torture and inhumane treatment and the right to freedom from slavery. Everything else are civic rights – desirable but not essential.
It all comes down to what we mean by humanity.
I would argue that human rights is not really a solution to inequality or discrimination. On the one hand, it is a part of the problem, but not because it gives the appearance of benefitting unsavoury characters. If you define what it means to be human, then it is only natural that people demand that their lives meet that definition. Hegelian scholar Costas Douzinas has written in his paper ‘The End of Human Rights’: “Abstract legal relations may create the conditions for equality under the law but they do not recognise or respect the needs, desires or history of the concrete person.” In protecting the recognition of humanity, rights reduce what it means to be human to the lowest common denominator. Legal personality “negates all the contingencies of existence, race, sexuality, colour or religion”. It is the human being stripped of the bonding, social ties, emotions and mutual dependency and affection found amongst members of small and closely-knit units, such as the family. It is very easy for the state to recognise this minimal notion of humanity, because it is simple. The trouble is that human beings and their lives are complex creations that cannot be broken down into technical specification.
So, do I think human rights documents such as the European Convention should be scrapped. No! Unfortunately, the complexity that is humanity is not all good, we each have an evil side. Human rights law, even as a stop-gap measure, is still the best way that we can protect the vulnerable from the strong, without turning to religion.
We cannot define what it means to be human because we always define it from our own subjective point of view. We need an objective party, someone who is above and outside humanity. That leaves either God or E.T.
As for the parliamentary vote on prisoner voting…I attended a presentation given by a fellow PhD student, Kay Lalor, whose thesis is on the conceptualisation of sexual identity and sexual rights in international law. In many ways, the resistance that our politicians had to the idea of giving prisoners the vote is very similiar to the resistence shown by some countries with regard to legislation protecting gay rights. The thrust of Kay’s talk was that what appears to be resistence to matters of substantive law (prisoner voting, gay rights, etc) is more about the imposition of values from above by an external body. Indeed, one of the arguments voiced by several MPs yesterday was the ECHR court ruling seemed to infringe Parliamentary sovereignty. (Truth is, it didn’t, because it only said a blanket ban was unlawful and all the government has to do is think about some kind of policy that discriminates in some way, possibly on the duration of sentence, seriousness of crime, whether they pleaded guilty, progress in rehabilitation, etc. But it goes to show just how subjective appearance and objective truth can differ.)
Of course, it is not unusual for disagreement between the various branches of government (executive, legislature and judiciary)