Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford considers the larger implications of state-sponsored safety over the past 12 months
Diplomat readers who know their British history will be familiar with the idea of the strange death of liberal England. A breezy book with this oddly gripping title was written in the 1930s by one George Dangerfield. It described how a confident country at the very height of its powers in the early twentieth century fell into constitutional and political convulsions and then world war.
Everything changed. The Liberal Party that had won a colossal victory in the 1906 general elections almost vanished.
And so to human rights. Are you old enough to remember them? Well, they’ve gone. The COVID-19 crisis has obliterated them, once and for all.
As we all know, down the ages humans have invented only two ways of running things:
Do what I say! Or else!
The consent of the governed.
That latter drastic new idea arose from the European Enlightenment. It gained sustained expression in the formation of the United States of America:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This in turn led to different attempts to spell out all those rights, and the criteria for applying them. Thus, some of the deepest questions in philosophy and culture. If all ‘persons’ enjoy unalienable human rights, what is a person? An unborn child? Someone in a coma with irreversible brain-damage?
And what does ‘unalienable’ mean anyway? Surely someone can consent to be a slave? You surely have the right freely to give up your rights! And in any case, the idea of rights has obvious cultural and practical limits. Any one person’s so-called rights can’t stand in the way of the common good!
For all the language and idealism of the ‘universality’ of human rights, there’s no agreed way to tackle or even frame such questions. Hence the disagreements that rumble on today surrounding the momentous Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the then much smaller UN General Assembly in 1948. Isn’t the Declaration too ‘Western’ and individualistic, and/or not sufficiently sensitive to Islamic and other cultural traditions?
Verily, as I write this the news is reported that President Erdoğan has moved to withdraw Turkey from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence that was opened for signatures in 2011 in Istanbul itself. The argument in part is that the Convention’s language on gender identity undermines Turkish family values, and that Turkey’s own laws suffice to give women due legal protections.
In other words, human rights are like anything else. They have limits. That said, surely limits too have limits? And while it’s possible if not reasonable and necessary for the state to tweak our unalienable rights on the margins (as Turkey’s leadership might claim it’s doing), the state surely can’t just abolish the very idea of rights as such?
Enter COVID-19. It turns out that the Enlightenment and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and almost everything else ever written about human rights was wrong. Far from being unalienable, all human rights are subservient to a brand-new doctrine: State-Sponsored Safety.
The right to travel and to enter your own country freely? To run a business? To comfort a dying relative? To invite friends round to your home? To have some privacy and not be monitored by the state when you go to a café? To sit in a park? To go to a football match or just kick a ball around with friends? To walk about not muzzled like a dog?
All gone. Because YOU HAVE TO BE SAFE. AT ANY COST.
The United Nations itself explains the underlying thinking, in its April 2020 document ‘COVID-19 and Human Rights. We are all in this together.’ Thus:
[A] global public health emergency on a scale not seen for a century, requiring a global response with far-reaching consequences for our economic, social and political lives. The priority is to save lives…
Human rights law recognises that national emergencies may require limits to be placed on the exercise of certain human rights. The scale and severity of COVID-19 reaches a level where restrictions are justified on public health grounds…
Ah. But even if it might be broadly agreed that in an emergency human rights can be curtailed, now we need two tests. What is the test of when such a situation is reached? And what then is a proportionate response?
Thus, by WHO estimates something close to 1.5 million people die on the roads around the world every year. Yet we don’t shut down roads or limit speeds to five miles per hour to make everyone SAFE. We don’t ban smoking, even though several million people a year die from diseases linked to smoking. The rights of citizens to take responsibility for their own choices override state-imposed safety-at-all-costs.
The philosophical problem with the way that states around the world have responded to the COVID-19 is that they have panicked and abandoned this sense of proportionality. Focusing policy responses in a crass utilitarian calculation on more or less measurable COVID-19 deaths means that unmeasurable things such as the a priori value of human rights don’t count at all.
It’s not that COVID-19 isn’t a problem. Of course, it is. But the intelligent policy issue here is how COVID-19 compares as a problem to other problems. And how far it’s wise to throw resources and restrictions at this problem at the risk of creating new problems or making other problems (say cancer and depression) far worse.
Yes, money can be spent on trying to make any one thing ‘safer’. But money spent on this won’t be spent on other things that might have far greater positive multiplier effects. Throwing money at the latest supposed disaster risks being a ghastly example of confirmation bias. You focus on what you can see but play down or ignore what you’re not looking at or can’t see, including deaths caused by your new policies that happen some way in the future.
Once the state flings itself an open-ended approach to ‘safety’ and ‘saving lives’ there are literally no limits on what it does as it flails around. Thus, dizzying blunders in the UK government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Take the insane Test and Trace scheme. This alone has cost £37billion. Imagine if instead we’d set up inventive crowd-sourced ways to ‘save lives’ both in the UK and globally, and then spent a fraction of that giddy sum experimenting with what in fact works. Test and Trace has been described by former top UK Treasury official Lord Macpherson as “the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time.” Yet calls to stop this madness stay muted.
Hence the ruinous (intended?) consequence of this COVID-19 epidemic, namely that all sense of state self-restraint in curbing human rights has been jettisoned. Why not maintain a constant State of Emergency just in case as the ‘new normal’? After all, human rights around the planet have been slashed because of the COVID-19 emergency, with hardly a squeak of protest. What about the far greater climate emergency?
When I was growing up it was impossible to deny that human rights in ‘Western’ countries were orders of magnitude more respected than in the communist or wider autocratic world. The Cold War ended. Freedom won. Hurrah.
Yet since then it’s all got … slippery. There’s no longer a confident Western instinct of freedom. Our human rights are gnawed away as the state adopts a creepy sense that anything goes in keeping people safe from illness or injury or even a stupid Tweeted insult.
We’re victims of speedy global convergence on a new oppressive collectivist idea of lowest common denominator freedom, with states around the planet now at one in agreeing to tolerate only as much freedom as they can’t avoid conceding.
No leader on Earth will now step forward and speak honestly:
“Citizens! Bad news!
This winter there could be over 40,000 deaths from flu. This is more than happened in 2014 and in many other bad winters we’ve had.
Some pressure groups are demanding that I proclaim an emergency, shutting down normal life and cancelling your human rights. Because ‘if even one life is saved, it’s worth it’.
No! The underlying logic of that argument is insane. And the economic and human costs of implementing it will be calamitous for decades to come.
Take sensible personal precautions if you feel unwell. Otherwise carry on.”