December 10 marks Human Rights Day. Refugee Council volunteer James Drennan reflects on how meaningful human rights are without effective mechanisms to realise them.
Today is a celebration of both the foundation piece of customary legislation, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and, more importantly, progress in the human rights field from a local and global perspective.
The UDHR continues to be lauded as the basis of the UN’s core tenets, as the framework for regional instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and as the parent of important domestic legislation such as the Human Rights Act.
However, without any way to enforce the rights – and thereby realise the goals – contained in the Declaration, the document itself means very little; with losses seen this year with regard to access to justice through cuts to legal aid.
Human rights must be ensured through a robust legal system, one that guarantees equal access to justice regardless of race, creed and – perhaps most pressingly – affluence. This is especially important when these rights are infringed by the same State that should act as their guarantor.
So, if a local authority houses someone in substandard accommodation , or if an individual with mental health issues requires continued assistance in the form of benefits he or she should have access to effective representation in the courts.
Equally, when an individual is preparing to launch an appeal on an initially unsuccessful asylum claim, appeals which are often successful, they should not face a barrister with twenty years’ experience in immigration solely armed with broken English.
December 10 gives everyone a chance to declare our appreciation of human rights as a concept and we should celebrate our efforts to ensure these rights continue to have wide scope in both media and political discourse.
However, we should also ask tough questions, like ‘what are we doing as a society to functionally guarantee these rights?’ As access to justice is increasingly kept from those most vulnerable, the answer seems to be ‘less and less’.