The following article by the Equality and Human Rights Commission's chair, Trevor Phillips, is published in today's Daily Telegraph (December 10, 2008).
Winston Churchill knew the value of our liberty
Trevor Phillips marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights today, I want to take a small liberty and say something about one of the United Nations' wise founders - Winston Churchill. I believe Churchill would have raised a glass of Pol Roger, his favourite champagne, both to the anniversary and the judges who ruled last week that the records of two men, both innocent, should not be retained on Britain's national DNA database.
Churchill's primary motivation for supporting the codification of our rights as citizens was his desire that we should never again witness anything like the grotesque abuse of power by the Nazi state. I am not suggesting any analogy between the DNA database and Nazi repression, but I think Churchill's ire in this instance would have been directed at state officiousness and its intrusion into each of our daily lives. He understood that totalitarian power can develop when the little pigeon-steps that a state may take in the well-intentioned effort to ensure its people's security are not used proportionately and with common sense .
Churchill's vision, laid out 60 years ago in a speech just before the UN adopted the universal declaration, was about a society that should be allowed to live free to achieve. "What is it that all these wage-earners, skilled artisans, soldiers and tillers of the soil require, deserve, and may be led to demand?" he asked. "Is it not a fair chance to make a home, to reap the fruits of their toil, to cherish their wives, to bring up their children in a decent manner and to dwell in peace and safety, without fear or bullying or monstrous burdens or exploitations, however this may be imposed upon them? That is their heart's desire. That is what we mean to win for them."
A progressive like myself might have a bone to pick about wives being cherished while husbands till the soil, but you can't take issue with the ageless notions of decency and fairness that Churchill expressed. And I believe that the case for a code defending the individual against the state is more vital now than it ever has been.
Of course no one right trumps another, but I feel notions of privacy, dignity and our right to a family life have the most resonance in Britain today.
When we look back at events in 1948, it can seem part of a different epoch. Thanks to advances such as the internet, we have entered an age of connectivity and total knowledge. But we are still working through the implications of this brave - but sometimes baffling - new world.
For example, we are now able to map the entire complement of human DNA. This gives us the potential for understanding how this molecule affects our individual make-up, from our physical and mental capacities to, some believe, our sexual nature and personalities. Consider the predictive power that emanates from such new understanding.
Used positively by the health service, DNA technology could lead to targeted healthcare to prevent illnesses. But can we guarantee - with issues such as the DNA database in our mind - that the state will make the right ethical choices about how it stores such intimate information or with whom it shares it?
How can we ensure that three words - dignity, respect and the individual - are held in the minds of OFFICIALS making these kinds of decisions?
Well, there are recent cases under the Human Rights Act that have championed those notions of dignity and respect. One case came after a hospital unilaterally decided to give a 12-year-old boy diamorphine to ease his death and put a "do not resuscitate" order in his notes without bothering to tell the one person you would have thought would be top of their list - his mother. When she discovered their actions she successfully resuscitated her son. Subsequently, his condition improved. The courts ruled that the authorities had violated that mother and son's right to respect for their private life. Now doctors must seek court sanction before treating a child against the wishes of a parent, except - as is proportionate - in a clear emergency.
In another example, a husband and wife who had lived together for over 65 years were separated after he fell ill and was moved into a residential care home. His wife wanted to come with him but was told she did not fit the local authority's criteria. A public campaign, launched by the family, argued that their right to a family life had been breached. The authority agreed to reverse its decision.
It is possible to follow the thread of these consistent British values from Magna Carta in 1215, through the establishment of Habeas Corpus, the 1689 Bill of Rights and the UN declaration, to more modern human rights rulings such as Spycatcher, where newspaper editors argued the right to public information over-rode the right to state secrecy.
This epic span of rights in Britain make the 10 years since our own Human Rights Act received Royal Assent seem but the blink of an eye. Next spring we will report the findings of the commission's human rights inquiry. We hope to provide a useful assessment of how the Act has been used and might best be applied in future. I don't want to pre-judge that outcome, but while we may always have some vexatious litigants prepared to chance their arm I believe such cases are the exception.
I do the work I do, because I believe that the state can provide the conditions that allow us to free people from unfairness and prejudice to let their talents shine. I believe this sense of fair play is shared across Britain, along with a belief in the importance of our basic freedoms. That is why the UDHR and the law that is based on it matter. Churchill, I think, would have agreed.