Liberty and Security – for all or the (privileged) few? - RSA

Liberty and Security – for all or the (privileged) few?

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  • Institutional reform

Conor Gearty is professor of Human Rights Law at the London School of Economics and founder member, Matrix Chambers

Distinguished human rights lawyer, barrister and academic, Professor Conor Gearty argues that a new vision of universal freedom is urgently required.

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  • The current debate over the state of Democracyappears to be ignoring a fundamental issue. At the bedrock level, our dealings with the challenges to our democraticinstitutions contain a destructive misunderstanding of Democracy’s implications.  We can probably blame the United Nations forthe widespread presumption that a democratic right is a valid concept, but howcan this be so?  The very meaning of Democracyis political power for the people and power of any kind, unless one believes inthe divine right of Kings, Caliphs or any other kind of political leader, impliesnot rights but duties and obligations. Cleisthenes, in his reorganisation of ancient Athens into a democraticstate, recognised this and went to great pains to emphasise the duties owed tothe state in return for the privileges of citizenship.

    Unfortunately,Universal Human Rights, as defined by UnitedNations, blurs the distinction between basic humanrights and the civil rights and privileges of citizenship, which are not partof a universally applicable deal but national and, therefore, come at a price tobe determined by each state, notwithstanding that it should be open to every person,qualified by the current laws of that jurisdiction, to apply for them.  John Stuart Mill in On Liberty made this point very clearly.


    “Everyonewho receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit.”


    If we can find a way to reorder thestructure of our societies in a way which acknowledges the difference betweenHuman Rights and Civil Rights, deliberations on immigration, Universal Basic Income,ownership of vital utilities and other essential assets affecting a citizen’swelfare will take on a very different dynamic.

    Democracy is a very fragile construct, farmore fragile than most of us care to acknowledge.  Ancient Athenian Democracy established votingrights for every male citizen and lasted 169 years.  (Athenian women, by contrast, had much thesame status as women in modern Saudi Arabia.) Using the same yardstick ofuniversal male suffrage, France will equal Athens’ record next year.  By contrast, Democracy in the United Kingdomwill only stagger to its centenary in 2018 and the United States achieved theequivalent level with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, despite what the 15thAmendment of 1870 was supposed to accomplish.

    Over the 50 or so years between the end ofthe Second World War and the new millennium, the Western Democracies experiencedthe greatest improvements in health, wealth and general well being for thegreatest number of people in the whole history of humanity but, over the last20 years, this has all started to unravel and the direction in which we are nowtravelling will not stop with the destruction of our democratic privileges butin a modern version of international feudalism from which much of the world’spopulation has never entirely escaped.

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