Opinions

How human rights can be transformational

Written by: Lucy Mulvagh, Director of Policy and Communications, the ALLIANCE

Published: 02/03/2017

Graphic of twelve people standing in a line holding hands, in multiple colours

Lucy blogs for the Health and Social Care Academy on how human rights can help achieve transformational change.

It was love at first sight (or should that be sound?) when I first heard about human rights. I can’t really remember a time as an adult when they haven’t figured somehow or another in my life and it’s usually a subject that’s knocking around my head on most days.

I’ve got many reasons for this passion, but primarily it’s because human rights can identify and challenge the myriad power imbalances that currently exist. I firmly believe that if we were to adopt a truly rights-based approach – as widely as possible in everyday life – then many of society’s ills and injustices could be overcome.

Using rights to support decision-making – at the individual, community, regional or national level – means it’s based on fairness, transparency, equality and proportionality instead of (political) ideology, decisions around who is ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’, and (unwittingly or not) prejudice, bias and stigma.

I’m thinking of decision-making that can apply anywhere and at any time: how resources and budgets are allocated and disbursed; homes and public spaces are designed, built and sustained; health and social care services; income and social protection; good quality food, heating and clothing; transport; education; employment; … you name it!

I’m very sad that there is still such a great deal of suspicion and unease about human rights in some quarters. While this is due, in part, to genuine misunderstandings about rights being purely associated with lawyers, court cases and punitive action, I’m pretty sure that some is deliberate misinterpretation and misinformation by those who are challenged by the idea of greater equality in the distribution of power.

We all have human rights, simply by virtue of being human, and it’s a bit of a personal mission of mine to help raise awareness about rights and support efforts to increase our understanding about how truly revolutionary they can be – for all of us.

I welcome the growing appreciation – and name-checking – of human rights in national policy, but there’s still a long way to go to bridge the (growing) gap between rhetoric and reality and translate rights into everyday life. In the meantime much of the focus, including in health and social care, has been on concepts like ‘person centredness’, ‘compassion’ and asking people what’s important to them.

Don’t get me wrong, of course I agree we need as much compassion, kindness, listening and understanding as we can get. But I can’t help feeling that it’s a sad indictment of how we currently relate to each other – irrespective of where our interactions take place – that these could ever be seen as transformational.  Aren’t they the basic minimum that we should expect when we relate to each other?

And what happens when, say, a service says that they listen to what’s important for people, but then they either don’t, or do but then don’t actually act on what they’ve been told?  Very often this sort of practice is deplored and decried as unacceptable, and a (public) apology may be offered, but what difference does that really make to the people and institutions involved, and are we sure there are adequate concrete measures in place to ensure it never, ever, happens again?

We can’t, and indeed shouldn’t, legislate for compassion, but we can legislate for human rights and rights-based approaches – like the right to free, meaningful and active participation in decision-making – which means that when things go wrong there will be an open and honest approach to accountability, remedy and redress.

But it’s not just about the ‘stick’ of holding people or services accountable when things go wrong. Taking a human rights-based approach to decision-making means we can start with the ‘carrot’ and conceptualise and deliver support in very different ways, nip issues in the bud at a much earlier stage, and even avoid things going wrong in the first place.

I’m committed to spreading the love about human rights – who’s with me?

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