Last week, the State and Federal governments of Australia all agreed on new ‘security’ measures to address what they call terrorist threats. These measures sit in a long line of actions taken since September 2001 which have actually undermined the very freedoms they claim to defend—and somehow we have all been cajoled into accepting these losses. In reality terror has undermined our human rights and freedoms.
The new measures are truly astonishing. It has been decided that uniformly, in all jurisdictions, it is now to be permitted that authorities can arrest a person and detain them for up to 14 days without charge. These provisions apply to someone as young as 10 years of age. Imagine such a person, of any age: taken into custody, perhaps having no idea why. They are unable to contact anyone, and in this new order of ‘security’ no one associated with them is allowed to know or say anything about that.
Of course, we say, this can only happen if they have good reason to do so. Who decides what is good reason?
And then comes the next amazing provision: Governments have all agreed to make available to the Federal authorities—who exactly, we may wonder—the photo I-D of every single person in the country who has a driving licence. So, with this data base of images, it is envisaged that they can scan crowds and pick out someone they think might be of interest, a suspect—who looks like the person they think they want to detail. One instance cited this week was the crowds of people attending the Commonwealth Games in a few weeks’ time.
To start with: Did you imagine that in going to a sporting event, of any kind, you were being watched, ‘scanned’, by government authorities? When, and how?
Then imagine the person who looks a bit like The One They Want—possibly someone whose photo on their driving licence is no longer quite up to date—it can be as much as ten years old. Imagine being detained, even for a short time, your enjoyment of the afternoon’s sport interrupted for no other reason than that your old licence photo is a bit like The One.
What has happened to our freedoms? Our security?
George Orwell’s 1984 has nothing on this. What is astonishing is how willingly a ‘Liberal’ government, supposedly shaped by the philosophy of individual freedom, so keenly proposes and adopts all these measures. This is the same political party which a couple of decades ago smashed the idea of a national identity card ( a driver’s licence, basically) because of its possible misuse to undermine our freedoms. Then, too. Labour governments have all supported these measures, with the Premier of Victoria saying that these measures must be adopted, because it would simply be irresponsible to allow any of the ‘niceties’ of human rights to get in the way of protecting our freedoms. Wow! We can have freedom without human rights.
Therein lies the real problem. We have in fact been overwhelmed not just by the possibility of terrorism. Terror has already overtaken us. Our leadership and our people are terrified. The word ‘terror’ comes from the same root as stone, the ground (hence territory), and to be terrified means to be effectively turned to stone. Those overwhelmed by terror can no longer move, act—or feel. That is what has happened to us. We have been overwhelmed by the fear constantly set before us by our so-called leaders that we have lost touch with the reality of our situation. They want us to be afraid, so that they can manage things for their own political purposes (usually to do with business opportunities, wealth-creation for the few)—whilst side-lining and controlling any opposition. Terror has already won.
I do not deny there are real threats. I have been in situations where bombs were going off and peoples’ homes were being burned. I don’t pretend that there are no such realities. But we never seem to learn that the way to deal with them is not by adding more bombs and killings to the already tragic lists.
These things always arise, always, from situations of injustice and oppression—even if centuries ago. These things have to be dealt with, and they are never dealt with by oppression, suppression, bombings and fear. They require talk. Respect. Honest acknowledgement that there is a problem to be addressed and worked through. That is the only way that peace was ever created. If necessary, then, they require constructive measures to make justice, to distribute justice, to make reparations, etc., etc.—and a commitment to live together.
That leads me back to the issue of human rights. Our current problem as a nation is that we have no meaningful and agreed basis by which to evaluate the provisions our governments now propose. Among all similar democracies, we are the only one with no Bill of Rights, or Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Our Constitution basically does not provide any adequate basis for guaranteeing human rights. We have no fundamental statement of the rights and inherent dignity of each human person and all persons together in our society. Here is a legal and constitutional problem, but there is also a conceptual problem.
The term ‘human rights’ is all too easily dismissed by our current governments, as also by governments in the Asian region with whom we often have differences over such matters, because too often we define these rights or name them in highly individualistic terms. We speak of the rights of the individual. That indeed was the strong emphasis of Liberalism as a philosophy. And there is much to be said for it!
But it is precisely at this point that the concept is weak, as well. This is the point of criticism from Asian cultures, as if our Western cultures place too much value on the individual over against family and community. The criticism is valid. But it also arises from a mistaken explanation of human rights.
Human rights are not only individual. Human rights pertain to every person within the society or community, as a member of society. They are personal: and a person is never only an individual. Every person is someone’s child, someone’s sibling, partner, parent, etc. etc. As persons we are bound up in relationships. To be is to belong. To be human is to be part of a community—and human rights belong to the community, to society, and not just to individuals.
It is therefore of immense social consequence if someone’s liberty and personal dignity is or is not upheld. This is where in fact human rights are undermined by the ‘live and let live’ idea of tolerance and freedom. I am more than happy to live and let live—up to the point where someone takes away my neighbour’s freedom and dignity, and at that point I am concerned, even if it is supposedly no business of mine. It is my business if the authorities come and take her away in the night. (Apart from anything else, it is my concern because next they may come for me!)
Human rights are social, not just individual. They are personal rights. Human rights are communal, even if they are about allowing people to differ from the rest of society. So it is society which has to maintain them, even the rights of individuals who for a time or in some way willingly cheapen their own worth or degrade their quality of life by the choices they make. Nonetheless we all have an interest in maintaining the freedom and responsibility of every person.
Every person has dignity.
Every person has freedom.
Every person has potential.
These fundamental rights and realities have to be believed, valued and preserved. Some of us will say these are God-given. Others will speak of them as inherent in simply being a person. They are inherently human.
To maintain this perspective on our fundamental being as humans is the reason we need a Bill of Rights. It is a collective affirmation, against which we can evaluate the proposed laws and provisions put forward by governments and regulators. And it also provides the clear basis on which we can condemn acts of violence of all forms. Violation of the person is a matter of social and not merely individual consequence. Our life as a community is at stake.
It is on this same basis that we can then reject the over-reach of governments, and the ‘justifications’ they offer for torturing people (Yes, we are complicit in this too, in this new age of the ‘war on terror’). The inhumanity of our treatment of asylum seekers would not be possible if we realised that it is our own humanity, our collective dignity as fellow-humans, that has been so undermined, along with the suffering of those specific people.
Human rights need to be reclaimed from the horrible cheapening of Western individualism and the indifference we have developed. Human rights as a creative, communal concept of the worth, dignity and potential of every person have been undermined by our state of terror. We must stand up and reclaim our freedom: that is, the freedom and dignity of all of us.