Holding a mirror, shining a light – Trade Unions, Liberty and Human rights

The annual Human Rights awards,  hosted by Liberty, has rightly become an important fixture in each autumn’s calendar.  An opportunity to be humbled and inspired in  equal measure – a chance to learn about and reflect upon the civil liberties challenges and responses of the past year.


This year co-incides with the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights – the forerunner of our own Human Rights Act., now in its own 15th year. And for something so long established, it is truly frightening that there are so many examples of adherence to this piece of international and domestic law being seen as voluntary, or partial.

So the awards evening was a time for, in my view, the true heroes of our age. Individuals and groups  who, Not for profit or personal recognition, but out of  what  Jude Kelly called “a ferocious idea that we all belong together”, stuck  their necks out, refused to  give in, drew their own lines in the sand and were determined to tell – or reveal – the truth.

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” wrote George Orwell, and that was a strong  theme throughout he evening.  Frances O’Grady and Chukka Umunna presented the “Collective Voice” award to the  Holocaust Educational Trust who spoke of the challenges of the transition from the Holocaust being living  history to just history. Jinan Younis received the Christine Jackson Young Person  award  for setting up  a  feminist society at her all-girls school and being  bullied and harassed because of it. Paul Houston spoke most movingly after receiving an award  for defending rights and  freedoms in response to sustained and “toxic” attacks on the Human Rights Act  by some  politicians and  media after the  death of his daughter. It surely cannot be right to usurp something like that for such undignified, dishonest ends.

Caroline Criado Perez – the woman whose campaign against all-male British banknotes    resulted in   Jane Austen going on the back of tenners from 2017 – used her acceptance speech to highlight the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (or in the UK, http://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/).  A long title, but apparently police in England receive 1 call a minute on this  subject - but research shows it takes 35  attacks  before someone will pick up the phone and call for help. It is right to describe this, as she did, as a “global health emergency”.

Image of the night for me was the video of Celeste Dandeker-Arnold’s award winning dance troupe. the first fully integrated disabled and able-bodied group. It was utterly amazing to see how, for example, differently abled people, together with whatever supporting aids they needed could meld so seamlessly together.


If you have stayed with this piece so far, you may be thinking “all well and good, but so what….”  There are two answers to that.

The first is that the right  for all of us to be treated equally under the law is truly under direct  threat. Barriers to access justice are being  erected. UK Newspapers carrying  Edward Snowden’s disclsoures are criticised – including having journalists gratuitously detained under the Terrorism Act, and editors summonsed   before select Parliamentary committees (although their counterparts in the US and Germany not subject too such measures. Whole communities are being placed beyond the law. Stephanie Harrison QC who won an award for her work on migrants’ rights, gave a cry from the heart:  “If we do not stand to defend our rights we will lose them.”

The second is that we as trade unionists are directly affected by all of this.  Not just because we are also members of society and citizens. But because we too do what we do and believe what we believe   because of that “ferocious idea”.  Because we - our society – achieves more by co-operation that conflict, because we dare to dream – because we assert a human right to the imagination. Because there are many, in politics, in the media who wish to deny our rights and   diminish our aspirations.

It remains my view that many more trade unions and trade unionists need to be part of Liberty. We  can’t leave this all to the lawyers. Human rights are everyone’s business. The awards evening  emphasised the connection with  our core and common purpose,  and that we can and do change things  by what we do.



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