233. Human rights are widely misunderstood. They
tend to be seen only in terms of offering protection from the
worst excesses of anti-democratic and despotic regimes, or as
the concern only of those who are fundamentally at odds with majority
views in society.
234. Properly and more widely understood, and made
a reality in the practice and policies of public authorities,
human rights have the potential to be agents of positive change.
There is, however, a danger that this potential will be dissipated
in imprecise aspirations and pious hopes, or that human rights
will be perceived as marginal to the day-to-day concerns of the
UK's citizens and solely of interest to lawyers.
235. More work needs to be done to promote human
rights as a set of fundamental ethical standardsfor the
way the state treats its citizens and for all our social relations.
We need to build a culture of respect for human rights.
236. Building such a culture is an ambitious vision,
and there are many barriers to achieving it. The greatest of these
is ignorance. In such a culture people would be better informed
about what their rights were and what they could mean in practice.
The most vulnerable would be better protected from violations
of their human rights. Government and public authorities would
promote and protect human rights standards and treat all people
with dignity, fairness and respect. Human rights standards would
be generally accepted as those by which we should all strive to
treat each other; and people would recognise and value both their
own rights and those of others.
237. In our public services the climate of legal
compliance and risk avoidance too often inhibits the development
of a human rights culture. With few honourable exceptions, human
rights are looked upon as something from which the state needs
to defend itself, rather than to promote as its core ethical values.
There is a failure to recognise the part that they could play
in the promoting social justice and social inclusion and in the
drive to improve public services.
238. If it is left to the courts, the original vision
that the Human Rights Act should bring about a cultural change
will not be realised. Litigation is an essential tool to protect
the rights of the individual or groups, but it is not an effective
means of developing a culture of human rights. Parliament must
defend human rights and must stand at the centre of a culture
of respect for human rights, but it cannot itself do the work
of educating, informing, encouraging and promoting that is needed
to establish this culture more widely.
239. To carry the human rights message to the public
authorities of the UK will require a more direct injection of
knowledge and sense of purpose than is presently trickling down
from Whitehall. We believe that a human rights commission, probing,
questioning and encouraging public bodies, could have a real impact
in driving forward the development of a culture of respect for
human rights. We believe that human rights need a credible and
independent champion which stands outside the Government.
240. Disadvantaged and marginalised groups are among
the people whom the Human Rights Act was supposed most directly
to benefit. Human rights should provide a framework within which
to negotiate with public authorities for better conditions and
treatment in individual cases as well as in wider policy campaigns.
But the message about what human rights can do for citizens in
their relations with the state is only faintly heard. Much of
the cause for this state of affairs, we believe, can be ascribed
to the absence of an independent voice to promote and help protect
human rights in the UK.
241. We need a human rights commission. That commission
must have a clear mission, and it must be given the powers and
functions to fulfil that mission. It must have sufficient resources
to do the job it has been given, and its budget must be set in
an open and transparent way. It must be independent from Government,
and seen to be so. It must belong to the people and be accountable
to them through Parliament.