Rural Human Rights, Urban Envy, and the strange case of a Cornwall Councillor

This guest post has been written by Gemma Finnegan, BIHR Human Rights Champion, Cornwall, @Gemma_Finnegan (Please note it does not necessarily represent BIHR’s views)


It’s often said that the greatest trick the devil ever played was making you think Cornwall is near the rest of England. If you’ve ever journeyed down to our beautiful county by rail or car you’ll know that it’s about 2 hours further on from where bone- deep boredom set in, or Exeter, as we Cornish call it! All this tongue in cheek preamble is going somewhere I promise you!

My intention in underlining the geographical distance is to illustrate the differences in attitudes towards human rights than our urban counterparts.  Being at the end of the line as it were means there are cultural and social differences too. Ideas and attitudes permeate slowly – though the internet and social media has seriously speeded up this process. In the past I remember that the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s only really entered our collective Cornish conscience in the mid 1990s. There has always been a slight delay in popular culture as if we are still on analogue and everyone else is on digital.

Regarding rural attitudes to human rights it is important to point out that 45% of the Cornish population live in settlements smaller than hamlets. This is a very dispersed settlement pattern and delivering voluntary and community sector services is very challenging. I would say that attitudes here in Cornwall tend towards conservatism with a small ‘c’ and a slightly sceptical view of human rights in general, something the ‘city folk’ get worked up about.

What will probably surprise people is the sheer number of voluntary and community groups in Cornwall. We have a population in the region of 650,000 and there are several thousand voluntary and community groups in the county all working towards, though they may not recognise or call it as such, embedding human rights in society by improving a beneficiaries’ lives.

Cornwall has a larger number of people who volunteer than the national average and these individuals selflessly give up their time to talk with, listen to and help others. These actions recognise the innate dignity of the human being and that each of us deserves to live a life free from fear.

It is only within the last 5 years that human rights have started to enter the common language of the voluntary and community sector in Cornwall and it would be disingenuous to not say that there is a long way to go to embed the principals of the articles of the Human Rights Act across the board. There is still too much focus on ‘needs’ and not ‘rights’ and the sector as a whole isn’t yet empowered enough to speak ‘truth to power’ but I feel that the fundamental principles of the voluntary and community sector, wanting to help a fellow human being, are there, and can act as a foundation that will cement human rights in the county.

Addendum – 27.02.13 ( the strange case of a Cornwall Councillor…)

Last night a story broke about a Cornwall Councillor who had said to a disability rights project worker that disabled children cost the council too much and ‘should be put down’.

The righteous anger expressed last night on Twitter (#BrewerOut) and Facebook has continued today in the local, and I should imagine by lunchtime, the national media. The councillor has apologised but continues to insist that he won’t resign as he has apologised and that what was required of him by Cornwall Council’s Independent Standards Committee. If this is the case then this committee has some serious questions to answers about the Council’s attitude to Human Rights and Equality and Diversity legislation.

The attitude of the councillor that he recognises that his comments were ‘insensitive’ but doesn’t see he should take responsibility for his actions illustrate the battle still to be fought in embedding the fundamental principles that we continue to fight for. The response of the residents of Cornwall show that the majority instinctively understand the innate dignity of their fellow humans: 96% in an online poll say he should resign. Having this in the public conscience is an opportunity for our county to have a discourse and its one I intend to grasp!

Let’s remember the opening words in Article 1 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

CEDAW and Ethnic Minority Women in Northern Ireland: ‘From local issues to international solutions’

Mark Caffrey at the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM) is one of the British Institute of Human Rights’ Human Rights Champions, a group of people across the UK supporting human rights awareness in their local communities. Here one of his colleagues, Ana McCready, an intern at NICEM, blogs about a recent NICEM event to raise awareness of the human rights of ethnic minority women in Northern Ireland and how they can use international human rights to seek positive change. (Please note this blog does not necessarily represent BIHR’s views)

NICEM photo 1Held on 2nd February 2013 at the Belfast City Hall and organised by the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM), the conference “Ethnic Minority Women in Northern Ireland: from local issues to international solutions” was a successful event. Attended by over 50 women from various ethnic backgrounds, the event was co-chaired by Helena Macormac (Head of Strategic Advocacy at NICEM) and Mimi Unamoyo (Vice-Chair of Congo Support Project UK). The Chairs welcomed the participation of Hannana Siddiqui (Joint Coordinator for Southall Black Sisters, London), Marie-Thérèse N’Landu (Congo Pax, London) and Aleksandra Lojek (Bilingual Community Safety Advocate in Belfast). The theme of the event allowed speakers to share their experiences and views on the rights of black ethnic minority (BME) women, with a specific focus on violence against women.

The event highlighted the importance of using international human rights instruments to address violations of women’s rights in Northern Ireland, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). NICEM intends to submit a shadow report to the CEDAW Committee prior to the examination of the UK government in July 2013. The organisation is very keen to ensure that the rights of ethnic minority women living in Northern Ireland are addressed during the Convention monitoring process. NICEM participated in the last CEDAW Committee hearing back in 2008 and raised issues such as access to healthcare, the rights of Irish Traveller women and the rights of women unable to access public funds. This year, we want to build upon that experience and involve as many women as possible in the CEDAW process.

With this in mind the event was designed to specifically look at issues of violence against black and minority ethnic (BME) women. The term ‘violence’ was understood in its broadest sense to include issues of human trafficking, harmful traditional practices and domestic violence.

Initiating the discussion, Hannana Siddiqui commented on the leading and pioneering work Southall Black Sisters have carried out since 1979 challenging domestic violence locally and nationally. She eloquently argued that multicultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness, noting how some culturally accepted practices (such as forced marriages and female circumcision) can be highly damaging to women’s rights. Hannana added that these practices are aggravated by the collusion between State and community leaders. This relationship is guided by a culturally relativist approach, based on a hierarchy of oppression where women’s human rights are constantly disregarded.

Mimi Unamoyo and Marie-Thérèse N’Landu, both human rights activists from the Democratic Republic of Congo currently living in the UK, gave poignant accounts of the ordeal of Congolese women. In Mimi’s worNICEM photo 2ds, women in her country have been experiencing the devastating effects of violence for too long. A hideous consequence of the war in Congo has been the systematic rape of women and young girls, used as a weapon of war because of its destructive impact on whole communities. Significantly, Marie-Thérèse added that  lack of international concern for the plight of women in her country contributes to the severity of the situation.

Finally, Aleksandra Lojek shared her experiences working alongside Polish and other minority ethnic communities in Belfast to reduce the fear of crime and to support victims of hate crime and abuse. As she pointed out, one serious problem faced by victims of domestic violence is the lack of understanding and support from women in their own community. The inability to access services in their native language also prevents some women from receiving the help they need, as domestic abuse is too sensitive an issue to be discussed in the presence of an interpreter.

The presentations were followed by workshops in which participants enthusiastically shared their own experiences, providing valuable information on the real situation of BME women in Northern Ireland and the impact and progress of current anti-discrimination policies. Some of the important points raised in the discussion groups include:

  • The need to empower and capacitate the still quite underdeveloped BME women’s sector in Northern Ireland.
  • The importance of educating BME women and the society in general on how to recognise and combat cultural traditions which hold back women’s rights.
  • How women’s experiences in their countries impact on their lives in the UK.

The conference is expected to be the beginning of a fruitful debate on how to address these very important issues. There will be  follow up  research and events designed to encourage participation of community members in the CEDAW monitoring process so that the voices of BME women in Northern Ireland will be heard by government representatives in a way that might not be possible otherwise. Only then can women help transform the Convention into a truly living document while contributing to setting high standards for women’s human rights.

NICEM have a blog dedicated to their work on the CEDAW process, which is updated regularly, please do check it out!

Death, Indignity and Indifference in Our Care System: Human Rights Abuses Need Human Rights Solutions

Hundreds of people have died; others have been starved, dehydrated and left in appalling conditions of indignity, witnessed by their loved ones. Surely this is what Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary, had in mind when he recently cautioned to need to “concentrate on real human rights”? Yet the rights, legal accountability, and practical benefits of the Human Rights Act are rarely mentioned in discussions about the shocking failures of care such as those featured in today’s Public Inquiry Report in events at Staffordshire Hospital between 2005-2008. Sanchita Hosali, Deputy Director at the British Institute of Human Rights, shines a human rights spotlight on the issues.

When we need toPerson holding the Francis Report use NHS services most of us will receive care and treatment which respects our basic rights to equal dignity. Sadly, for others, often at their most vulnerable, this is not the case. Today’s Francis Report from the Mid-Staffordshire Public Inquiry, the latest in a long line of similar reports into failures of care. It is unfortunate that the report provides little explict reference to human right; however with the focus on patients, on dignity,  respect and safety and accountability at the day-to-day and legal levels, the Francis report is in essence calling for a system of healthcare which respects, protects and promotes people’s basic human rights.  The message is clear, that when we are in the care of public services there is minimum level of treatment that we should all receive. Human rights – universal basic minimum standards based on the values of equal dignity and respect which are legally enforceable – provide the very framework that is needed.

The Francis Report into Mid-Staff presents an opportunity to reflect on why it is important to frame these about the quality of care in human rights terms. Put simply we are talking about risks to and abuse of basic human rights, so our solutions both for immediate accountability and longer-term change should include human rights.

Seeking accountability? That’s what the Human Rights Act is for

Just one of the stories from Mid-Staffs is a stark example of the serious human rights issues at stake. Following hospitalisation for a fall at home, one woman’s “care” resulted in pressure sores, dehydration and malnourishment, an array of serious infections and frequent pain due to lack of medication. After three months she died in hospital, and her body was so contagious she was denied the final dignity of a proper burial. The family argued this was so appalling it amounted to a breach of the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment under the Human Rights Act, and the family distress at witnessing their mother’s suffering breached their rights to physical and mental well-being. Leigh Day and Co helped this family and many others secure over 1 million pounds in out of court settlements, and perhaps more importantly a personal letter of apology from the top. It is also worth recalling that families relied on the Human Rights Act to secure the Public Inquiry in the first place, relying on the investigative duty included within the right to life and freedom from inhuman treatment.

Applying a human rights lens also raises serious questions about the time it took to respond, particularly as health practitioners and those in regulatory bodies have talked about the concerns they raised. Positive obligations under the Human Rights Act to take action can include investigating crediImage of hospital corridorble allegations of harm and taking preventative measures. Perhaps now is the time to consider the role of regulators and “whistle-blowing” laws in light of these positive obligations.

Beyond Mid-Staffs the Human Rights Act is now being used to challenge other care-related failings. For example, Liberty is representing two former residents of Winterborne View who suffered physical violence and humiliation. Beyond the courtrooms, BIHR works with advocacy groups to use rights language in their everyday interactions to make sure services are dignified and accountable, including for example the groups which challenged the blanket use of Do Not Resuscitate orders in hospital wards.

Re-introducing the human into healthcare

Mid-Staffs is a stark reminder of what happens when targets and financial imperatives become the focus and services lose sight of the person. A human rights approach looks at using the law in practice to design and deliver services that place patients at the heart of healthcare, seeking to respect, protect and fulfil their rights.

Our work with Mersey Care NHS Trust shows how a human rights approach helps put patient voice front and centre, transforming services and changing staffing cultures and practices. In the Learning Disability Service staff, patients and carers work together to understand their human rights and what they mean in a healthcare setting. Evaluation has shown the powerful difference this work makes to both patients and staff. More than three-quarters of service users and carers said it has a positive impact on their mental health. Over 90% of managers said this approach had positively changed them as a person, with significant numbers reporting a change in attitude and practice.

Moving forward: naming human rights abuses here at home

Clearly the Human Rights Act is not a magic wand; but when we need health services, it is not too much to expect to be treated with basic dignity and respect. Placing human rights at the heart of healthcare is an important step in making this a reality.

So will this happen? You only need to visit the pages of this blog to see the increasingly toxic nature of our domestic debates about the Human Rights Act. Sadly, this game of political and headline one-upmanship helps foster a climate which fails to identify appalling standards of care as a human rights concern, ignoring an important accountability mechanism and a means for a fresh person-centred approach.

Mid-Staffordshire should not be seen as a one-off or something from the past. As a recent report notes the climate of increased demand for services coupled with “austerity” may lead Trusts to focus more (or exclusively) on cost rather than quality of care, raising fears “that there could be another ‘Mid Staffs’. As Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary, considers the Francis Report and the much broader need to ensure  “patients must never be treated as numbers but as human beings” we should all be reminding him that the Human Rights Act should be part of the toolkit for ensuring accountable, dignified and respectful services.