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.


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