In a chilling moment in the middle of her speech to the recent Conservative Party conference, the current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, made a pronouncement that, even by the standards of contemporary political rhetoric, was shocking in its implication. Human rights, the Home Secretary declared, are a “luxury belief.” In one sense, some such declaration has been a long time coming. Building on a decade of policies designed to produce a Hostile Environment for so called “illegal migration,” and in line with ongoing attempts to dismantle the Human Rights Act, the 2023 Illegal Migration Act is itself a thoroughgoing refusal of the obligations of human rights. As the UNHCR has repeatedly pointed out, by criminalising so-called irregular asylum claims (claims made by people fleeing perilous situations who seek refuge within the UK), the British government has reneged on commitments enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Even so, and even though the UK government’s attack on human rights has been sustained and systematic, the Home Secretary’s pronouncement is a shocking step, fundamentally wrong as a reading of history, and deeply disturbing in the future it anticipates.
Let’s start with the word “luxury.” Luxury, we might ask, for whom? When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formulated in the period immediately following the Second World War, it was in direct response to the genocidal acts of the Nazi regime. The Holocaust required a set of commitments on the part of the international community that would seek to prevent such acts of inhumanity happening again. The Declaration was not in itself a guarantee—no form of words is a guarantee—but it was a recognition that certain political rights must be acknowledged if people are not to be expelled from the human community. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was a practical elaboration of the Declaration. It stated in material terms the obligations that political states owe people, as humans, in the event that those people are forced to leave their homelands.
“It could not be more wrong to call human rights a ‘luxury belief.’ To say so is both historically offensive and politically dangerous.”
The purpose of the Convention, in other words, building on the Declaration, was to ensure that no individual would be forced outside the human community, that everybody would be protected, as the Convention put it, against expulsion. It could not be more wrong, therefore, to call human rights a “luxury belief.” To say so, even to come up with such a phrase, is both historically offensive and politically dangerous. Human rights are the means by which the international community commits to protecting the most vulnerable. To abandon such rights is to abandon humans.
Braverman’s phraseology may or may not stick. As a populist politician stoking the culture war, she is prepared to risk increasingly perilous formulations to establish the divisions on which populism depends. Some of the phrasing will land, some won’t. What she wants her audience to take away, however, is the view that whereas we, by which she means the West, could once afford human rights, now, in some way that is not specified, those rights are not sustainable. Implicit in this claim, under-developed as it is, is an historical comparison, a comparison from which Braverman should have the humility to learn.
The 1951 Refugee Convention was a “visionary” document. As Terje Einarsen puts it, in his history of the drafting of the text:
It was decided to start the work of a general convention for the protection of refugees and stateless persons. The international spirit had changed and was significantly more visionary than before.
We need to hear the force of that word “visionary.” Like the authors of the Declaration, the authors of the Convention set out to envision a geopolitics from which no person would be expelled. In the genocidal crimes of the Second World War, and in the phenomenon of mass displacement that followed, they were witness to what expulsion from the human community meant and were therefore resolved to formulate principles that would ensure fundamental protections. The 1951 Convention, in other words, was a profound act of political imagination, a way of re-drawing geopolitical relations that sought to underpin a different relation between individuals and nation states. Human vulnerability, the document asserted, cut across the exclusions of borders. It constituted a recognisable human demand which states had a responsibility to meet.
“Post-war writings against expulsion remind us repeatedly what is at stake.”
The stakes of the game Suella Braverman is playing could hardly be higher, but just possibly her appalling rhetoric will have a clarifying effect. What her offensively complacent phraseology reminds us is that we must recall the moment of the inception of human rights; we must remember that they constituted that rare formulation, a necessary imaginary, a means of envisaging the world that addresses the world’s most urgent questions. Authors of all kinds understood this impulse and so, as one reaches back, one finds post-war writings against expulsion across a range of disciplines, writings that constitute the context in which the Universal Declaration and its related international instruments emerged. What one finds in those writings are the developing historical implications of the document, as human rights became a means of anti-racist struggle elsewhere, not least, as Frantz Fanon understood, in de-colonizing contexts.
As I write, I am leaving another conference, the Labour Party conference, where the organisation I work with, Refugee Tales, has held an event. Fringe meetings have been deeply serious in their engagement with Braverman’s remarks, shocked by the mainstreaming of far-right sentiment that such remarks represent. There is a clear understanding among activists that human rights constituted a geopolitical response to fascism and that it is the weight of that historical reality that must always determine the commitment to the obligations such rights impose. Whether the urgency of fringe discussions comes to inform policy-makers’ thinking remains to be seen. What Braverman’s remarks must cause us to recall, however, as post-war authors looking forward desperately wanted people to understand, is that human rights were and are crucial in ensuring an anti-fascist future. Post-war writings against expulsion remind us repeatedly what is at stake.