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What we've learnt about human rights

Dreams of Peace & Freedom premiered in Edinburgh at the Festival Fringe in 2014. As we performed, news was already breaking about plans for The Human Rights Act, and that October Justice Secretary Chris Grayling unveiled government plans to scrap it altogether. In the decade since, as we have continued to perform our musical telling of the birth of modern human rights after the Second World War through the eyes of British ECHR drafter David Maxwell Fyfe, we have become aware that they are increasingly coming under threat.

So what has our decade of performances taught us?

Dreams of Peace & Freedom in performance in Edinburgh 2014

Education, Education, Education 

Humanity’s right to freedom and freedom to exercise its rights requires a bedrock of education. 

There are many misunderstandings about ECHR, little knowledge of its history, and only a hazy idea of why rights matter and must be protected. Our submission to Peter Gross Independent Human Rights Review in 2021 highlighted the need to rectify this with wider education and was supported in its conclusion.

Rights are taken for granted

The rights and freedoms listed in the Convention are largely taken for granted by many, who even as they are whittled away take government assurances about them at face value.

Human Rights are controversial

The words ‘human rights’ have assumed a power that is warmly welcomed by some and strongly rejected by others. The strength of the words often confuses and distracts from the issues in real life. 

Rights are not new

Human rights are a modern manifestation of values and protections that echo through the centuries. Curiously some see this 20th Century interpretation, founded on the Universal Declaration, as outdated. But the Magna Carta was published time and again over a couple of centuries and continues to resonate in law throughout the world to this day. 

Human Rights can be sources of conflict

A bone of contention with universal and inalienable rights, and fundamental freedoms shared by all, is that they often conflict with the exceptionalism of wealth and privilege. One side effect of rising inequality over the past decade is that it throws into sharp relief the ease with which the good of humanity can be trumped by the needs of self. 

Human rights conflict with one another, and in some cases this requires arbitration and reconciliation to be settled. 

The Human Rights Act incorporates the rights set out in the Convention in British law and puts the obligation to judge and arbitrate rights and freedoms into the hands of British courts. This can (and has) put judges into conflict with the government. 

Human Rights are not party political 

One thing that has become very clear to us is that attitudes to human rights and fundamental freedoms differ across the political spectrum and are not defined along party political lines. 

Human Rights are vulnerable to attack 

Rights and freedoms can be thoughtlessly swept away in a time of emergency as we saw during the pandemic. Although people are ready to sacrifice their freedom for the safety of others, they do expect those who insist on that sacrifice to share it. 

War can easily return to mainland Europe, and already has to Ukraine, threatening neighbouring regions with crimes of war that seek to stamp out fundamental freedoms, including most importantly, the right to life. 

As David Maxwell Fyfe says in the show 'the law is a living thing' and any list of human rights should be reviewed at regular intervals to ensure they are meeting the needs of society. At this time a statement to protect the world that we live in is strongly supported. 

It is now clear that ‘human rights’, what they are, how they came to be and how best to protect them, is a subject that will be widely debated over the next couple of years as we approach the 75th anniversary of the signing of ECHR.

Created by members of the family of David Maxwell Fyfe our proposal is SONGS OF THE PEOPLE which embraces learning that is reflective, kinetic and communal. Although open to all it is designed to reach out to emerging generations with Lily and Robert, his great-grandchildren as guides.

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