Is There a Conflict Between Building a Resilient Society and Protecting our Core Freedoms?

A photo depicting an almost empty Trafalgar Square during the UK government imposed lockdown. Courtesy of London Photo/Adobe Stock.

Squaring enduring respect for human rights while fighting the current pandemic is difficult, but must be done.

There shouldn’t be a conflict between building a resilient society and protecting our core freedoms. Yet only by remaining vigilant to the end goal can we make sure that’s the case.  Democracy facilitates government by consent even in unprecedented times, and the first duty of any government is to protect the state and keep its people safe. This is achieved, in part, by ensuring that we – as people – are resilient, and that resilience does not extend to just our infrastructure. In reality, European governments have done little work with their citizens to prepare them for a continuing event on the scale of the current crisis. This begs the question: how does any government support an unprepared population in an ongoing crisis and what basic rights are we prepared to sacrifice in order to combat an invisible enemy?

At the time of writing, governments across the world are taking extreme steps to ensure that our society survives a global pandemic which has already claimed over 260,000 lives. The pandemic is, however, testing the resilience of every society on issues as diverse as the relationships with key allies to our food supply, the strength of our economy to the fragility of our public services and, of course, the willingness of the general public to temporarily sacrifice some freedoms for the greater good.   

As Article 3 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states, ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’. Given our current predicament, the question for all governments is what price – both moral and financial – are we prepared to pay, and for how long? Furthermore, how resilient are we as sovereign states? How robust are our economies? Did we do enough to prepare our populations for the long haul?

After all, Article 3 doesn’t just protect life, it demands liberty for every one of us. And the UN, at its foundation, sought to provide more than just the sole human right of living – it aspired to define what living should look like. This is why Article 13 of the same Declaration guarantees freedom of movement within state borders, and Article 20 reasserts our right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. All of these have been temporarily curtailed in recent weeks, along with our ability to exercise our rights under Articles 18 and 19 – our rights for freedom of expression and freedom of thought. For, after all, even with video conferencing and endless twitter threads – which have quickly become the chief modes of expression in lockdown – it’s harder to make your voice heard, or to engage with the national media and policymakers from your home.

Furthermore, journalists cannot travel easily to cover a story and, even as they strive to continue to deliver our daily news, fewer people are venturing out to buy a newspaper. Our physical worlds are becoming smaller, and the impact of informed journalism on the ground is lessened as a result.

So, we are left with the dreaded word for any politician – compromise. We will need to continue the temporary curtailment of some of our normal ways of living to beat coronavirus, but we will also need to have a national conversation about what that looks like and for how long these restrictions on our freedoms will continue in order to ensure ongoing consent.

We need to embrace our collective resilience and our responsibilities to each other in the years ahead. We must also be prepared to dismiss the absolutists, those who are prepared to put aside all of our usual freedoms to defeat the pandemic. After all, we need to remember what type of society we are trying to protect. Over the past few weeks, some commentators have already begun to make the dismissive argument that the so-called ‘human rights brigade’ should be ignored as the UK seeks to (finally) implement a coronavirus infection tracing system.

Yes, nothing is more important than protecting life. Yet I would caution everyone to remember that it’s the quality of life and our values that we are also seeking to protect.

Ruth Smeeth is a Labour Party politician who served until recently as an MP.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.




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