Human rights, eh? Cue eye-rolling exasperation from Conservative politicians and right wing press. Prime Minister David Cameron opines that the UK Human Rights Act, passed in 1998 and implemented in 2000, has created a “chilling culture” among people who worry they will “fall foul” of it. Home Secretary Theresa May says the Act needs to go. Cameron and May exemplify a belief that the HRA primarily exists for protecting criminals and illegal immigrants, and stops government employees such as police officers, border and immigration staff, and teachers from doing their jobs. Well, you see, that’s the inconvenient thing about human rights. They protect everyone, including those whom the state or the media deems to be unpleasant or undesirable. They enshrine the principle that one cannot be more or less human than another member of our species, and offer legal protection of the rights guaranteed under the European Convention of Human Rights, without cases having to be taken all the way to Strasbourg.
If you have a mental health problem, physical disability, or learning disability, the Human Rights Act should matter to you. Let’s not forget where the European Convention of Human Rights came from. It was drafted in 1950, as a direct response to the horrific human rights abuses that took place in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. The Nazi regime targeted individuals for imprisonment, torture and murder not just on the basis of their ethnicity (Jews, Poles, Roma), nationality (Russian POWs) and political beliefs (communists and dissidents), but also on grounds of sexual orientation (gay men and lesbians), gender identity (transgendered people), and disability. Deaf people and people with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and mental health conditions were all on the receiving end of Nazi eugenics policies, initially through forcible sterilisation, which affected an estimated 300,000-400,000 residents of state institutions from 1934 onwards. During this period, the Nazi government instigated a propaganda campaign which encouraged German citizens to see disabled and mentally ill people as a costly burden on the state, for whom the most effective solution was “euthanasia”. Towards the end of the 1930s, the regime moved to the secretive “Operation T4”, which saw people in institutions for the mentally unwell and learning disabled begin to be systematically murdered by the staff “caring” for them, using lethal injection, starvation and, later, gas chambers.
Harrumphing about human rights comes from an assumption that the legislation has “gone too far”, because the basic rights of the citizen in Europe today are pretty much now inviolable. However, many European countries continue to have a very poor record on the protection of the rights of people who need mental health care, and this a remains a concern for the World Health Organisation. Greece was asked to “clean up its act” on its appalling institutions for the mentally unwell and intellectually disabled before it was permitted to enter the EU in 1981 (there had been widespread shock at the pictures, which I remember seeing as a child, of naked “patients” chained up on the island of Leros). However, since assimilation into the EU progress in Greece has disappointingly slow, while the World Health Organisation notes that Romania and Bulgaria had similarly shocking records, but were not required to make any changes before being granted EU membership.
Let’s not kid ourselves that people with mental health difficulties are always treated as fully human in the UK. Frightening levels of stigma and discrimination persist, with the Office for National Statistics’ 2007 Attitudes Towards Mental Illness survey finding that 22% of people surveyed thought that the mentally ill were “a burden on society”. Just over a third of people surveyed felt that people with a mental health problems should not have the same right to a job as anyone else; 37% of respondents said it was “frightening” to think of someone with a mental health problem living in their neighbourhood, with the same proportion stating that they would not want to live next door to a person who was mentally ill. 1/5 people thought that there was something about people with mental illnesses that makes it easy to tell them from “normal people” [sic].
A few years ago, I studied an undergraduate module on mental health which was attended by people from a variety of professional backgrounds in health and social care. One student, a trainee mental health nurse, shared with the online study group his view that women with serious mental health problems should be sterilised. That’s right, sterilised. Not offered reversible long-term contraception (which, actually, should be offered to all women – they are under-utilised options, but very effective), but sterilised, regardless of consent. When I challenged his suggestion on human rights grounds, the student nurse stated that if I had seen what he had seen, I would agree with him, while the tutor asked me not to be so “aggressive”. How’s that for a chilling culture?
I like my right to have wanted, cared for children (Article 8). I like my right not to be forced to undergo surgery against my will because I am a woman with bipolar (Articles 3 and 14). I like my right to live where I choose (Article 14). No-one likes to be turned down for a job, but when it happens, it want it to be because I didn’t make the grade, not because I’m mentally unwell and someone thinks that means I don’t deserve to be in employment (Article 14). And I sure as hell like to be able to blog about it (Article 10). Save the Human Rights Act.