Are human rights truly universal? So asks Helena Kennedy QC in a forthcoming programme on BBC Radio 4. Hearing the trailer for the programme got me thinking about the rights we perceive we have, at this time, in the UK and in particular, if we have a disability, are unemployed, on benefits, female, a child, elderly, a refugee, an asylum seeker – and that’s just for starters.
Today, I was walking my dog along an idyllic country lane when a woman came towards me, a small child some distance behind her. She turned towards the child and screamed at the little boy, who was sobbing uncontrollably. The words that came out of the mother’s mouth were abusive. If someone talked to me like that I would feel like pushing teeth down a throat. Yet, she seemed perfectly comfortable to use such language to a three year old. The child stopped and sank to the ground. She marched back, grabbed his little arm and pulled him up and along the road. He was stumbling and falling. She ignored his cries and carried on.
I stood watching, not knowing what to do. Should I intervene? Tell her what I thought of her? I was just about to march up to her and tell her to stop treating the child in that way, that he was a human being and had the right o be respected by everyone, but in particular, by his own mother, when a car came round the bend, stopped and the woman and child got in. The car drove away, leaving me feeling awful.
The experience has played on my mind all day. It’s a sad reflection of the times we live in, that we seem to be going back in time in the way we treat each other. The pictures of dead children in the seas, the way two women a week are killed by their partners, the senseless stabbings of young men in gangs, the recent attack on a woman police officer, the manner in which this government treats the disabled, the homeless, the mentally ill is intolerable and it sets an example that many people follow.
because of my own family circumstances, I am acutely aware of how easily even members of one’s own family can behave callously in the face of disability or hardship; how it is often seen as a burden on them that they do not wish to engage with. After all, this is the age of the quick fix, the ‘me’ society, the delete it and forget it culture. What’s happened to listening, fighting for rights, caring, compassion? Governments should take the lead in showing compassion, but do they? Sadly, the answer is no and globally, the same culture of diffidence in the face of suffering, pervades.
It’s not an optimistic view of life, and I am an optimist. There will be change, but not in my lifetime.