Thursday, June 28, 2012

Class and human rights

Over the past few decades, more and more rights have been won by people through their campaigns for a more just society. Globally, these rights have taken on many different forms; here in Bermuda we too have made steady progress along the rights continuum. Extending rights, however, is meaningless if people do not have the capacity to actually benefit from such rights. 

The law actually camouflages this by giving the false impression that we are all equal before the law. Nobel laureate Anatole France gave expression to this sentiment in his famous comment: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.“

It is precisely because of a lack of equality of opportunity that the state must be involved to create a more level playing field and ensure rights granted can actually deliver the intended benefit.

Today we take free education at the primary and secondary level for granted. Education is a right. We also encourage our young people to pursue higher education as a means of better equipping themselves for the varied opportunities available in the workplace. Government and the private sector have stepped in to provide funding for promising scholars but there is also significant funding available for those who lack funds to pursue the right to further education. In the absence of such funding, the right to education would be something denied many Bermudian students.

The right to shelter, a place to live, is a right we embrace here. In Bermuda in 2012 this means the ability to live in affordable housing. Property speculators and real estate people have a vested interest in prices constantly going up.

Lower income people and those on fixed incomes want price stabilisation so they can afford a place to live. Government intervenes to address the excesses of free market economics by building and providing for lower cost accommodations for those in need. In the absence of this, there would be larger numbers of homeless families.

Democracies enshrine the right to vote as the cornerstone of people’s rights. The fight for this right in Bermuda was prolonged and uneven: the 1960s actually saw the voting age increased to 25 years before being reduced to 21 and then 18. Employers did not always allow voters time off to go to the polls so legislation had to be passed mandating this. Today we have a system where eligible voters have to register in order to be on the voters’ register.

By abolishing annual voter registration the right to vote is automatically extended to far larger numbers of voters than would otherwise be the case. More progressive countries have the government actually undertaking the registration of its citizens — in Finland and Denmark, for example. Perhaps this is something we should look into.

When examining rights for people, we have a tendency to ignore the class dimension so often inherent in the application of these rights. But class matters. As much as we use race as the prism through which so many social, economic and political issues are refracted, this can but provide partial understanding. Extending rights to people must come with the capacity to benefit from them. Anything less is less than adequate.

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