UK paperback


The wrongs of “Melanie Phillips”

’Tis the season of goodwill and cheer to all — except, of course, to frothing hate-puppet “Melanie Phillips”. In a devastating recent post, “she” demonstrates the evils of “human rights culture”, on the grounds that:

1) The ‘rights’ that that it claims are universal are nothing of the kind. Because they are balanced by competing rights they are highly contingent on the whims and prejudices of individual judges to decide which of them comes out on top.

The post is about Britain’s Human Rights Act, which makes the European Convention on Human Rights British law. So which rights in ECHR are, as “Melanie” says, “balanced by competing rights”? Let’s see. The rights announced by ECHR include:

  1. A right to life — this is, of course, balanced by my right to kill people.
  2. A right not to be tortured or subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment — this one is balanced by the right of “Melanie Phillips” to continue writing “her” columns, even though they inflict inhuman and degrading treatment on their readers.
  3. A right not to be subject to slavery or forced labour — balanced by the right of “Melanie Phillips” to exist only as a fictionsuit entirely under the control of a mad satirist.
  4. A right to liberty and security of person — balanced by the government’s right to lock people up without trial and export them to foreign countries for torture.
  5. A right to a fair trial (see above).
  6. A right not to be punished for an act that was not a criminal offence at the time it was committed — perhaps this one is also “balanced” by the right to punish someone for an act that was never committed at all (see 4).

It’s an open-and-shut-case so far, isn’t it, readers? Only an idiot would think that a right not to be tortured or arbitrarily killed can possibly be called “universal”, ie applying in all circumstances.

Well, perhaps “Melanie” was particularly thinking (if that is not too strong a term) of the famous rights to privacy, freedom of conscience and religion, and free expression. In that case, though, it would not be much of a gotcha to point out that they are not absolute rights, because “limitations” and “restrictions” to them are already allowed, for obvious reasons, by ECHR itself (albeit in terms of studied vagueness).

What, then, are concrete examples of the absurdities to which human-rights law leads in our fair country? “Melanie” drops a shattering example on our trembling heads:

Thus evangelical Christians, for example, find themselves arrested or sacked for upholding their Christian beliefs about homosexuality. Their right to practise their religion is struck down.

In other words, it constitutes a pernicious assault on liberty that religious zealots (but only of the self-identifying Christian type) are fascistically prevented from spreading their hatred against gays far and wide. The “right” to persecute homosexuals under the aegis of freedom of religion, it seems, is a right that definitely should be absolute. So in this case, “Melanie”‘s problem appears to be not with the whole existence of “human rights” in law, but in the particular situation that everyone’s inalienable right to bellow contumely against homosexuals from street corners all over Britain can be circumscribed by whimsical and probably limp-wristed judges.

The column reaches its juridico-philosophical climax as “Melanie” jabbers:

3) Most fundamental of all, the very idea of setting down in statute what rights we have runs absolutely counter to the foundational principle of English common law and the unique principle of liberty it enshrines – that everything is permitted unless it is expressly forbidden. Human rights law turns that into ‘only what is codified is to be permitted’ – which is deeply illiberal.

To which nonsensical batshit commenter “Jonny Mac” replies testily:

No it doesn’t. That’s flat-out wrong.

But such a pedantically fact-based response misses the paradoxical genius of “Melanie”‘s performance: if “rights” are bad, then being wrong is good!

What rights have you “balanced” recently, readers?

  1. 1  hey zeus  December 14, 2008, 4:16 pm 

    “she” ha ha ha ha ha

  2. 2  Alex Higgins  December 14, 2008, 9:06 pm 

    In the post September 11th world, the rights of individuals to life, liberty and due process have to be balanced against the right of the state to do whatever the fuck it feels like.

  3. 3  Tawfiq Chahboune  December 15, 2008, 12:27 am 


    Mad Melanie starts her article thus: ‘Human rights’ culture has done serious and fundamental damage to traditional English liberties.

    But why does she not therefore demonise the Magna Carta, which is a far more worthy object of her ire? The Magna Carta is laden with anti-semitism. But anti-semitism was a “traditional English liberty” at the time.

    Given that the Magna Carta is the foundation of all civil liberties and human rights in England (and possibly in the Western world),is she for or against such “traditional English liberties”?

    Her diseased brain might explode trying to resolve this conundrum. If only Bertrand Russell were still alive! He’d have devoted a chapter to the “bigot’s paradox”.

  4. 4  Barney  December 15, 2008, 1:36 am 

    The back story for ‘Melanie’ claims she is married to Joshua Rozenberg, the Telegraph’s legal editor. Is it possible this article by him is reprising a disagreement across the hypothetical breakfast marmalade?

    Nevertheless, it is disappointing to be reminded by the commissioner how far we have strayed from the ideal of human rights.

    You do not have to support every aspect of the rights culture to see the sense in much of what he says. After all, even those who wish that we had not incorporated European human rights law five years ago may believe that governments should not interfere with our lives any more than necessary.

    How we treat asylum seekers is “a measure of how we treat foreigners in general, and, in particular, how seriously we take our obligations to defend victims from persecution wherever it may take place”, he adds. “A society that loses its sensitivity to the suffering of foreigners, simply because they are foreigners, has lost something very precious indeed. An analysis of recent changes to the United Kingdom asylum system does not always yield pleasant conclusions in these respects.”

    Like Pharaoh in the Bible, some of us may harden our hearts to the sufferings of foreigners. Some of us may also believe that it is fine to lock up a handful of suspected foreign terrorists without trial, in the hope that this will protect us from attack.

    Joshua on Human Rights

    “Some of us”, indeed.

  5. 5  C. Reaves  December 15, 2008, 3:21 am 

    Ms. Phillips does seem to have a point when she states that “setting down the rights we have” is illiberal. The Magna Carta, even though perhaps the founding document of human rights, nevertheless “grants” rights. The problem with having one’s rights granted is that they may conceivably be ungranted at some future time.

    The text of the European Convention on Human Rights appears to grant rights rather than recognize rights. Although based on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights document, which does recognize that human rights are inalienable, the ECHR states that only certain of the rights listed in the UDHR apply to the European nations. So much for the inalienability of universal human rights in Europe.

    The ECHR’s oxymoronic granting of only “certain” universal human rights to Europeans seems to imply that human rights are not held by all humans as a condition of being human. In my mind this seems plainly wrong. From an American perspective it seems jarring that the word “inalienable” is never used in the ECHR because in one section it states that the human rights it lists for Europeans do not apply to aliens in Europe. See the trouble we can get into when we start “granting” rights… we immediately start ungranting them when it becomes inconvenient or unpolitic.

    The reason I said “from an American perspective” above is that the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights set a different course, stating that “all men are endowed with certain unalienable Rights, [and] to secure these rights, Governments are instituted”. The American perspective is that we simply have rights – the government does not give them to us and therefore cannot take them away. This differs greatly from the approach of the ECHR where the government has apparently granted certain rights, and then promptly destroyed the foundation of those rights by ungranted them from some.

    I’ve never read anything Ms. Phillips has written, but in this particular area she seems on-point.

  6. 6  Steven  December 15, 2008, 4:23 am 

    The text of the European Convention on Human Rights appears to grant rights rather than recognize rights.

    I don’t see how you come to that conclusion. In the preamble it capitalizes the terms Rights, Human Rights, and Fundamental Freedoms, very much as if they already existed somehow Platonically, and says that the purpose of the convention is the “enforcement” of those Rights (or at least “certain of” them, as you point out).

    Is it necessarily “oxymoronic” to list only “certain” of the Rights previously described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Only, I suppose, if you believe the framers of UDHR saw infallibly into the Platonic realm and wrote down once and for all a list of all the Rights, and only those Rights, that human beings automatically have by virtue of being human, so that any subsequent smaller list of Rights must be mistaken.

    In any case I am not myself a Rights-essentialist so cannot make much of granting vs recognizing. But I am having trouble in seeing how ECHR is “illiberal”, as you and “Melanie” agree, simply in virtue of explicitly setting out a particular list of Rights. “Melanie” says it’s because:

    Human rights law turns that into ‘only what is codified is to be permitted’

    — which, of course, is utter bullshit. (I am permitted to comb the hair of my ox, if I have one, which action is nowhere explicitly granted me as a Right in law.)

    But “Melanie”‘s problem is with any “codification” of Rights at all — not, as your argument runs, with granting vs recognizing — so presumably “she” wants to rip up your Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence as well, along with UDHR and Magna Carta, to which Tawfiq nicely adverts.

    Back to ECHR, of which you say:

    in one section it states that the human rights it lists for Europeans do not apply to aliens in Europe

    No it doesnt. It says:


    The High Contracting Parties shall secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in Section I of this Convention.

    ARTICLE 14

    The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

    but with the proviso:

    ARTICLE 16

    Nothing in Articles 10, 11, and 14 [on freedom of expression and association, and from discrimination] shall be regarded as preventing the High Contracting Parties from imposing restrictions on the political activity of aliens.

    (Emphases added.) No doubt there are arguments to be had about “political activity”…

  7. 7  Jon Elliott  December 15, 2008, 4:50 pm 

    I find your use of quotion marks around Melaine Phillips distracting. That said, you write with purpose, so I must be missing something? Please explain the need to do so, then the distraction may lessen

  8. 8  John Hayter  December 15, 2008, 5:45 pm 

    @7 Jon,

    Follow the link to “Melanie’s” column and all should become “clear.”

  9. 9  Gregor  December 15, 2008, 6:37 pm 

    Even reading small snippets of ‘Melanie Phillips’ makes me think of the horror film ‘In the Mouth of Madness’. In this film an arrogant Teutonic weirdo (Jurgen Prochnow) writes horror novels that turn the readers into demented wrecks with bleeding dilated eyes.

    Incidentally, many Muslims do not like gays either. Is Mel going to defend their right to be offensive as well?

    ‘In the preamble it capitalizes the terms Rights, Human Rights, and Fundamental Freedoms, very much as if they already existed somehow Platonically…’

    ‘Melanie Phillips’ to Greek philosophy in six comments. Not bad.

  10. 10  Mike  December 16, 2008, 2:54 pm 

    From an American perspective it seems jarring that the word “inalienable” is never used in the ECHR

    The word ‘inalienable’ never appears in the US Constitution, either, and the Declaration of Independence is not law. The existence of rights other than those enumerated by the Constitution is a matter of legal precedent and is only explicitly referenced in the amendments that form the Bill of Rights, not in the primary text:

    Amendment IX: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

    Amendment X: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

    It seems to me that the ECHR makes a similar statement, from the get-go:

    ARTICLE 60: Nothing in this Convention shall be construed as limiting or derogating from any of the human rights and fundamental freedoms which may be ensured under the laws of any High Contracting Party or under any other agreement to which it is a Party.

    In any event, I don’t think there’s anything that would prevent the amending of the US Constitution to, say, permit the establishment of a state church, or prohibit the private ownership of printing presses, if Congress and enough states want it. In that regard, the ECHR is no more or less effective than the US Constitution.

    We may indeed have inalienable rights, but what they are needs to be written down somewhere, and we depend upon a rather complex confluence of history, government, and civil society to keep them from being alienated.

  11. 11  Tawfiq Chahboune  December 16, 2008, 9:45 pm 

    The US Constitution is an interesting document. For instance, contrary to popular belief, the 13th amendment does not prohibit slavery.

    Here is the 13th amendment:

    Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

    Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

    Slavery is therefore legal as “a punishment for crime” and that “Congress” has the power to “enforce this article”.

    Can you imagine the outcry if any other country had a Constitution with this sort of amendment?

  12. 12  Steven  December 17, 2008, 12:54 am 

    an arrogant Teutonic weirdo (Jurgen Prochnow) writes horror novels that turn the readers into demented wrecks with bleeding dilated eyes.

    Sounds like a brilliant film! And very much how I feel on reading “Melanie”. Yet I can’t stop. Help!

  13. 13  ejh  December 17, 2008, 1:36 pm 

    She’s a bit of an easy target though, isn’t she? Demonstrating that she writes hysterical garbage is about as hard as walking along the pavement (though more comfortable, in the current weather).

  14. 14  Barney  December 17, 2008, 4:41 pm 

    And yet, the BBC continues to pay her to rant on ‘The Moral Maze’. While licence money still gets wasted on a paranoid misanthropist, I think she’s a valid subject for derision.

  15. 15  Leinad  December 18, 2008, 7:59 am 

    If anyone has not taken the chance to mark “Melanie” down as one of the top ,a href=”–cast-your-vote-1064113.html”>50 Most Ludicrous Britions there’s still time.

  16. 16  ejh  December 18, 2008, 7:18 pm 

    an arrogant Teutonic weirdo (Jurgen Prochnow) writes horror novels that turn the readers into demented wrecks with bleeding dilated eyes.

    Sounds like a brilliant film!

    For “wrecks with bleeding dilated eyes”, surely Horror Express is what you want?

  17. 17  Steven  December 18, 2008, 7:22 pm 

    I had not hitherto really thought of embarking on the path towards scholarly connoisseurship of wrecks with bleeding dilated eyes, but I do thank you for furnishing me with the wherewithal to do so if I choose.

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts