The European Convention on Human Rights was established to create basic, inalienable rights for all citizens of the EU. It has been under close scrutiny in Britain due to the underlying eurosceptic nature of our political sentiment and thus politicians have sought to provide alternatives and improvements as part of their manifestos to gain popular support. One such politician is David Cameron who pledged to provide Britain with a “British” Bill of Rights.
It is all well and good trying to establish who controls our rights, but it seems a more pertinent question to me as to what our rights actually are. The “frontline”, as it were, of our rights would seem to be that of public offence. A pertinent example at present would be that of the crucifix-bearing check-in attendants who are in the process of appealing a ruling by a British court on human rights to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The crux of the case is that their employees have prohibited them from wearing a visible crucifix while at work on the grounds that it could offend customers. It would appear that this is a good measure of the dividing line between rights and governmental interference and that the momentum for an expansion or contraction of our rights will be decided by such cases as this.
John Stuart Mill, in his renowned essay ‘On Liberty’, refers to a sphere of unalienable rights which protect the security of ourselves and everything we regard as essential for a standard quality of life. Mill asserts that any actions by others which do not alienate these rights should be permissible without legal interference. A limited form of social interference is permitted when actions purely affect the interests of others. On these grounds it has to be discerned whether a right to not being offended is one that should be regarded as essential for a standard quality of life. If it were essential then such state intervention through the Human Rights Act 1998 would be entirely warranted in order to protect the rights of individuals. I would assert, from my own opinion, that such rights against offence are not essential for a standard quality of life and it is in our best interests for them not to be as such a distinction would allow for almost tyrannical restrictions of liberty.
In order to justify this view it must first be agreed as to how someone can be offended. To what extent is it permissible that someone is offended by my actions? This is where we experience the first problem with the right against offence. It is entirely feasible that someone with enough hatred of myself could be offended by my entire existence. Is it then acceptable, in these circumstances, to correct the offending conditions in order protect that person’s right against offence? I think it would be widely agreed that such a system where this was permitted could not exist in a functional capacity and would probably bring society closer to an anarchical state.
Even if we take a weaker view of the right against offence and make it a secondary right there are still issues. A secondary right must be taken here to mean submissive to all primary rights such as the right to life and security etc. This would allow the previous case to be dismissed without interference but still leaves room for exploitation. If someone is offended by one of my actions which I consider to be sacred (for instance, someone may be offended by the islamic method of worship) then it is perfectly feasible that I may be offended at their offence. They then may be offended at my offence caused by their offence cased by my action as they see it as a personal attack on their inalienable right against offence. Things can quickly get confusing when continuing in this regard. However, the question still remains as to who should prevail in such a conflict of offence? It is clear that both sets of rights against offence are being violated in this instance but in order to correct one violation the violation of the other has to be permitted.
What can be gained from this is that there is no defining principle which separates permissible offence from unpermissible offence and as such it would be foolish to include such an indefinable clause in any Bill of Rights. Such a clause would leave the legislation vague and open to subjective interpretation that could be easily coerced and exploited. I am of the opinion that any right which can be legally challenged should be able to be proved deductively as to whether it has been alienated and should analytically valid. All legislation of this manner should be ‘black or white’ much like a right to life would be in sense that it is very clear when it has been alienated. If you’re dead then your right to life has been alienated, if you aren’t then it hasn’t. The right against offence cannot be defined in such a way and thus to implement such a right leaves plenty of scope for tyrannical and unnecessary restrictions of liberty as seen in the current case involving the crucifix.
John Stuart Mill – On Liberty