Human rights in the post-Brexit era

Pat Riordan SJ with Nicolette Busuttil (r)
Pat Riordan SJ with Nicolette Busuttil (r)

Dr Patrick Riordan SJ spoke last week at the Westminster Justice and Peace annual day on human rights. Taking the theme of ‘Human Rights in the Post-Brexit era’,  Pat was one of three key speakers with Julie Ward MEP and Nicolette Busuttil from JRS.  The theme of the day was chosen because of the uncertain transition period as Britain leaves the EU, with particular reference to the migrant and refugee phenomenon. 

Two scenarios are possible as Britain leaves the EU, firstly that they keep the Human Rights Act but remove the evolving and complex European Human Rights framework from UK law. Secondly, or that they repeal the Human Rights Act leaving the UK with its own common law that dates back to the Bill of rights in 1689. 

Dr Patrick, who is also a lecturer in philosophy at Heythrop College, gave a scholarly examination of how rights are discussed in very different registers, by lawyers and philosophers. He concluded with four points:

"When we as Christians become involved in advocacy, political campaigning, legal drafting or legal administration of rights we should be conscious of the distinctiveness of our approach and of the resources we might draw upon for the sake of the common good. Our distinctive resources include, first, our vision of the reasons for the dignity of human beings, and our ability to formulate these both in theological and in philosophical language. Second, our vision of the integral fulfilment of individuals and groups, which we can formulate while recognizing that other groups or cultures may have their own different visions of such flourishing. Third, we have an awareness of common goods, both as ultimate ends, and conditions, and it is in relation to the desired or required conditions for human wellbeing and flourishing that we can enter into conversation with others who may have different ultimate ends. Fourth, this complexity in our appreciation of common goods grounds our grasp of the role of legal instruments and other conditions in relation to human flourishing, qualifying the force of their appeal. These resources are valuable for countering two major weaknesses in current debates about human rights: in the legal arena the danger of absolutizing individuals' rights due to a vagueness in the formulation of the concern for public order, and in the philosophical debates the reluctance to appeal to an understanding of a human nature for specifying existence criteria for rights."

With its focus on the theme of migration, the day began with prayers around the Lampedusa Cross, a symbol of suffering on European shores.  The Lampedusa cross is made out of the wreckage of a boat that carried refugees across the Mediterranean, a journey in which more than 12,000 refugees have perished, according to a study by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

The first place that Pope Francis visited outside of Rome, after his election,  was Lampedusa, a tiny island about 80 miles (120km) from Tunisia, which is one of the nearest gateways to Europe for Africans fleeing poverty and conflict. It was here in 2013, that Pope Francis attacked the ‘globalisation of indifference’. 

Nicolette Busuttil, of the Jesuit Refugee Service, described how the rights of many asylum seekers are being violated: rights to safety, to work, to have a home, to asylum from persecution and so on. She shared her experience of how reaching out to refugees can touch us in a very personal way, but reaching out demands faith and courage, and defending rights becomes a very practical matter.

In Rome on Saturday, Pope Francis gave a key address at a conference on (Re)Thinking Europe: a Christian Contribution to the Future of the European Project, sponsored by the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community (COMECE).  The pope said that Christians are called “to revitalize Europe and to revive its conscience, not by occupying spaces but by generating processes capable of awakening new energies in society”.  This is an urgent task in the face of multiple crises, such as Brexit, Catalonia and mass migration. This revitalisation has happened before; Pope Francis reminded us that one of the patrons of Europe, St. Benedict, gave birth to a “an exciting and irresistible movement that changed the face of Europe.”

A full transcript of the pope’s speech is available on ICN