Human Rights – Why Don’t More Libertarians Support Them?

I recently attended an event along with other supporters at Amnesty International UK’s (AIUK) London headquarters to meet staff, find out how they conduct their business and receive updates on current campaigns. As a long-time supporter of AIUK I was pleased to meet them and discuss with them their work. I have been a supporter of their organisation since I discovered them at University, when I’d purchased their annual human rights reports to use in arguments with the many socialists there.

Amnesty International is a civil liberties non-governmental organisation (NGO) that campaigns globally for human rights. As a libertarian I am naturally aligned with many of these civil libertarians’ causes. Amnesty is probably the most famous of these organisations, though another well known UK-based civil rights NGO is Liberty (originally the National Council for Civil Liberties), whose actions I also support. Both are registered charities in the UK.

While I was at Amnesty they discussed the Arms Trade Treaty that for 20 years they had been campaigning for in the United Nations. This was expected to culminate in a vote later that day; as it happened the successful resolution was passed two days later with only Syria, Iran and North Korea objecting to it. Amnesty are traditionally very careful with the policies they support, with this proposed treaty being an excellent example: it is designed to prevent arms and associated weapons’ parts being sold to nations that use them on their own people; it is not aimed at countries requiring arms for legitimate self-defence.

During my time at AIUK’s offices I suddenly wondered why more libertarians don’t support Amnesty, Liberty etc., especially as all of the libertarians with whom I discuss politics are against state aggression against the individual. Also most of them are against government funding, with charities being a positive model for providing help where needed. Yet I never see other libertarians retweeting Amnesty’s tweets or even discussing them. This made me curious about the reason for this.

I have seen many on the ‘right’ criticising Liberty for fighting extradition to countries with torture or death sentences, blaming the Human Rights Act (HRA) and the EU for imposing it on us. I have argued against this stance for two main reasons:

  • firstly, as the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), its related court and the HRA are useful mechanisms to defend the individual from aggression by the state, and so should be supported by libertarians;
  • secondly, I recognise many are against it simply as they believe it’s been ‘imposed’ on us by the EU, a ‘foreign unrepresentative body’, but it isn’t: it was adopted by the UK government in 1950 due to our membership of the Council of Europe, which is a international organisation of 47 states bound by convention and includes Russia and Turkey.

On the first point I defy any libertarian to read the Convention and find an article they disagree with; in fact they may think that some don’t go far enough (e.g. Article 15 on Derogations, which allows states to over-ride some other articles during “war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation”).

The HRA, Liberty and Amnesty International are all based on a central belief in human rights, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as adopted by the UN. The Universal Declaration contains a good set of ‘negative’ rights although there are some ‘positive’ rights which sneaked in towards the end, which libertarians like me may disagree with. However the European Convention on Human Rights only contains the negative rights that I’m sure most libertarians would support. The fact that Liberty et al use the ECHR and HRA as a defence to protect ‘people who would do us harm’ from being sent to regimes where they face torture and possible death is a good reason to support them all. If we don’t support free speech and detest the use of state power against individuals (even those whose views we detest) then we’re not libertarians, just plain old state-loving socialists or conservatives.

On the second point this is the rhetoric used by those who want us to pull out of the European Union. While I’m not planning to debate that here, due to its irrelevancy as it has nothing to do with the EU, then let me focus on the charge that we’re ruled by “unelected faceless bureaucrats and lawyers” and that we should have “self-determination”. Well firstly, it was an elected UK government that signed us up to the Convention, so it was ‘self-determined’; secondly, I’d rather trust ‘faceless bureaucrats and lawyers’, adhering to the well-defined rules and case-law, over politically-motivated UK MPs grubbing for populist votes any time. (And I know the ECHR is nothing to do with the EU, but we cannot be part of the EU and restore the death penalty, so surely that’s a good thing too).

I know many ‘libertarian-conservatives’ claim we should create our own UK bill of rights, but as the last few governments have removed so many of our existing civil rights can we really trust them? Examples are trial by jury and habeas corpus, both enshrined within the Magna Carta, and also the right to silence and double jeopardy. I don’t trust our government, elected locally or not, to look out for us; in fact they have less reason to do so as they have more to gain by subjugating us further.

So my challenge to libertarians is why don’t you support civil liberties and their defenders if you really consider yourself libertarian? And if you are libertarian then why not support Amnesty International or Liberty in their fight for our civil rights?


Following publication of this piece @knkhtims posted this excellent response Why This Libertarian Doesn’t Support ‘Liberty’ or Amnesty International.

6 thoughts on “Human Rights – Why Don’t More Libertarians Support Them?

  1. This is my TL;DR response:

    1. As has been pointed out on Twitter, there are quite a few who use or confuse libertarianism as cover for being arseholes; it’s a convenience for them (and a hindrance for us).
    2. I think more than a few confuse libertarianism with classical or other strands of liberalism that is more embracing of the State and the diversity of its activities.
    3. Organising libertarians around a working set of definitions is like herding cats. I support the NAP, but I’m increasingly finding it difficult to consider it a legitimate response to humanitarian crises that, realistically, only states can address (Syria, for example). Resultantly, there’s sometimes a “considerably more libertarian than thou” effect amongst some, that doesn’t take account of the general attributes and degrees of libertarian principles. When they’re too busy doing that, it enables ‘faux’ libertarians to slip in and abuse those principles as cover for their own agendas, without being constructively critical of them. On the occasion that it does happen, they use the accusation of being denied their libertarianism (eg, “you want to censor me. That’s not very libertarian of you!”). See point 1, I suppose.

  2. I don’t support them because they are more like left wing organisations. For example, Liberty with Shami Chakrabarti believes that the Royal Charter for Press Regulation is the correct course of action for a free press. That’s not a freedom loving organisation.

    As for the UN imposing laws that countries can still ignore if they want. Just like laws in this country that are useless and silly.

    And Human Rights. Drawn up by Churchill after the war. In a time when the results of a dreadful war were uppermost. But now abused and twisted to allow criminals to demand their family rights, and for others to demand their TV rights, and any other rights they can think of.

    As for them being charities. Liberty isn’t. Though the Civil Liberties Trust is. But it’s income comes mainly from other left wing leaning charities. And Amnesty gets a lot of its income from government sources.

    Whilst I don’t like state control, telling other states how to control their population is not very libertarian. I might disagree with how North Korea is handling its population, and what Syria is doing in its civil war, I don’t think it worth while to get involved. If you stick to just ones like Syria and not NK, then you aren’t doing it for human rights reasons but for political reasons. but if you get involved in every country’s internal strife then you are acting as the world’s policeman. You can’t pick and choose. By not getting involved and just looking after your own country you don’t get dragged into loads of unintended consequences. See Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. etc. etc.

    It doesn’t mean that we can be totally heartless. If refugees from NK or Syria ask for help, then we should do our utmost to help them and also make it easy as possible for people to escape.

    • “But now abused and twisted to allow criminals to demand their family rights, and for others to demand their TV rights, and any other rights they can think of.”

  3. I have been interested to read the above, being a lawyer who was involved back in 1991 a case which eventually went the European Court of Human Rights (Benham v UK) by Liberty (then the National Council of Civil Liberties). It has been seen how the discussion of human rights has been carried on, all to often by people who have no knowledge of its history or why the Human Rights Act 1998 came on to the statute book. It has already been forgotten in that in the 1970s the political right in Britain was very keen on human rights, as it was used to end the practice of the closed shop by trade unions in Britain, whereby workers either had to join or union or risk being sacked. Human rights legislation has also been used to protect freedom of speech and minority religious views.

    However, perhaps even more serious is the lack of understanding as to why the Human Rights Act became part of UK law. The idea of incorporating the Convention into UK law in some form had been debated since the early 1970s without any real sustained effort to achieve it. The reason that the Human Rights Act was introduced was not as popular wisdom would have it the result of some softening by the judiciary, some directive from ‘Europe’ or submission to the lobbying of Liberty. In fact, the Human Rights Act was actually introduced as a consequence of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Basically it is a provision of the peace treaty with the Provisional IRA.

    Unfortunately, this fact seems to have been forgotten amid a whole lot of silly press coverage and sloppy usage of legal language, together with considerable misunderstanding as to the scope of human rights law by many who have to make public law decisions (e.g. police officers) and also by many politicians commenting upon it, such as the current Home Secretary (but then the Government’s legal advice is not what it used to be). It is regrettable that there is such a lack of awareness as we are talking of events just 15 years ago.It is worth bearing in mind that when you next hear a politician calling for the scrapping of human rights legislation in the UK s/he is actually calling for breaking the terms of the peace treaty with the IRA under the Good Friday Agreement. Are they actually serious about this?

  4. True Libertarians are troubled by human rights initiatives not because they don’t think there is merit in the principle, but because of the automatic precedence that is always given to so called ‘positive rights’ over so called ‘negative rights’. In other words, they are not as easily fooled by semantics as the general population. That might explain why there are so few real ones!

  5. Pingback: The New Liberty | No Longer The Land Of The Free

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