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.