Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

The dangers of a nationalistic view on human rights

The dangers of a nationalistic view on human rights


Following the death of human rights lawyer Jules Browde, Matthew Rogers asks why pridefulness is risking the international reputations of the UK and South Africa

Eminent South African (SA) human rights activist and Jewish communal leader Jules Browde passed away this week aged 98. In a legal career spanning over 50 years, Browde fought against the apartheid regime and helped co-found Lawyers for Human Rights.

Browde will be remembered for defending Nelson Mandela - whom he befriended at law school in the aftermath of the Second World War - and fellow politician Oliver Tambo, among other anti-apartheid activists. Described by his former university as a 'bold-hearted campaigner against injustice', Browde has been praised for his commitment 'to securing basic equity for all South Africans'.

When SA emerged from apartheid to pass the Constitution of South Africa in 1996, which embedded a Bill of Rights, the nation rejoiced and looked to a brighter and safer future. The SA Bill of Rights shares similarities with the UK's Human Rights Act (HRA), but, as has been well documented, the UK government is looking to repeal the legislation in favour of a British Bill of Rights that - according to Lord Chancellor Michael Gove - will restore national faith in human rights.

Writing in The Times this week, barrister and crossbench peer David Pannick QC said the Bill could not be taken seriously given the amount of the time it had taken to put forward concrete proposals. Lord Lester echoed these sentiments in The Brief saying, the UK had a 'good system for protecting human rights', and that he hoped the Bill would 'disappear altogether' as it had become 'what Alice saw in Wonderland - a grin without a cat'.

In a letter to the Observer last year, SA politicians, lawyers, and academics urged the UK government not to repeal the HRA, arguing that stripping people of their human rights - as seen during the apartheid regime - would only lead to further injustice.

SA has its own constitutional issues, with the African National Congress (ANC) continuing its push to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC). President Jacob Zuma has claimed the Hague was biased after his nation was denounced for ignoring a court order to detain Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir - accused of several genocide charges and war crimes - during a visit to SA.

Zuma is supported by other continental leaders who believe the ICC unfairly targets African countries. Since the ICC was set up in 2002, eight out of nine inquiries have involved African nations. Former SA president Thabo Mbeki also addressed the matter this week by questioning whether Africa should form its own international court to deal with region-specific issues. Meanwhile, Ugandan human rights expert Barney Afako has called for the continent to be allowed dictate its own justice processes, but not alone: 'The ICC was meant to be the last solution, not the first option.'

South Africa's withdrawal from the ICC would undoubtedly harm its reputation as an advocate of human rights, much as the UK's scrapping of the HRA will damage its international standing. As both nations seek to take the law on human rights into their own hands they may benefit from reflecting on the efforts of Browde and other leading lawyers who fought tirelessly to bring about greater recognition of fundamental rights. Is nationalistic pride a good enough reason to jeopardise their hard work both nationally and globally?

Matthew Rogers is an editorial assistant at Solicitors Journal

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