Apart from the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I’ve never known what my human rights are supposed to be. Presumably they include the right to go about my daily business without being attacked, insulted or otherwise abused. But there are many grey areas. Are sudden loud noises or disgusting smells violations of my human rights? And what about the deafening mirthless laughter that I have to endure in British pubs?
Perhaps my human rights are changing with age. Am I, at 76, entitled to expect an offer of a seat on a crowded Tube train? Is it my right that somebody should help me with my suitcase when I am carrying it upstairs? I don’t know. Nor do I care. But some people care very much about the deprivation of rights that they believe to be theirs.
Consider the case of the television presenter Louise Minchin, who has reportedly kicked up a fuss about being made to sit on the left-hand side of her male co-presenter on BBC Breakfast, Dan Walker. The producers tried putting her on his right, but found it ‘didn’t work’. It didn’t work, apparently, because people don’t like to see a man sitting on a sofa on a woman’s left. It feels wrong, just as it would feel wrong for a man to be seen standing on his bride’s left as he takes his wedding vows before an altar.
Nobody seems to have thought much about it before, but that’s the way that couples nearly always appear on screen, in photographs, and on public occasions — woman on left, man on right. But why? Is it, as some have said, because being on the right suggests greater authority? And if so, is it not sexist and discriminatory to make the far more experienced Ms Minchin sit on the left of the new male recruit to the programme, thus implying that he is the more authoritative of the two? Is it not an infringement of Ms Minchin’s human rights?
I wouldn’t have thought so, but then what about Anders Breivik, the Norwegian Nazi who murdered 77 innocent people in a bombing and gun massacre in 2011. His victims were mostly guilty of no more than attending a left-wing holiday camp. As an admirer of Adolf Hitler, and a man still planning to fight to the death for the triumph of national socialism, Breivik has hitherto evinced little enthusiasm for human rights. But after serving five years of his 21-year prison sentence in a Norwegian jail, he has developed a surprising interest in them. He has accused the Norwegian government of breaching a clause in the European Convention on Human Rights that prohibits ‘inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’.
In court he spelt out how. He was given cold coffee and made to eat and drink from plastic cups and plates. He was held in isolation and not allowed to see any of his Nazi friends. He wasn’t even allowed to publish books of Nazi propaganda. Worst of all — ‘worse than waterboarding’, he said — he was made to eat microwaved ready meals. All this, in his view, amounted to torture.
Cold coffee, I agree, is depressing. But I’ve nothing against plastic cups and plates. And as far as microwaved meals are concerned, I would consider it an infringement of my human rights if I weren’t allowed to put chicken tikka masala in my microwave oven. But anyway, we’re dealing here with a mass murderer whose treatment, in good old Norway, is kinder than he could expect almost anywhere else in the world. He has three cells to wander among, a television set, a computer, books, newspapers and so on.
A state attorney, winding up for the government, described Breivik as an ‘attention-hungry narcissist’ who has been found by doctors to be rather happy in jail, although he claims that the state ‘has been trying to kill me for five years’. The state’s methods, it must be said, are not as good as his when it comes to killing people. They involve letting him watch television programmes that, he says, he enjoys but cause him brain damage. This is a slower way of killing someone than shooting them.
So what do we conclude? One man’s meat is another man’s poison, one man’s human right is another man’s torture? Perhaps we should forget about having a bill of rights.