The far right and human rights: How should liberal states respond to political extremism?
How should liberal democracies deal with threats from the Far Right? Even allowing for the turbulent state of politics across contemporary Europe, this has been an alarming week. The dramatic gains made by the extremist Vox party in the Andalucian regional elections have sent shockwaves across Spain. As well as capitalising on the controversy over Catalan nationalism (essentially advocating shutting down debate, and removing, rather than extending, the powers of regional Governments), Vox demands the immediate deportation of illegal immigrants and the repeal of laws which, it argues, unduly favour women in relation to domestic violence. Whilst Vox have only gained 12 out of 109 seats in the Parliament in Seville, it is still the first major success for a Far Right party since the transition to democracy in the early 1980s, and has come as an unpleasant surprise to many.
At the same time, in the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage has departed UKIP over what he sees as an extremist turn, claiming that the party is at risk of being hijacked by angry individuals obsessed with Islam and Tommy Robinson. The decision by the current UKIP leader Gerard Batten to hire Robinson as an adviser was striking, given that the party has always been at pains to disassociate itself from the Far Right. Publically seeking out the help and advice of the man at the epicentre of #freeTommy protests and endorsing the claim that the former English Defence League leader was persecuted by the State for his views, is hardly compatible with condemning extremist politics.
Whilst many people in the UK, Spain and other liberal democracies would like to believe that a resurgence of Fascism or Neo-fascism could not happen in twenty-first century, it would be risky to be complacent. Ye discerning the best response from the legal system is far from straightforward. On the one hand, ignoring the activities of groups which intend to dismantle democracy and human rights is not a viable option, and the last hundred years provide us with some chilling examples of how constitutional mechanisms and processes can be hijacked and undermined from within. As it is widely known, Hitler did not gain his initial grip on power by means of a military coup, and the structures of the Weimar Republic were harnessed very effectively to bring about its destruction. Yet at the same time, suppressing minority opinions, clamping down on freedom of expression and limiting access to the public sphere go against the grain of what it means to be a liberal democracy.
Unquestionably, the European Convention on Human Right attempts to tackle this problem, prescribing the exclusive grounds upon which States may limit fundamental freedoms, and requiring that any restraint be proportionate to the need being addressed. However, because the justifications available for restricting freedom are necessarily broad, as they need to cater for a vast range of situations and the infinite variety of human behaviour, when it comes to the crunch, in practical terms Governments, legislatures and courts are faced with difficult decisions about where to draw lines in the sand. The balance between individual rights and collective ones is always going to be complicated, and will inevitably involve value judgments at some stage.
At an even more fundamental level, universal human rights, and indeed the Rule of Law, can only really work if a critical mass of people within society see their worth and buy into the underlying ideology. Whilst maintaining this support is ultimately a political, rather than a legal task, lawyers undoubtedly have a critical role in helping to construct a legal framework which is fair and seen to be fair. One reason why people may wish to see others in society stripped of their rights and freedoms, and for example forcibly deport individuals without due process, is their perception of an imbalance or injustice, a context which Far Right politicians are able to exploit in order to manipulate those feel disenfranchised or desperate. If we are to challenge this worrying trend, it is crucial that human rights are seen to benefit everyone in society, and not particular subgroups. In other words, law must function, and must be presented as functioning, in a way which protects “us” and not “them”.
For instance, whilst the overwhelming majority of victims of domestic violence are females who are harmed or killed by their male partners, and this grim reality must not be brushed under the carpet. There is a widely acknowledged problem in Spain relating to gender based violence, and an undoubted need for robust ongoing measures to improve the situation. But the truth is that men can also suffer at the hands or either male or female partners, and often have to overcome considerable social stigma to seek help. It is also undeniable that female same sex relationships are not magically immune from domestic violence or abuse. Nobody is seriously suggesting that Vox are challenging Spain’s domestic violence laws because of heart-felt concerns about overlooked male victims and women in abusive same sex partnership. They are simply tapping into resentment and insecurities, and a vague notion of liberal oppression, or “minorities” getting all of the perks. Nevertheless a well-rounded legal regime which protected all citizens equally, would make it easier to debunk claims of conspiracy and oppression. In so far as the Criminal and Civil Codes treat victims of domestic abuse differently on the basis of gender, this may give rise to resentment and this victimisation complex.
We have a collective responsibility for helping all sectors of society to see that human rights and liberal democracy work to our common benefit, whilst stressing that the rhetoric of the Far Right and other extremists is simply toxic.
Nigel Farage quits UKIP over Far-Right turn (The Week 5/12/18)
Spain reels as far-right Vox party storms into Andalucian Parliament (The Telegraph 2/12/18)
UKIP leader defends hiring Tommy Robinson (BBC News 23/11/18)