The final day of CPA UK’s conference ‘Human Rights in the Modern Day Commonwealth: Magna Carta to Commonwealth Charter’ saw the current leaders and legislators of the Commonwealth arguing issues morality and human rights with those of the future. The parliamentarian participants and Commonwealth Scholars debated the motion ‘Can you legislate for a moral issue?’
Opening the debate, with Baroness Hooper in the chair, South African Deputy Speaker Hon. Solomon Lechesa Tsenoli MP highlighted the complexity of the issue, and suggested that moral values will often conflict with human rights as morality is subjective, and may be derived from a religion or another specific community. He urged legislators to keep the private (morals) and public (law) separate.
Responding on behalf of the Commonwealth Scholars Avanka Mahikanthi Fernando, a Sri Lankan student currently attending the University of Cambridge, argued that human rights and absolute moral values are inextricably linked, quoting Amartya Sen: ‘Human rights are seen as powerful moral claims.’ She went on to suggest that the modern tendency to see morality in shades of grey, rather than in black and white absolutes, could leave individuals’ rights open to erosion through interpretation, and encouraged the parliamentarians present to create clear and meaningful legislation.
Following the two opening speeches, Baroness Hooper opened the discussion to the floor. The wide-ranging and well-informed contributions emphasised that legislation on human rights issues should primarily seek to protect marginalised and vulnerable groups from the prejudices of the majority. This echoed Professor Vernon Bogdanor who earlier in the week had suggested that one of the major achievements of Magna Carta and modern constitutions was to protect individuals from the ‘moral majority’ who might seek to persecute them. Specific groups identified ranged from women in repressive societies, victims of FGM, and children denied an education, to LGBTI individuals in societies that criminalise homosexuality and political opponents of those who suppress freedom of expression.
A prominent theme of the discussion was what ‘morality’ is. The majority argued that it is subjective, and so derived from personal, cultural or religious values. This view was summarised by Hon. Raymond Pryce MP of Jamaica, who asked ‘Whose right is right?’ This group put forward the opinion that this subjective morality – even if shared by a majority – should not be enshrined in legislation; Hon. Deputy Speaker Emilia Lifaka of Cameroon gave an example, informing the room that her views of abortion as a Catholic and as a parliamentarian were diametrically opposed, but when legislating her opinion as a parliamentarian was dominant. Urmilla Pullat, a Commonwealth Scholar from India, added that in conservative societies most issues can take on moral overtones and be used to oppress groups’ human rights.
However, others felt that human rights could in some cases themselves be taken as an absolute moral standard, and therefore be legislated. Hon. Speaker Santi Bai Hanoomajee MP of Mauritius urged parliamentarians to base legislation on fundamental human rights, differentiating between subjective morals and this absolute and universal moral standard. Scholar George Asiama also made this distinction, advocating that legislation should reflect this universal morality rather than the views of the majority. Taking a vote on the motion at the end of the discussion, the participants were evenly divided between these two perspectives.
A number of contributions raised associated points, for instance framing poverty as a moral issue to be addressed (Cleopas Sambo, a scholar representing Zambia) and suggesting that whatever the moral imperative parliamentarians will always have to make decisions in an economic climate that might influence them (Hon. Dr de Silva MP, Sri Lanka).
At the close of the discussion, the Lord Speaker summed up the arguments, leaving participants with an appropriate closing message at the end of the three-day exploration of modern human rights: ‘Human rights, like democracy, are not a fixture. They need constant attention to ensure continued effectiveness.’
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.