Lord Davidson : “The right to life – a broader perspective”
September 16,2015   By:

Lord Davidson speech: “The right to life – a broader perspective”



Thanks to the CSHRS for the invitation to speak.

1. The right to life is the fundamental human right.  Consequently it might be thought at least initially, there is little scope for disagreement.  If right to life is generally agreed to be the fundamental right why would it not be the subject of fundamental agreement?  And yet discussion of the extent of the guarantee of the right almost immediately reveals wide disparity of opinion in its implementation by different societies.  In the case for example, of the death penalty, EU states take a position that state authorised killing is a breach of human rights and yet the United States which historically has been philosophically closer to European thought than other societies, nonetheless sanctions the death penalty.  A clear difference of position is thus revealed.   Very recently the UK has announced that identified UK citizens involved with the so-called Islamic State may be killed by drone strikes in Syria and Iraq.  This is plainly state authorised killing where the individuals have not been the subject of a judicial decision nor are they classified as enemy combatants in a war with the UK.  The issue is complex and legally at least unresolved.  I do not offer a judgment on the position but rather give this as an example of how not only may societies differ on the implementation of the right but how circumstance can pose new questions of implementation of the right within even one society.  Those new questions may not have an easy simple answer.  Another example also current in the UK where implementation of the right to life is subject to differing views is so called ‘assisted dying’ – whether an individual may choose via a state authorised procedure to end their life.  These are legally and philosophically interesting subjects but they are not the theme of my speech today.

2. Rather I refer to these subjects to juxtapose what may be termed  policy issues against a broader issue of the right to life – the relationship between the right to life and human experience of war.  Individual facets of the right to life are the stuff of policy differences between different societies and are measured against perceptions of the right to life but another question is how societies may regard right to life between themselves, tested at its most extreme, in the context of war. 

3. Many of the representatives to this forum will come from states be remembering this year as the 70th anniversary of the war against fascism and aggression.  In the aftermath of that war the nations of the world decided to set out broad principles that humanity should adhere to in future.  These principles were put in place in the light of the inhuman barbarous acts of the aggressor nations.  This was a point in history when the nations considered that there was an imperative to do what was possible to prevent the reoccurrence of such aggression leading to the establishment of the UN.  Not only were the consequences of aggressive war all too vividly in evidence but there was also the question of how the aggressor nations had from a position of relative development, embraced policies that included racist mass slaughter, widespread torture and the use of humans for medical experimentation.  It is clear that right to life in the broadest sense was rejected within the aggressor nations and it was that rejection that led to the cruelties they visited on other peoples they perceived as different – even less human – than themselves.  It was to resist this dehumanising impetus that humanity came together in a remarkable concurrence that the right to life must be explicitly identified and respected.

4. What was the post- war consequence of this global agreement?  In Europe the principal aggressor nation, Germany, engaged with its former enemies in a profound manner taking as a major policy imperative that there must never be a repetition of its fascist past.  The acknowledgement of the inhuman treatment of populations resulting from the policies of  its wartime leadership was both very public and sincere.  The education of children in the post war period included a full recognition of the horrors that had been carried out in the name of Germany.  Concentration camps were preserved to act as a reminder of the barbarity to which Germany had descended.  Symbols of the Nazi regime were destroyed and banned.  It made clear that future generations bore a responsibility to ensure that their society would never again be corrupted by fascist ideologies.  The embrace of a human rights agenda was one of the basic aspects of rule of law in that new post-war society.

5. The result of this approach was that Germany gained the respect of former adversaries who accepted the sincerity of their determination never again to engage in aggressive war, never again to subject other peoples to inhuman treatment and that as a people they truly and deeply regretted their actions that had brought about the world war.  The war was seen as an aberration and as a result of their profound sincerity, a restoration of normal relations between nations took place and endures to this day.
6. To institute total war across large areas of the world can be seen as aberrant behaviour, a suspension of rationality - that most human quality.  An integration of a respect for human rights into a state’s guiding ideology is a protection.  In accepting the rule of law in its society, the state creates the basis for that integration.  This is not to argue there cannot be differences between nations in the content of their human rights law or indeed the processes whereby the rule of law is engaged.   What is clear however for normal relations to be restored fully it is an essential step that the aberrant nation, the aggressor, must recognise its errors, fully acknowledge these and take objectively unequivocal steps to demonstrate its sincerity.  The absence of such steps is to leave doubt in former adversaries whether lessons have been truly learned and whether there is a sincere recognition of the errors of the past.

7. Listening to me as a citizen of the UK it may be thought by some this is all very well but that respect for human rights did not mark much of the period of the British Empire.  If there are those who think that they have a point - it is true.  Whatever may be argued might have been benefits of that Empire it is wholly clear that right to life was not a guiding rule.  It was a different time when British society was very different.  I cannot however when in China omit reference in this context to the Opium Wars.  This was a shameful episode in the conduct of British policy.  To wage aggressive war not to defend against some greater evil but in fact to promote trade is unacceptable by today’s standards.  To wage aggressive war to promote drug trafficking – illegal drug trafficking – is so far from the norms of today’s standards as to require full acknowledgement of its impropriety. While there were those in the UK who even then regarded the Opium Wars as wrong, they did not alter British policy. It is I believe a fact that today every British minister would fully accept the Opium Wars were a shameful episode and stained the relationship between China and the UK for many decades.  Such acknowledgement cannot change history but may enable former adversaries to accept the sincerity of the former aggressor in acknowledging the error of its past conduct.
8. When one reflects on the recent ceremonies in China and in the UK celebrating our nations’ joint victories over aggression 70 years ago our peoples both suffered albeit in different measure, both fought and ultimately both repelled common enemies.  Even then our societies were very different from today.  Now there is a growing understanding of how our respective histories have an impact on relations today and how it is important not only to remember those histories but also to acknowledge past errors.

9. To conclude, this contribution may not reflect the human rights issues and policies that governments and courts examine on a day to day basis but in my view it speaks to the broader issue that faces humanity in every generation – the dangers of aggressive war and perils created thereby to the right to life of whole populations.  Aggressive war springs from internal pressures within societies and disregard of human rights within those societies.

10. A starting point for consideration may be that those who have been aggressor nations in the past must take the time to learn fully the lessons of their past aggression in order to avoid repetition and in order to respect the impact that aggression has on former adversaries.