Elinor Roosevelt and the UDHR

Can rights be wrong?

Robin McAlpine – 28th October 2021

If you want to find an example of a truly inspiring vision for the world with a genuinely utopian spirit and you limit yourself to the period since the Second World War, your best bet is probably the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is certainly a product of its time and it may well have its own biases and in-built assumptions – but you can read stretches of it and think ‘wow, I want to live there’. That this was agreed by the world’s nations may have been a function of the shock and horror at the war just ended (they were signed in 1948), but that takes nothing away from their impact.

It is therefore to be assumed that the increasing use of ‘rights-based approaches’ to solving Scotland’s social, environmental and economic problems is to be welcomed by all, right? Except it really isn’t as simple as that.

A ‘right’ is a bold statement as to what you, as a person, can expect from your society. But it does not in any way detract from its power to say that the existence of that right does nothing to realise its meaning. It isn’t a promise and it isn’t a plan. It may not even be legally enforceable (some ‘rights-based approaches’ are really ‘consumer-based approaches’, the right to pick from a menu).

In the end you can grant a Right to Food, a Right to a Home or the Rights of the Child (to be heard) – but you can’t eat a right, live in one or get to a consultation meeting on one.

This has come up as a crucial question in the work Common Weal has been doing on a National Care Service. The consultation discusses whether there should be a ‘Right to Respite’ for an informal carer. On the face of it this is inarguable; to be a carer for someone who needs that care round the clock, every day of the year, is one of the most exhausting commitments you can make.

But what does a ‘Right to Respite’ mean for that person? After all, technically you don’t need one – you have the right to walk away any time you want. You choose to care, you’re not required to care. So what does a right for a short break mean when you have the right to just leave any time?

And what does a Right to Respite mean if the service provided to your loved one isn’t of a high enough standard to allow you to enjoy your break without guilt or remorse? What if you don’t know how to access your right? What if you are denied your right? What then?

What is needed isn’t a right to respite on the part of the carer but a right to high-quality care on the part of the person who needs it. Of course they may prefer that to be from someone important to them, but few won’t want that person to get a break. What is important is that the person who needs care is guaranteed that high-quality care.

This is what has led our work towards what we’re calling ‘the Four Rs’. When you hear the first, the word ‘Right’, you should immediately look for the others – Responsibility, Relationship and Resource.

If you are granted a right, whose responsibility is it to deliver that right? What is their phone number? Who do you talk to? It must always be someone’s responsibility to make that right a reality.

A right means something more than a guarantee. The Right to Food doesn’t mean the right to lobster thermidore every day, but nor is that right met with a loaf of cheap sliced bread. Rights are about people living lives of a certain quality. With a right must come a relationship, a service or an organisation or a company which is expected to treat you as a person, to pay attention to what a right means to you in your context, not in the abstract.

In care the right to care doesn’t count if the right delivers only a cold, impersonal, transactional service. Whatever that is it’s not care, and this is so often what makes it hard for a long-term carer to get a break – the fear that their loved one will be left without true care during that break.

And of course, none of it means anything if it isn’t properly supported with resources. What is the right to care if there are too few qualified carers on the payroll to deliver the care? What victory is there in raising a judicial review to eventually find that yes, the right to care was breached because quality care wasn’t provided? If you are offered new rights without new funding to back them up, you have reason for suspicion.

That is the fundamental risk here. Human Rights really are the utopian vision of our era and we lose faith in them at our peril, but if they come to us as promises and then leave us as failures or, worse, betrayals, our faith in rights is chipped away.

There is a risk that ‘rights-based approaches’ seem like the golden goose to policymakers – they get the glory of delivering a big-sounding solution to important problems without doing an awful lot. From there it really becomes someone else’s problem, and initially that someone else is you the citizen.

Because if the right you’ve been promised is not met through public action, all you can do about is is take the issue to law. But how many people who are most reliant on rights are also in a position to raise legal action? Even then, that action may need to be taken against an organisation or institution other than the one that enshrined the right.

So a government can say you have a ‘right to local participation’, but then you need to sue the local authority if you’re not satisfied, and the local authority may not have been given either support or additional resources to deliver it.

The person most in need of the right to a home or the right to food might well be someone with an addiction problem who would then need to raise action against a local authority which has had its budget cut. That is power for people who can’t wield it to demand service from a body which can’t deliver it. That isn’t really a step forward.

No-one should underestimate the positive impact on all of our lives which the concept of Human Rights has had. We should celebrate them and be grateful ours is the era which had access to them.

But that is only the starting point – welcome your rights, then make sure its someone’s responsibility, expect them to meet your right in relationship with you, and demand that there are resources dedicated to make it all real.

10 thoughts on “Can rights be wrong?”

  1. Ian Davidson

    Social welfare law is riddled with “rights” which are later qualified by “discretion” , availability of resources etc. Complaints procedures and legal processes often too complex, expensive, stressful to negotiate. The Human Rights Act was welcome but has made little practical difference to most folks; it has spawned the usual “industry” of quangos, consultants, academic courses etc. Human Rights? “Please get off your RRRRs and help me now; don’t keep me waiting whilst you RRRRs about”

    1. Robin McAlpine

      Right, I’m laughing here Ian. But yes, you don’t bump into a lot of people who say ‘I went through judicial review and I loved the process’. And certainly you don’t bump into many of them who you would also describe as ‘most in need’. We heard about a case of someone with learning difficulties who was told that a right wasn’t being delivered and they were told to take legal action – which just really isn’t realistic.


  2. 4 Rs: the Constitutional basis of the Rights means it is the Responsibility of the state to create the framework and organisations (Relationships) needed to deliver the Resources.
    To do that the state needs to issue its own currency and it needs to create and maintain a financial system that allocates money in such a way that the necessary resources are organised and employed.
    The “4 Rs” imply the same three essentials required for independence – currency, constitution, financial reform

    1. Robin McAlpine

      Thing is Jim the state isn’t one thing and has many parts and it isn’t always central government which is the responsible body for delivering a service. Local authorities or the NHS or even the police might be deemed the body directly delivering on a human right. There has been a bit of a tendency with the Scottish Government to create a right but then pass the responsibility for meeting that right to another body, but without additional funding. There are no shortage of cases of people who struggle to find out who exactly it is who is supposed to have had responsibility for delivering a promised service.


      1. yes I know that Robin but I did say that the Responsibility of the state is to create the framework and organisations – the Relationships – to deliver the Resources necessary for Rights to be honoured. The Rights and the Responsibilities should be set out in a written Constitution. Now, if the Constitution is to mean anything, then one of the Responsibilities of citizens is to make sure that the state fulfils its obligations. Money is not “Resources” – money is the means to employ Resources – labour, technology, and and other physical resources.

        1. Robin McAlpine

          The problem with relying on the constitution to determine rights is that a constitutions should necessarily be harder to amend than normal legislation (few do) and our perception of what rights people (animals, communities…) should have keeps changing. They will inevitably always be political and a constitution should try (at least in part) to be ‘apolitical’.


  3. Hi Robin,
    I think these kind of snappy, headline messages – ‘can rights be wrong?’, ‘rights, responsibility, relationship and resource’ – can usefully provoke reactions but unhelpfully oversimplify conversations.

    You write that welcoming rights-based approaches ‘is not that simple’. Although this is qualified by recognising the significance of human rights, the sentiment still reads as ‘we should be wary about embracing human rights’. This is at odds with the powerful message in the post, which seems, instead, to be ‘we should make sure human rights come with ways of translating them into everyday experiences.’ These are two different things.

    It should be clear when we’re talking about human rights that we’re talking about human rights, and not others kinds of legal rights embedded in, or derived from, national law. The latter might differ from country to country, be legitimately ‘deleted’ by a democratic parliament, be restricted to nationals of the country, for example. Human rights protections, like the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, or the right to respect for private life and so on, should, as they take on concrete form at a local level, interact with nationally-derived legal protections (and other international protections) – but it should be a fruitful interaction rather than a collapsing of the categories.

    Political talk elsewhere in the UK about Britishness, rights and responsibilities (i.e. conditionality) has been toxic. In Scotland, organisations that are expressly trying to influence public views and policy should avoid making that mistake in the way they talk about human rights; as you rightly say, we lose faith in them at our peril.

    The hard bit is making respect for human rights feel real and meaningful for everyone involved. This isn’t a simple exercise. To make this happen, relationships with organisations delivering services on behalf of the state need to change and these organisations need to be sufficiently resourced. On all of that, I could not agree with you more. But still, the way we talk about all of this matters. I think we lose something significant when we conveniently abbreviate ‘human rights’ to ‘rights’, and when we confuse failures to protect human rights with the human rights themselves.

    1. Robin McAlpine

      Hi Elaine,

      Headlines are just headlines – by definition you can’t capture the nuance of an argument in a headline. But I don’t really think I’ve given the impression a rights-based approach is wrong, just that it is meaningless if it can’t be enforced. Human rights are just ‘rights’ once they are implemented in legislation and before they are they are just ‘ideals’. Wonderful ideals but ideals just the same.

      What I’m really trying to argue is that you can look at human rights from above or from below. From above they are indisputably wonderful and they make a very coherent logic about how we can define our society. I’m arguing that it can look and feel very different from below. When someone on no real income who has learning difficulties is told that they have a legal right to something which they can’t access (a real case someone related to me), something is wrong. And that’s why we need to think beyond rights themselves.

      This is all fine if we are keeping rights as a kind of ‘signal of intent’ (those ideals I mention above’. But if they are a tool of policy then they need to mean something, be delivered, be enforceable, be resourced and so on. As always in human endeavours, the signing of the UN declaration in 1948 was a crucial, stunning moment – and then the hard work of making them MEAN something began. We’re still working on it. I’m arguing that rights that aren’t experienced as meaningful rights by those most vulnerable can’t be considered ‘universal’ and can be counterproductive.

      I’m certainly not calling for a roll-back from rights, only for an end to lazy politics which leads with the rights before proper consideration of the logistics of making good on the rights.


  4. Allan petrie

    This article is spot on, I am a full time carer of a severely complexed medical needs child with a very rare condition called FOXG1 syndrome a condition I have to train medical professionals on. I receive 3 nights respite in 7 week blocks. I can only access a specialist respite unite which has 4 beds (only using 2 for the past 2 years blaming Covid) this unit cover Dundee, north east fife, Angus and Perth and Kinross.

    At the moment it has 36 families on the books sharing these beds.

    I raised this issue during the consultation and never really got an answer, but unless they create more facilities especially for medically complex needs we carers will not have the rights we are being promised, they will just be another set of words within the legal system we cannot afford access to.

    1. Robin McAlpine


      A few years ago I help out a coalition of informal carers with some strategy advice. I though I understood the burden on a carer. By the end of the collaboration all I really understood was how little I really understood. Your case is routine, the norm. Informal carers are almost treated as ‘free tax’ – these services would need to be provided by the state somehow if loved ones didn’t step in. And it means there’s this terrible blind eye turned to the experience of what it is actually like to care. I knew someone who could leave his house only once a week for not more than an hour and only to get groceries because that was all the cover he could get and his partner needed round the clock care or there was a serious risk of death. It really made me understand that this is your life you’re giving up for someone else.

      We need everyone to have the right to high-quality social care when they need it so that carers don’t have to beg for two days off. If we end up with a National Care Service which doesn’t make that a reality, whatever we’ve built isn’t good enough.


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