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AGENDA: Getting equality laws bang to rights this time; Outdated approaches to 'human rights' are about to be swept aside but the formation of a new commission, explains Asif Afridi, deputy CEO of the Birmingham Race Action Partnership.

Byline: Asif Afridi

From this morning, the equalities environment in the UK is changing. The commissions that have previously promoted equality separately on issues of race, disability and gender are being brought together in one large commission called the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

For a city as diverse as Birmingham, it is vital that we begin to make sense of this change.

Whilst some have really welcomed this change, others are less happy. There is a fear for example, that all the work that has been done before on issues of race equality will as a consequence be weakened. Organisations now face the daunting task of re-thinking traditional approaches to equality work. How do these organisations 'join up' their work to promote equality for people with disabilities and ethnic minorities at the same time for example? In the past, separate strands of equality have had quite different approaches to their work. Also the duty for organisations to promote 'human rights' is relatively new. With so many diverse communities of interest, is it possible to agree a shared direction and vision for equality?

BRAP thinks it is possible to do this, and has for some time been exploring what will help us as a city and as a country to do that.

But why not just carry on doing separate work to progress issues of gender, disability, race, age, religion and sexual orientation equality? Why bring them all together in a joined-up approach?

And why talk about promoting human rights?

Are we, some might even ask, just reinventing the wheel?

Firstly, it's important to remember human rights aren't new to the UK. They've been around for many centuries. In many people's eyes, human rights are about preventing torture or the death sentence in foreign jails, and do not relate to the day-to-day inequality faced by people living in the UK. But human rights are being protected and promoted all around us in the UK. It's just that we don't tend to talk about them very often - not in any meaningful way at least. Put simply, human rights are minimum standards or freedoms without which people cannot live in dignity. So to violate someone's human rights is to treat that person as though she or he were not a human being.

Secondly, there were a number of problems with the separate approach that we used to take to addressing equality in different areas of people's lives (such as disability, gender etc). The way we think about equality in the UK is driven largely by the laws that have been put in place to prevent discrimination against particular groups (such as ethnic minorities and women) in particular situations (such as recruitment and promotion at work). While this has helped to protect some people, others have not been able to benefit because they have not met a particular 'profile'.

And for some, reducing discrimination has simply not been enough to prevent them from suffering inequality.

For example, although people are ensured a fair chance at job interviews, other things that have happened in their life - such as a lack of decent education, or a long-term illness - limit their ability to benefit from that chance.

If our only concern is preventing or reducing discrimination, then equality would be a very conservative aim. But human rights principles offer us a stronger approach to equality.

By identifying the basic freedoms that need to be protected in order to enable people to do what they want in life and fulfil their potential, we could begin to move from a 'negative' vision of equality - don't do these things to these people in these situations, which is broadly our present legislative state - to a more positive vision that involves treating everybody equally well, promoting those freedoms that help people achieve their full potential, such as the right to education, or freedom of assembly and movement. This involves emphasising the needs and concerns people share between groups.

Of course, there are differences between people and there always will be. And so living in a diverse society, as indeed we do in Birmingham, will mean there will always be disagreements over our differences and about what our respective freedoms might or should be. However, it is all too easy to become preoccupied with those differences. And so actions such as allocating money and resources to protecting particular social groups (such as ethnic groups or lesbian, gay and bisexual people) can lead to tensions, competition and even conflict between groups. Certainly there are powerful arguments for doing this, not least the high levels of inequality and deprivation experienced by particular groups and the lack of recourse to alternative forms of social protection amongst others.

Indeed, evidence shows that the inequalities gap is continuing to widen.

But increasingly, there are concerns that approaches like this reinforce rather than reduce difference, encouraging people to emphasise their differences as a means of securing influence, resources or specific 'culturally sensitive' services. Human rights principles, in which basic, fundamental rights and freedoms are emphasised, underpinned by a shared sense of common humanity, may offer us a much more nuanced and balanced means of negotiating and understanding competing demands.

Balancing - and indeed negotiating - the demands of potentially competing 'communities of interest' will require a dialogue free from some of the 'baggage' associated with past approaches to equality that have emphasised the importance of particular group needs over others.

In Birmingham, and the UK more generally, deciding which freedoms should be protected for all people, irrespective of ethnicity, gender, religion etc, will be an important task. To achieve this, we will need to make human rights speak to the day-to-day lives of local people in meaningful ways. We recognise that this is not going to be plain sailing. This is partly due to how we think about human rights in this country.

In the media, for example, human rights issues are often reported in relation to the 'other' - they relate to 'outsiders', to criminals, terrorists, to asylum seekers. This does not encourage a universal public 'ownership' of human rights.

Indeed, it tends to promote a critical and unsympathetic view of human rights: "Never mind asylum seekers - what about my rights?"

Public opinion like this has even caused the Government to question the usefulness of the Human Rights Act.

Also, we are bound to see increased competition between people that are afraid they are losing the kind of individual protection they once had on issues of race equality, or disability.

And whilst BRAP agree race equality should still be promoted, we don't think that it should necessarily take precedence over protection for other groups of people. Both White British and African Caribbean boys face difficulties in educational attainment in the city. The solutions to those issues lie outside traditional approaches to race equality. That is why we have for the last two years been developing more joined-up approaches to equality and human rights.

With the establishment of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, we look forward to the challenges ahead and the opportunity to work together to extend and strengthen our shared understanding of what it is to be a citizen of Birmingham and of Britain in the 21st century. To create a society which is more equitable and confident in its diversity, we must not allow the crucial debates to be lost: the stakes are too high and the potential rewards too great.

CAPTION(S):

Elderly residents taking part in a protest over the closure of their Erdington, Birmingham, rest home Picture, EDWARD MOSS; Human rights are minimum standards or freedoms without which people cannot live in dignity. So to violate someone's human rights is to treat that person as though she or he were not a human being
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 1, 2007
Words:1291
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