More Human Than We Are


George Monbiot

London:

The location of the boundaries of our humanity is perhaps the key moral question

of our age. Whether a test tube baby should be selected so that his cells can be

used to save the life of his sister, whether one conjoined twin should die so

that another can live, whether partial human embryos should be cloned and reared

for organ transplants confront us with problems we have never had to face

before. Medical advances, both wonderful and terrifying, are eroding the edges

of our identity.

The

new Human Rights Act is intended to provide us with some of the guidelines we

need to help sort this out. It insists that we have an inalienable right both to

life itself and to the freedoms without which that life would be wretched. But

while the rights it guarantees have proved comparatively easy to define,

curiously it is the concept of humanity which turns out to be precarious.

Human

beings, you might have thought, are animate, bipedal creatures a bit like you

and me. But the lawyers would have it otherwise. Big companies might not might

not breathe or speak or eat (though they certainly reproduce), but they are now

using human rights laws to claim legal protections and fundamental liberties. As

their humanity develops, so ours diminishes.

Last

month, a quarrying company called Lafarge Redland Aggregates took the Scottish

environment minister to court on the grounds that its human rights had been

offended. Article 6 of the European Convention determines that human beings

should be allowed a fair hearing of cases in which they are involved

"within a reasonable time". Lafarge is insisting that the results of

the public inquiry into its plan to dig up a mountain in South Harris have been

unreasonably delayed. The company, as the campaigning academic Alastair McIntosh

has argued, may have good reason to complain, but to use human rights law to

press its case sets a frightening precedent.

The

concept was developed in the United States. In 1868 the 14th amendment to the

Constitution was introduced with the aim of extending to blacks the legal

protections enjoyed by whites: equality under the law, the right to life,

liberty and the enjoyment of property. By 1896, a series of extraordinary

rulings by a corrupt, white and corporate-dominated judiciary had succeeded in

denying these rights to the black people they were supposed to protect, while

granting them instead to corporations.

Though

black people eventually reclaimed their legal protections, corporate human

rights were never rescinded. Indeed, while they have progressively extended the

boundaries of their own humanity, the companies have ensured that ours is ever

more restrained.

Firms

in the United States have argued that regulating their advertisements or

restricting their political donations infringes their "human right" to

"free speech". They have insisted that their rights to the

"peaceful enjoyment of possessions" should oblige local authorities to

grant them planning permission, and prevent peaceful protesters from gathering

on their land.

At

the same time, however, they have helped to ensure that the "social,

economic and cultural" rights, which might have allowed us to challenge

their dominance, remain merely "aspirational". As the solicitor Daniel

Bennett has pointed out, article 13 of the European Convention, under which we

could have contested the corporations’ absolute control of fundamental

resources, has been deliberately excluded from our own Human Rights Act.

Corporate

human rights have been accompanied by a steady erosion of responsibilities.

Limited liability allows them to shed their obligations towards their creditors.

Establishing subsidiaries – regarded in law as separate entities – allows them

to shed their obligations towards the rest of us. And while they can use human

rights laws against us, we can’t use human rights laws against them, as these

were developed to constrain only the activities of states. As far as the law is

concerned, corporations are now more human than we are.

The

potential consequences are momentous. Governments could find themselves unable

to prevent the advertising of tobacco, the dumping of toxic waste or the export

of arms to dictatorships. Yet in Britain the public discussion of this issue has

so far been confined to the pages of the Stornoway Gazette.

The

creatures we invented to serve us are taking over. While we have been fretting

about the power of nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, our domination by

bodies we created but have lost the means to control has already arrived. It is

surely inconceivable that we should grant human rights to computers. Why then

should they be enjoyed by corporations?

 

George Monbiot’s new book "Captive State: the corporate takeover of

Britain" is published by Macmillan, £12.99

 

 

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