Hillsborough – when words fail us

Nicky Hawkins reflects on how we use language when terrible things happen.

This week, as the full horror of Hillsborough and the systematic cover-up by the authorities is finally laid bare, I am struck by the inadequacy of the words we have and the words that are used to talk about it.

We struggle to describe the scale of the sorrow, the injustice and our emotional response to it all. It feels very human to lose our command of language in the face of something so appalling. But, even more than that, it feels as if we are failing to find words that reflect what we now know happened with any accuracy.

The two words most associated with the events at Hillsborough on April 15 1989 are disaster and tragedy. Both suggest that what happened was unfortunate and unforeseeable. Both suggest an element of chance.

Given the facts we know now, it is clear that what happened at Hillsborough was not an unpredictable freak accident. It was entirely consistent with the police’s astonishing disregard for safety in the run up to the game. It was consistent with the policing of some football matches more generally at the time. It was consistent with the way the stadium had been designed.  It could have been predicted and it could very easily have been prevented.

Whilst it wasn’t a deliberate act, calling it an accident doesn’t feel quite right. And how we talk about this matters.

Football fans had already been reduced in people’s minds to hooligans and yobs. Supporters were already being caged in pens. Football matches, especially high profile ones, were often seen in terms of policing fans’ behaviour, rather than ensuring people’s safety. In that context, it didn’t take much for the police to imply that those caught up in the crush were to blame. It fitted into to what people already ‘knew’ about football fans, and made it possible for the rest of us to ignore the families and believe what we were being told by the authorities.

As a young child at the time, I was told that the Nottingham Forest fans at the game hadn’t been affected because they had behaved themselves and kept out of trouble.

This happens all the time. The ‘swarm’ of migrants heading towards Britain’s shores are actually families caught between warring factions, fleeing for their lives and risking everything to find safety.

The girls labelled ‘slappers’ and ignored for so many years in Rotherham, policed by the same force as the Hillsborough stadium, were actually children suffering appalling systematic abuse over many years.

How we talk about people and events determines how we respond as individuals and as a society. People can be categorised as undeserving. Systemic failures can be dismissed as isolated incidents.

Hillsborough, Rotherham and the refugee crisis all have this in common. They show us how the words we use can obscure reality, compound existing problems and create new ones.

Human rights laws helped uncover the truth about Hillsborough and Rotherham. Human rights principles insist we treat everyone as a person, worthy of dignity and fair treatment. The words we reach for when we talk about all of this have never been more important.

Showing domestic violence the red card

The police already knew that Marc Chivers was a violent man and that he was a particular threat to women. In the past he had been convicted of the killing of a girlfriend, and had served time for assault against Maria Stubbings. When he was released from prison they assessed Maria as being at high risk of death or serious harm from Chivers.

But, when Maria called asking for help after he had threatened her again, the police failed her. When they finally came to Maria’s home, her killer answered the door and they left a message with him, asking her to contact them. Her body was found there the next day. The police missed opportunities to help, they didn’t talk to each other, they lost information. The basic policing which could have saved her life wasn’t done, and Maria paid with her life.

Marc Chivers committed a crime and will spend the rest of his life in prison. But we all have a human right to be protected violence, and when the police ignored Maria they failed in their duty to protect this right.

Two women a week are murdered by their partner or ex-partner. It’s happening in every community across the country. On the football pitch there are referees, linesmen, TV cameras, fans and viewers, ready to call out violence and intervene. The world is watching and violence is punished. But in homes, behind closed doors, it’s a different story. We may know someone is being abused but we hesitate, stand back, look the other way.

Women’s Aid’s Football United campaign works with football clubs across the UK, raising awareness about domestic violence and training people to be a hero off the pitch. There are no referees at home, but when someone reaches out for help they have the human right to be heard, and helped.

‘Unpunished’ shows how strongly the football community feels about violence on the pitch and uses the passion football supporters have for justice to ask why, across the UK, we are letting violence go unpunished at home.

Help us by sharing this film: youtu.be/b2MFsmpbAlA

Who cares…when they don’t even know your name?

 

Meet Charles, and see the contrast between the life he has now to the life he has lived. He’s not ‘loving later life’, because he is being ignored, neglected and forgotten. Human rights give people the power to challenge poor care, and they apply to all of us, whatever our age. We’ve partnered with Age UK to make this film because we need people to talk about human rights for older people.

Read more here.

Posted on 22 April 2015

The stats don’t work

Nicky Hawkins blogs about the missing human side in the current debate around human rights:

The measles outbreak  in the US has led to impassioned responses on both sides of the Atlantic. My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filling up with articles about vaccination, many of them pronouncing that if you choose not to vaccinate your children you are wrong, dangerous and stupid. Clinical evidence and statistics are cited to prove this, and those making the point feel satisfied that they are RIGHT and that anyone who believes otherwise is WRONG.

My experience communicating divisive issues like child poverty, climate change and human rights suggests that this is unlikely to persuade more people to vaccinate their children. No-one likes to be told they’re wrong (even my not quite two-year-old daughter). And facts and stats tend to bounce off people if they don’t already agree with the point they’re being used to make.

So it was refreshing to read an article talking about the real-life impact of measles to encourage uptake of vaccinations. Instead of beating people over the head with evidence and facts, the medical community should be prepared to lead with the stories of the children, parents and families who’ve been affected by the disease. This simple approach can be hard for experts – especially scientists and doctors with a great deal of detailed and technical knowledge to share.

There are parallels to the situation playing out in the UK debate around human rights. Story after story emerges in the papers revealing how human rights laws are protecting criminals and keeping terrorists on our shores. Defenders of human rights respond with counter arguments, with claims that our laws are fair and with reasoned arguments about the importance of rights for the UK’s standing on the international stage.

But all to often we’re missing the human side of human rights – the stories of the people who’ve relied on this all-important safety net. People like Jan  who’ve used human rights laws to ensure they get decent care. Because unlike dry statistics, stories stick. People remember them and act on them and we need many more of them if we’re to change the debate when it comes to human rights.

Share your human rights story with Equally Ours.

Posted 11 February 2015

Remembering the Holocaust and human rights

Rachel Krys blogs about remembering the human rights atrocities of the Holocaust and what human rights mean for all of us today:

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK. 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. 70 years since the reality of what had been happening across Europe could no longer be ignored by the world.

70 years has not reduced the horror of what happened. We have had 70 years of witnesses to one of the unspeakable episodes of human history, speaking out about their experiences. And 70 years of telling these stories has not diminished the need for the story to be told, again, and again, and again.

When we talk about human rights in the UK today, we should remember what it means when they are taken away from some people. When we are told about the prejudice, the intolerance, the ignorance and the unfairness which the victims of the Holocaust experienced in the years before they went to the concentration camps, we must look to our society now. And we are forced to ask ourselves if we have learned all of the lessons which can be learned from this bit of our history?

Lily thinks we still have a lot to learn, so she is telling children in schools across the world about her time in Auschwitz.

Ruth escaped from Germany, and her experience of the Holocaust teaches us a lot about why human rights are so important for all of us today.

Human rights are not nice-to-have privileges bestowed on citizens by a benevolent state. Human rights protect the fundamental values of equality, freedom and justice, for all of us. 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz is a good day to remember that, there is never a good day to forget it.

Posted 27 January 2015

Human rights in two families’ battles to expose the truth about the death of their sons

Pui-Yi Cheng writes about the human rights tragedies of two disabled young men who died in care:

Nico loved music, slapstick comedy and being at the centre of attention. He was born with cerebral palsy and later diagnosed with multiple profound learning disabilities. Nico’s parents, Rosi and Ian, wanted him to have a life filled with everything he wanted for himself. But instead he died suddenly at the age of 23, while he was in the care of a supported living home.

Connor, whose nickname was Laughing Boy, had autism and epilepsy. He lived at home with his parents but when he was 18 years old, Connor was sent for a short-term stay in a residential unit. After 107 days in care, Connor was found alone and unconscious in a bath tub – it’s believed he drowned after an epileptic seizure.

In both of these harrowing stories, investigations found that the deaths of these young men were entirely preventable. Connor’s death was officially dismissed at first as natural causes and the NHS trust in charge said the accident was unavoidable. But a report later confirmed a series of damning mistakes were made in Connor’s care and treatment. And last week a coroner ruled that Nico’s life could have been saved if his care plan had been followed correctly.

It terrifies me that in the 21st Century, in Britain, people are dying unnecessarily in places we assume would keep us safe when we need help. But I’m also moved by the courage and determination of both Nico’s and Connor’s families in their efforts to get the facts surrounding both deaths out in the open. Through the tweets and blogs of @JusticeforNico and @JusticeforLB, I’ve followed the heart-wrenching accounts of what it’s like to lose a son who is being cared for by someone else, and the battles they’ve been fighting to discover the truth about their deaths.

Their stories make me realise how important strong human rights laws are. Human rights provide the minimum standards of treatment we should expect from those with power over us. If I were to ever find myself or a loved one in a vulnerable situation due to poor health, disability, or abuse, human rights would give me a way to challenge the system if anything went wrong. For the parents of Nico and Connor, human rights have been a tool to hold to account the people who were supposed to be looking after their sons but so desperately failed them instead.

In the inquest into Nico’s death, the coroner spoke about the obligations on those caring for people with disabilities to take steps to protect the right to life of those in their care. Rosi and Ian are now hoping the coroner’s conclusion that Nico’s human rights were failed will help their campaign to get an independent review into Nico’s death.

When the coroner’s ruling came out, Rosi said:

“Nothing will bring our son back. No legal verdict will change what has happened to us or calm our grief. But it might prevent it happening again and that is why we fight on. This is not the end – it is just the end of the beginning.”

Her words point to why human rights really matter – they allow us to hold authorities to account when they let us down and they help to make sure preventable tragedies are actually prevented.

For Connor’s family, their struggle for justice continues as they wait for a pending inquest and continue to call for an independent expert review.

As Connor’s mother Sara says:

“No one has ever thought of Connor being human, let alone having his rights abused.”

 

Posted 17 December 2014

The unacceptable truth that children in England are going without the basics

Nicky Hawkins blogs about how the government is still failing to make sure our children’s most basic needs are met:

As a relatively new mother, I’m struck by the relentless stream of everyday worries and mundane but important decisions that are part and parcel of parenthood. Back-to-back illnesses, childcare choices and the sleepless nights everyone warns you about – these things take their toll on everyone in a household. While parenting is, overall, an enormous joy, without a supportive family, a steady income and a proper home, I’m not sure how I’d meet the challenges it presents.

A stark new report by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) shines a light on how many families are missing vital parts of this infrastructure, and how this is impacting children.

  • Around 130,000 children in the UK live in households where there is a high risk of domestic violence
  • 330,000 children relied on a food bank during 2013/14
  • There has been a 400 per cent increase in families with children living in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation between 2009 and 2014.

These are just some of the many terrifying figures presented in the report. Hundreds of thousands of children in England are growing up without adequate food, housing and protection. Without these basic necessities, how can families be expected to get by, let alone thrive? How can children develop and learn, let alone enjoy their childhood?

This is where human rights come in. Human rights are an agreed minimum standard. They’re not a luxury or an add-on. They are the law. Children have their own human rights because they’re different to adults. Their rights exist in part to make sure their lives aren’t blighted because they happen to have been born into difficult circumstances. It’s staggering that 25 years after the UK agreed to honour and promote the rights of children, the government is failing to make sure children’s most basic needs are met.

It wasn’t until I became a parent that I realised how important local children’s centres are. They give children a chance to play and socialise – crucial for their development – parents the opportunity to support each other and access professional help and advice. They are a lifeline for parents and for kids who might otherwise be cooped up in small flats and are designed to stop families reaching breaking point. Given the situations so many families are facing, they are a vital safety net. Instead of being made available to everyone, they are being cut, year on year.

So children are going without the basics and the systems designed to support families before they hit rock bottom are disappearing. As a parent, I find this heart breaking. As a citizen, I find it unacceptable and unjust. We need to talk about human rights to show that this isn’t about charity and it won’t be solved by hand-outs and sympathy. It’s about the systems that make up our society failing. It’s about commitments being casually flouted. We need to show that we won’t stand by and let it happen.

Find out more about CRAE’s work and how you can get involved: www.crae.org.uk

The wheels on the bus: we’re having the wrong conversation about accessible transport

Rachel Krys blogs about how the debate is being framed around accessible transport:

I was a pushchair user for a few years, between 2005 and 2010. I remember being struck at the time by how much I was benefiting from the new focus on accessibility on transport and in public buildings. The button to open a door, the lift in the tube station, that space half way down a bus all made life a bit easier for me. It wasn’t perfect, I was often found at the bottom of a flight of stairs smiling hopefully at strangers until one of them helped me with the buggy, but I knew it was a massive improvement.

Of course, as soon as the kids could walk, I ditched the wheels and enjoyed again the freedom of walking up the stairs on the bus to find a seat, squeezing on a packed tube, standing on the escalators. The experience gave me a brief glimpse into the life of the people who face these, and much greater hurdles, every day. I had new respect for the great achievements of the disability campaigners who have fought to get a fraction of our society to be more accessible.

So I was saddened by the framing of a debate on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (at about 7.40am if you want to listen again). It centred on the decision expected from the Supreme Court today in the case of Doug Paulley, a wheelchair user challenging a bus company who refused to force a parent with a pushchair to clear the wheelchair area on a bus so he could get on, leaving him on the side of the road.

The programme makers decided this would make for a good fight, who holds the rights trump cards – wheelchair users or pushchair users? Let’s have a heated debate!

Despite the presenter’s best efforts, the discussion was quite reasonable. Mr Paulley made the case that these spaces are the result of a long-fought battle by disabled people to make public transport more accessible. They are there for wheelchair users, who can’t access any other part of the bus.

Sally Whittle, speaking for pushchair users, pointed out the difficulties of using public transport with a child in a pushchair, with shopping, limited space, lack of storage and overcrowding. For me she didn’t quite win the point. It’s a pain, but a pushchair can be folded, shopping can be carried, as can children. Wheelchair users have none of that flexibility, so need the space designed for them.

Both made the point that everyone should be able to use public transport. What was missing, and has been missing in the subsequent Twitter and Facebook rows in my timelines, was any questioning of the bus companies, who are running a monopoly service and still failing some of their users.

The way this case is being discussed asks us to accept the premise that there are limited rights to go round, that one person gets to trump the rights of another. We are being asked to make a false either/or choice. And we are overlooking the way in which the “market” in public transport is clearly letting us down.

We have human rights laws to ensure we all have access to what we need as we go about our lives. So the challenge must be put back to those providing services to ensure everyone, whether they use a wheelchair or a pushchair, can get on the bus.

Why women’s rights are human rights

Pui-Yi Cheng, Communications Officer at Equally Ours, blogs about why women’s rights are human rights:

Women’s rights are human rights. The then-US First Lady Hillary Clinton declared these words at a global conference on women almost 20 years ago. Her impassioned speech focussed on abuses taking place around the world, but stories making headlines in the UK this week remind us that at home, we still have some way to go to recognise this.

The woman who set up a Change.org petition urging Sheffield United not to reinstate Chad Evans following his rape conviction has been threatened with rape herself. Young girls making claims of abuse are being ignored by police. Pregnant women and new mothers experiencing mental health problems are receiving substandard care.

These stories highlight how women across the country are still being denied their human rights on a daily basis. Living a life free from abuse, expecting authorities to protect us from harm, and having access to adequate mental or physical health care are all basic human rights we all share.

It’s true that the term “human rights” means that everyone, regardless of their age, gender, race or nationality should have equal rights. But “women’s rights” reflect the fact that men and women have very different experiences, and that a woman can face obstacles and discrimination simply because she was born a girl.

Looking at abuse and deprivation as human rights issues provides a way to help tackle the inequalities that exist between men and women. It helps us to understand the wider and systemic problems that prevent women and girls from fully having control and freedom over their own lives.

When women are being harassed for voicing an opinion and calling for change, when police are turning a blind eye to abuse and when health authorities are denying women adequate care, we need our human rights more than ever. Human rights protections in the UK have empowered women to force police to investigate rape allegations properly. They have allowed the family of a woman killed by a sex offender to learn the truth about her murder.

We need to talk about human rights and we need to talk about women’s rights. With reported rapes higher than ever and media commentators casually playing down violence against women, we can’t afford to be complacent. We can’t afford to assume that women are always protected, respected and equal – we need to take every opportunity to challenge abuse, both in what we say and what we do.