Respect human rights? It depends…

Late last month, our justice minister announced the government’s right to suspend basic human rights if the situation warranted it. Edward Zammit Lewis, writing in The Times of Malta, said of the challenges of irregular immigration from Libya:

“The Labour government has also tried to strike the difficult balance between respecting basic human rights and ensuring that tiny Malta is not overwhelmed.”

There is no mistaking what the words mean. The minister responsible for justice has said that his government is ready to weigh the possibility of not respecting human rights.

Human rights are not things you put in the balance, even if you give them a lot of weight. They are what give balance to a democratic State.

Such rights are not luxuries. They are identified as fundamental because, when deprived of them, human personality breaks down. They protect our humanity.

The Malta Chamber of Psychologists said as much last week. Its statement referred not to the Zammit Lewis article but to the conditions in detention centres. The Chamber didn’t propose anything as radical as abolishing them. It simply insisted that they should provide humane conditions – that is, conditions that respect human rights.

The Chamber insisted that immigrants from Libya deserve the highest level of care precisely because of the traumatic conditions that they experienced. They arrive already at the end of their tether. If treated inhumanely, they might not be able to cope. With desperation and helplessness often come grave mental and physical health issues.

So here is what the minister’s ‘difficult balance’ means: being ready to suspend the State’s duty to protect life and provide humane treatment.

The justification: the need for Malta not to be ‘overwhelmed’. We don’t quite know what that means. We have certainly not experienced it, even if our resources are stretched.

But we do know that some migrants have been subjected to inhumane treatment: pushed back, detained on ships built for other purposes, and detained on land in conditions we do not dare advertise.

The minister is presenting, as the acme of judiciousness, a calculus that contemplates selecting some people for inhumane treatment in order to protect the standard of living of another group.

Nationality is the principle of selection. It’s not your humanity but your nationality that determines your human rights.

Our justice minister is effectively proposing a racist calculus.

But does he really mean it? Or was the offending passage the careless wording of an overworked staff writer?

I’d rather live in a society where people have the space to correct what they say and do. But fixing things begins with recognising things for what they are. And it’s racist to decide, on the basis of country of origin, that it is better that some drown (or crumble psychologically) so that others may live better.

And this has been the policy of the government whose justice Zammit Lewis is responsible for.

The brunt of the minister’s article was actually about the need for European solidarity — justified complaints. But they don’t mitigate the racism.

It’s true that we can envisage numbers of immigrant arrivals large enough to be unmanageable — either in the short or long terms. But we’re not near there yet.

Yes, there is infrastructural pressure and personal stress on our army, police, medical staff and schools. But why select irregular immigrants as the special cause that makes all the difference?

Why overlook the role of corruption in army promotions, and the wipe-out of an entire echelon of senior officers?

The loss of community trust in the police force (which inevitably makes policing more difficult) because of the disrepute of some very senior officers?

The underfunding of schools? The shocking, suspicious privatisation of three hospitals? The skimming of tens of millions of public funds which could have been invested in better infrastructure?

Or, indeed, why not be more taken up with the mismanagement of legal immigration?

The problems are real. What’s unreal is homing in on irregular immigrants as the special cause deserving special treatment.

It’s difficult not to suspect that irregular immigrants are selected because they have no powerful lobbies to protest on their behalf. They’re not picked on despite arriving in a wretched state, but precisely because they’re wretches.

Let’s have no illusions. When the government suspends their human rights, it is also suspending our Constitution, which obliges us to respect everyone’s fundamental rights. And it’s suspending the Constitution informally, not even recognising the gravity of what it does.

That’s not protecting us from being overwhelmed. That’s opening the gateway of arbitrary rule. If exceptions can be made for some, no one is safe.

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