Human Rights and Chaplaincy
Transcript of address to the Northern Ireland Prison Chaplains Association
You as chaplains’ have an utterly unique and vitally important role within the prison system. You only have one interest and that is the welfare of prisoners.
For everybody else in the service welfare is linked to another purpose’ such as security’ rehabilitation’ non-reoffending or some other goal. That is not meant to undervalue the evident commitment to the welfare of prisoners that can be found in so very many prison and probation officers’ but it is to highlight the great importance of your function. Any attempts to expand or instrumentalise your role absolutely should be resisted and I insist on this point from the outset. It is the meeting point between yourselves and the promotion and protection of human rights.
At heart’ human rights are about the welfare of the individual. The code that we wish to enforce derives from the idea that human rights are constructed around the dignity of the human being. It is in this that we find the natural affinity between chaplains and the defenders of human rights. What is more’ there are specific articulated rights which relate very closely to the work of chaplains.
The obvious example is freedom of religion. Human rights require that we honour the prisoner’s freedom of religion and belief. The chaplains’ role in this regard is evident. By way of another example of human rights of direct relevance to your work is the commitment entered into by the UK as far back as 1976 (in a UN treaty) confirming that the purpose of imprisonment is rehabilitation. This remarkable affirmation’ at odds with such other stated purposes as retribution or revenge’ is a formal binding obligation on the UK government.
At this point I should take the opportunity to tackle some of the myths and misunderstandings that come up when human rights are discussed. First’ when we talk about human rights’ we are talking about the body of laws that the United Kingdom has accepted formally as binding obligations. Even though there are very few spaces where we can use human rights in a courtroom that does not diminish the solid obligations that the United Kingdom reaffirms daily at the international level and accepts as binding in law and practice. Subordinate to those laws is a labyrinth of subsidiary regulations’ such as the international minimum standards and the European standards for the treatment of prisoners. We should invoke and rely on all of this guidance to a much greater extent than is the case.
Beyond the binding nature of this law another important point to recall is that the obligations are not unreasonable. There is a clear recognition that a prisoner does not have the same rights available to him as a free individual; if you are incarcerated you abdicate a certain amount of your rights. This is understood as synonymous with imprisonment; however you do not lose your right to dignity or humanity. Such core human rights cannot be taken away. Imprisonment is the penalty and punishment beyond that is very problematic.
Another myth is that human rights are majoritarian. Human rights are not based on what most people think should be done to prisoners - which is why we remind individuals that they are on indefensible ground when they say prisoners can never have a vote under any circumstances. Yes there are particular crimes of such severity that can lose an individual their right to vote; however’ it is illegal under international standards to uniformly impose a blanket ban on voting rights of prisoners. In addressing this’ we must remember that imprisonment is about rehabilitation; how can you rehabilitate someone if you strip away their civic and democratic responsibilities?
Still another concern’ relevant given the current context’ is that to the effect that the human rights and religious frameworks are inherently in tension with one another and even mutually inconsistent. To the contrary’ the common ground of both frameworks is much more substantive and fruitful than can be imagined. Of course there is some divergence’ but at the core’ there is much common space between people of faith and people seeking to apply international human rights standards. After all’ the moral and ethical principles that form the basis for human rights largely derive from faith bases: many human rights can find their origins in theological thought.
Then there is the question of who have rights and whose situations should receive priority attention. The primary targets of human rights are not the elites in society but the invisible – the most vulnerable and marginalised; the most despised. This means that in any society the human rights of the prisoner must receive high attention. It must also be kept in mind that when viewing prisoners as rights holders the notion of the most vulnerable still applies even within that community - we must identify those within the system who are the most marginalised and seek to promote and protect their rights as a matter of priority.
For every rights-holder there is a duty bearer. This includes the state’ the prison system and all the layers of authority: everyone from the prison officer to the governor and minister has the duty and obligation of care. Chaplains’ too’ are duty bearers - you are there as part of the prison establishment’ and so you have this responsibility directly devolved to you. What this means for you is that you have a duty to respect prisoners’ protect and nourish an environment of human rights and promote a culture of human rights and respectful state of wellbeing within the system.
I would like to conclude by acknowledging the prison staff and their families as rights holders also. I suggest that chaplains have duties to the staff as well as to the prisoners. You have an important role in supporting and upholding the well-being and the dignity of your colleague prison officers.
I will stop there and look forward to following on these opening remarks in our discussions during today.
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