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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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rights were never rescinded.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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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