25/11/2013 07:02 GMT | Updated 24/01/2014 05:59 GMT

How the British Can Learn to Love Human Rights

Human rights have become toxic in Britain. There is no genuine public debate over the issue - debates are supposed to be two sided, and progressive forces have not yet found a successful response to calls to scrap the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Parts of the media have gone out of their way to misrepresent the Human Rights Act as a tool used to play the system that only benefits murderers, rapists, terrorists and irregular migrants. The European Court of Human Rights has been vilified as a foreign, unaccountable body that imposes its will on the British people from afar. Most politicians probably believe that there are no votes to be won by standing up for this system of rules. Even Labour, which introduced the Act, recognised problems with public perception and joined the assault on the legislation before leaving government.

However, research on public attitudes suggests that this is a debate that pro-human rights forces could win. Despite the extremely negative press, generating support among the majority of the public is still quite feasible - while 26% of people are opposed to human rights, 22% are in favour and 41% hold conflicting positive and negative views.

A few finely balanced defences of human rights have been delivered to the broader public audience. Quite sensibly, they point to the less publicised cases in which human rights rules have helped to protect the vulnerable from abuse, such as persons with disabilities and children. But exaggerations about European Court of Human Rights rulings are hard to correct. Most of the public continue to believe (mistakenly) that the UK has been told to give all prisoners the right to vote, to get rid of whole life sentences, and that it cannot deport foreign terrorists who pose a security threat.

Can we be surprised that supporters of human rights have not come out in greater force to do some robust myth-busting? Not really. Complicated and subtle counter-arguments do not come across very easily - and few in the media would probably be willing to carry a more balanced message. Some politicians from the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties have announced that they do not want to see the Human Rights Act abolished. But mere declarations of support for the Act will not convince the public of its importance. To win over public opinion, human rights supporters need to go much further and develop an alternative, positive, story about human rights.

The good news is that there is plenty of inspiration out there to draw on. Pro-human rights forces should begin by looking at how people in Britain understand human rights. The British are very much stuck in the concept of civil liberties, which are the rights protected under the European Convention and the Human Rights Act. Civil liberties are, broadly speaking, the rights that prevent government from interfering in our lives (like freedom from arbitrary detention) and allow us to hold the government to account (like the right to vote or a free press). And for the most part, the people of Britain, perhaps with undue complacency, take these rights for granted. The fight for civil liberties is something the British generally view as relevant not for themselves, but for people in other countries: fledgling democracies, dictatorships and autocracies.

The public needs to realise that human rights are relevant for them in their day-to-day lives. In part, this involves highlighting that civil liberties, protected under the European Convention and the Human Rights Act, cannot be taken for granted. Despite the general sense of ease, all is not well in the state of Britain. For example, press freedom and access to the courts - crucial for ensuring that government does not abuse its powers - have both been undermined recently.

But the public also needs to understand that human rights are not merely about civil liberties - they are also about economic and social rights. While civil liberties protect individuals from oppression, economic and social rights allow individuals a fair chance to develop - physically and mentally - to their full potential and to become active and contributing members of society - politically, economically and culturally. Economic and social rights include access to education, health care, adequate and affordable housing, and fair working conditions, including fair pay. Britain, which negotiated and ratified the European Social Charter and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, has committed itself to implementing these rights.

These lesser known parts of international human rights law can also offer inspiration to leaders looking for alternative policies on university fees, standards of education in free schools, the National Health Service, the bedroom tax, the soaring cost of housing, fuel prices, and the living wage. The expert bodies that oversee how these international agreements are implemented have issued plenty of guidance that can be used by policy makers.

In short, human rights standards set out what governments need to do in order to ensure the well-being of their peoples. Human rights create a template for putting the values of fairness, human dignity, respect, solidarity and social justice into practice. And interestingly enough, research on attitudes towards human rights in the UK suggests that even though many people are sceptical of 'human rights', they are enthusiastic about the very values that lie behind them. Human rights supporters can create - and win - a genuine public debate.