David Cameron, Burglars, and Human Rights

Posted on February 3, 2010


The stream of policy proposals from the Conservatives shows no sign of abating in the run-up to the election predicted for May. Most recently, their leader, David Cameron, stepped into the spotlight once again. Amid several cases of trials against victims who have sought to defend themselves against burglars and attackers, Mr. Cameron spoke out in their defence. ‘The moment a burglar steps over your threshold and invades your property with all the threat that gives to you, your family and your livelihood, I think they leave their human rights outside’, said Mr Cameron.

Over-reaction from the police and prosecutors against those who use force to repel intruders sometimes borders on the ridiculous. Therefore, the Conservatives are quite right to seek to counter-balance this unfortunate trend. Their forays into the media also help to highlight our inherent right to self-defence against bodily harm, to protect our property, and to shield our family from the same violations. A failure to act on these deficiencies in the legal system could ultimately serve to undermine trust in law-enforcement and in judicial processes. It is quite unlikely that the British public would appreciate groups of vigilantes patrolling their streets and, so, we must accept and yield to a higher authority. As has been pointed out previously on this blog, this authority will be legitimate only if people trust it and Mr Cameron is right in wishing to restore the trust that has been lost.

Naturally, violence used in defence of oneself and one’s property must still be proportionate and, importantly, only for (as the term implies) defence. What constitutes proportionality cannot be codified but must be judged case by case using human reasoning and common sense. Claiming, however, that burglars leave their human rights at the door seems to constitute an oxymoron, for we hold such rights by the very fact of being human, wherever we are. Mr. Cameron’s statement seems, erroneously, to imply that burglars, once they enter someone’s home, are ipso facto divested of the dignity with which every human being is endowed.

It should be remembered that these two notions – the right to self-defence and human dignity – are both rooted in a soil that has suffered erosion in recent times, namely the natural law. We must accept that certain moral precepts prevail independently of circumstances of human law, culture, and time. There has to be a right to proportionate self-defence against burglars but their right to life must also be respected.

If the current media debate were to encourage thoughtful resort to the fountainhead of human rights and reflection on key texts like the 1949 Universal Declaration, it would be an outcome much to be desired. We shall get nowhere very fast with a smorgasbord of rights from which to ‘pick and choose’ according to whim and media stimuli.