Trying too hard

Like all wise motorists I take careful note of speed cameras, but each time I see one and then check my speed, I also reflect upon the sorry tale of their bright yellow colouring, for it is the result of a legal judgement concerning human rights. They stand as ugly parables of the folly of trying too hard.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1945, founding document of the United Nations, is not without its problems and limitations, but nevertheless remains one of the most important and influential documents of the twentieth century. There is a depth and dignity in the ideas expressed, all the more powerful when one remembers the context from which it arose, at the close of World War II.

As the remit of human rights was extended, it was inevitable that they would be to some extent trivialized, and that the high ideals and almost religious seriousness of the 1945 Declaration would not be evident decades later, in the hands of workaday lawyers with a nose for profit. But the colour of speed cameras was an application too far.

It was an appeal to European Court of Human Rights that required the Queen’s magistrates (I use the title with all its Prayer Book connotations) to ensure that these cameras were no longer hidden behind trees nor other signs, and that they must be clearly visible to the motorist. If you remember, they were at first painted in vivid stripes; bright yellow is now the legally acceptable compromise.

It makes driving marginally less stressful; I wonder if more people are killed because excess speed is not so well restrained; but what has it all got to do with human rights? There is a dissonance between the particular and the abstract: the single instance detracts from the general ideal. Whatever human rights are about (and they are about something very important), they are not about speed cameras.

Whatever the church is about, it is about something very important in terms of our relationship with God and with each other. So important, that like human rights (or more so), it must act with an appropriate seriousness. Not everything is a subject of formal prayer, ordered worship or clerical pronouncement.


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