Hereditary monarchies are the antithesis of a human rights culture
Monarchs hold sway over 43 states worldwide; the UK should take the lead in dismantling this archaic system of unaccountable power.
The Royal Standard of the United Kingdom and UK flag in front of Buckingham Palace. Credit: rarrarorro / iStock
In 1945 the United Nations was set up to promote human rights, development, peace, and security across the globe following the catastrophe of the Second World War. The preamble to the UN Charter, a key instrument of international law that binds all 193 member states, reads: “We the Peoples of the United Nations … reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small … to promote social progress and better standards of life.”
The choice of words here is of critical importance. It is the will of the people—not the will of a ruling class or family—that gives a state its legitimacy. The development of a human rights culture requires a recognition of the inherent value of all human beings, universal respect for human rights, and promotion of social progress and better living standards for all.
These values are borne out in the International Bill of Human Rights, which stipulates that states must respect, protect, and fulfil a comprehensive set of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights unto all individuals in their jurisdiction. These inaugural human rights treaties, and the more specialised human rights instruments that followed, effectively set out a bare minimum set of duties and responsibilities that state parties owe to all people.
Importantly, human rights treaties focus on how states should serve the people, rather than how people should serve the state. The latter framing is often used by authoritarian regimes, which typically employ a combination of nationalist propaganda and repressive laws and policies to simultaneously restrict the human rights of individuals and promote patriotism and loyalty toward the state and its ruling elite. Monarchies lean toward authoritarianism by reducing citizens to “subjects” (from the Latin sub and jacio, meaning one who is under the power of another) of their monarch.
A hereditary monarchy impedes the development of a human rights culture in a number of ways. Firstly, it undermines the rule of law. In the UK, King Charles is exempt from civil and criminal proceedings under the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity.” This rule applies not only to his public duties but also his private and business affairs. Police are barred from entering private royal estates without the sovereign’s permission to investigate suspected crimes. Successive British governments have maintained that the rule of law is a fundamental British value, but there is no rule of law unless it applies to everyone.
Secondly, monarchies are inherently undemocratic. Not only are individual monarchs not voted in, but the concept of a hereditary monarchy as a political structure has never been put to a popular vote. In the UK, fewer than half of the population of under-45s support the monarchy, despite its extensive propaganda in the popular media, and only around a quarter of the population tuned into the recent coronation of King Charles. If the UK had an elected head of state today, it’s very hard to imagine how a campaign calling for a hereditary monarchy would make its case. It exists simply because it always has, and ruling elites do not tend to give up power voluntarily.
Thirdly, all members of any royal family are born into a life of unearned privilege. In comparison to other European monarchies, the British royal family is particularly excessive: King Charles’s inherited private fortune is worth an estimated £1.8 billion. Inexplicably, the royal family is not required to pay inheritance tax. For reasons that baffle many UK taxpayers, they are required to pay their billionaire royal family a vast annual sovereign grant (£86.3 million in financial year 2021–22).
Outside of Europe, the situation is even worse. The House of Saud, the ruling dynasty in Saudi Arabia, is worth an estimated $1.4 trillion, and the King of Thailand holds wealth and assets worth an estimated $40 billion. A human rights culture requires social progress, and it is plain to see that the systematic hoarding of a nation’s resources—wealth that could be used to improve the living standards of citizens—presents a significant barrier to progress.
Freedom of expression and assembly are cornerstones of a human rights culture. However, the police crackdown on protestors at King Charles’s coronation on May 6 revealed these fundamental rights can be withdrawn at whim if they present an inconvenience to the royal family. The new Public Order Act, encompassing a controversial expansion of police powers to stamp out peaceful protest, was hastily passed into law just days before the coronation, despite the UN high commissioner for human rights and other prominent voices calling for it to be reversed.
The new repressive legislation led to dozens of highly questionable arrests, including eight members of anti-monarchy group Republic, who were detained for 16 hours on suspicion of “going equipped to lock on,” and three Night Star volunteers, who were arrested and detained while trying to provide vulnerable people with rape alarms in Soho. Human rights barrister Adam Wagner told the Home Affairs Select Committee that he was concerned the new laws would have a “chilling effect” on democracy and human rights.
Finally, the UK monarchy not only threatens the development of a human rights culture in the UK itself, it also stifles progress across 14 Commonwealth nations, where, somewhat bizarrely, King Charles is officially head of state. Many of these states are in favor of independence from Britain and the establishment of an elected head of state. If King Charles were to step down, these states could enjoy full self-determination and autonomy.
The dismantling of the British monarchy, the most famous monarchy in the world, could have a positive ripple effect; it could encourage citizens in other monarchies to challenge their own political structures. As Thomas Paine said: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” In the 21st century, hereditary monarchies are not even superficially right. They directly challenge the human rights of citizens. There is no excuse for them to continue.
Kate Bermingham is a social affairs journalist and alumni of the Irish Centre for Human Rights.