Is there such a thing as the right to consent to be pelted with eggs? Is this the same thing as saying everybody has the fundamental right to agree to be humiliated? Does the State have a role – indeed an obligation – to intervene in such cases to protect the individual from himself or herself?

Much of the recent debate in Malta about this subject, including the recent post published on Facebook by Nigel Attard, seems to have missed some of the most relevant points related to fundamental human rights. 

I will deliberately not enter into the merits of whether the person in question is a stripper or not, or whether she is of sound mental health or not. I shall not do so for one simple reason, namely that these arguments are largely irrelevant to the primary legal issues at stake. You see, the woman, like everybody else reading this article, is a human being who, by law, enjoys a number of fundamental rights, two of which are most relevant to the case here: the right to dignity and the right to not be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment. 

Attard may possibly be unaware that Article 1 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights is the short and sweet line: “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.” For that reason, he may possibly struggle with questions such as: “Was the woman's dignity violated when she was pelted with eggs? Was her dignity respected and protected?” 

He may also be unaware that, since the UN Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, dignity has been considered to be one of our inalienable rights. Perhaps, however, from his writings, Attard – and certainly many others who have written pointing out that the lady in question gave her explicit and informed consent for the egg-pelting – is not over-familiar with the definition of inalienable, that is “not subject to being taken away from or given away by the possessor”. 

In other words, when a right is inalienable, you cannot sign it away. This is important for people to realise since it also applies to the right to not be subjected to degrading treatment, which is both an absolute right and an inalienable right. Signing a consent form should not be possible in such circumstances since no law can provide an exception to this right, not even if the person concerned is in his or her right mind and has consented to renouncing the right.

This is because some rights are so important that the law cannot countenance their being alienated. Humiliation is very often linked to deprivation of dignity. Pelting with eggs (egging), or tomatoes for that matter, is a humiliating act and, perhaps especially when it is done to politicians, it is intended to humiliate them. Pelting has been removed from being a form of legal punishment in most countries precisely because it is degrading and humiliating. 

Has Attard answered the question “why don’t many countries still maintain pillories or stocks in village or town squares where petty criminals can be publicly humiliated by being pelted with rotten eggs or tomatoes?” It’s because we have agreed that, in civilised societies, even when we punish a wrongdoer, we are not permitted to humiliate them – and pelting people with rotten eggs or vegetables or fruit (if we are to be pedantic about tomatoes) is a form of public humiliation, so much so that many today would consider it barbaric. It does not stop being barbaric simply because one accepts to do it against payment.

There is a reason publicly shaming people in stocks is no longer acceptable.There is a reason publicly shaming people in stocks is no longer acceptable.

Would anybody reading this article laugh and be joyful if their mother, their sister or their daughter were pelted with rotten eggs? Somehow, I don’t think so, which is why I am at pains to understand why it’s OK for another woman not related to anybody at the bachelor’s party to be pelted with eggs. 

To be absolutely clear, however, gender is also irrelevant to the argument I am presenting. Had instead of a woman we were instead dealing with the case of a man wearing nothing more than a G-string who had consented to being pelted with eggs for money, the argument would be the same. Pelting or egging is degrading treatment that is unacceptable to society irrespective of the gender of the person pelted or whether it is done, say, to insult a politician or against payment for the person pelted.

Egging or pelting is degrading treatment that violates dignity and is therefore against the law even if it occurs in a consensual manner

I am going to contact the Director of Studies at the Police Academy or Academy for Disciplined Forces to check what kind of training police officers receive insofar as egging or pelting is concerned. I am quite sure that police would be trained to intervene and prevent it if they were to witness an egging in a public space. 

I just wish to make sure that they are also trained that egging or pelting is degrading treatment that violates dignity and is therefore against the law even if it occurs in a consensual manner, with or without payment, in a private space. Doubtless, somebody will make a note of it and also remind the Commissioner of Police to include anti-egging instructions to all ranks in his next circular.

I will not dare venture an opinion as to why some human beings, certainly for centuries and possibly millennia, appear to obtain joy, happiness and/or satisfaction in degrading others by pelting them with eggs, vegetables, excrement, mud or rats, to name but a few of the other things that were thrown in the past to which the woman could also, notionally, have “consented” to. I will leave that particular question for psychologists to explain to this newspaper’s readers. 

As a lawyer working in the field of fundamental human rights, I will stop here by pointing out that the State – and therefore, by extension, the police – has an obligation to intervene in such situations. 

The description of “stripper” is further misleading since it introduces sexual connotations, something where consensual behaviour has long been a yardstick in the past, but which should be inapplicable in this case. What we need are clear guidelines as to what should be done if the police discover or are called to a situation where somebody’s dignity is being violated through degrading treatment, even consensually.

A word of free advice to people who are inclined to think and behave like Attard: if your mother or sister or daughter needed money so much that she was willing to subject herself to such degrading treatment as being pelted with eggs, just do the right thing and give her the money while persuading her that she does not need to subject herself to such treatment. Whether it’s a man or a woman, treat her no differently than you would somebody who is a relative. 

Finally, having made the argument that the prohibition of degrading treatment is not gender-specific, may I conclude by making an additional plea which is openly gender-specific. As a man, I feel the need to appeal to other men to remember that, as men, we have a special responsibility to fight objectification of women on all grounds. 

This is not the main argument, but an additional argument presented to all those men who do not think it fun to subject women to any form of degrading treatment or otherwise violating their dignity. 

Prof. Joseph Cannataci is head of the Department of Information Policy and Governance at the University of Malta and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy.

This article was amended on April 15, 2024 following a data privacy request. For more information please contact editor@timesofmalta.com. 

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