T19 – Leaping Out Of The Box

Why human rights matter

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T19 intro video – audio transcript.

Right at the start of this project I argued for a manifesto for human rights, a declaration of ten principles around which the subject should organise itself.  I believe that these principles hold the key to our subject’s future, to securing the right rights future.

As this phase of the project draws to a close, I’d like to reflect on why I think human rights deserve this attention.  Digging a bit deeper into the origins of my point of view, I can see that there are ten assumptions that I have been making about human rights along the way, unspoken perspectives that explain the view I take and the optimism that I bring to my argument.

It is right, now, to pull these thoughts to the surface – will they survive the scrutiny that comes from such exposure?

If not the argument that flows from them is in trouble.

What do you think?

Words Flowing From Within

The first point is that the language of human rights is well placed to make the impact the project’s manifesto claims for it.  It is in pole position so far as contemporary expression of the instinct for caring is concerned –

– and here we encounter the first three assumptions that drive my approach to rights:

1. The meaning I want to give to human rights captures a truth about ourselves which is part and parcel of what we are, an essence not a construction.  The subject dies without it.

Human rights assert that there is something about the fact of each of us that makes every one of us count, that the esteem in which a person is held is rooted not in what they have or who they are or where they are from but in the fact that, simply put, they are.   Track 3 and  track 4 try to get under the skin of where this claim comes from.

This assumption exposes my belief that without it the idea of human rights disappears as a firmly rooted perspective on anything – it becomes a floating signifier available to all. In such circumstances, sure we can fight for our point of view but we can have no claim to its supremacy over any rival versions of human-rights-truth.

And the two further assumptions within this assumption:

2. Human rights are about caring, about reaching out to the other, empathising with the stranger.


3. Human rights constitute the best language available at the current time to achieve a society in which all have the best chance to flourish in their lives.

Both of these perspectives are controversial.  They give the language of human rights a dynamic character, with rights (and even rights language itself) ebbing and flowing as the moment demands.  They hinge on my belief in the relative quiescence of other progressive talk (relative that is to the potential of human rights to do better work in this area).  If any of you think that ‘socialism’ or ‘justice’ are better rallying calls, now is the time to say so.

Taking As Well As Giving

Human rights are not an ethic separate from the world but are deeply immersed in the public morality of living together well. They do not float into one’s hands, delivered by some angelic collective good.  So it follows:

4. Human rights are an attitude to fight for in politics.

They are a way of looking at the world that demands that all being seen be accorded their due.  Track one sets out this stall right from the start, and the project stands or falls by it – tracks like those on property and righteous anger show how it works in practice.  If human rights were above politics they would not be worth having and would not in any event exist: politics are what we are when we are together.

And it must follow from this that human rights stand not just for receiving the gifts of the compassionate but for action for the self as well, for asserting one’s will, both singly and in association with like-minded others:

5. Human rights are about empowering the disempowered to seize control of their lives as a matter of right. (Track two and track five)

Now this ‘self‘ for whom human rights act both as protector against wrong and as platform for asserting a better future is an enriched self, one whose personhood thrives through association with others (track ten), one which is at home with religious faith but without ever being required to have it (track thirteen), and one which is collective where this is needed but not to the point where the individual is subjected to any kind of grander general will (track eighteen).

What is the common link in all this?

(6) The project assumes the self to be the starting point for human rights, seeking to enrich the term with a wealth of identity and solidarity for sure, even to build an emancipatory story while working to avoid the pitfalls of the selfish self – but without ever losing this focus on the individual person as the basic building block upon which hinges the necessary truth of human rights.

I appreciate from the responses to the rights of people that this is perhaps the trickiest assumption of all of those that I have made.

Transcending Boundaries

LSE’s Space for Thought Literary Festival next week (at which our project ends) is called CROSSING BORDERS.  This suits human rights perfectly.

7. The study of human rights is not an academic discipline, a zone of learning with discrete methodologies, autonomous ways of thinking, its own private language and cohort of scholarly leaders.

Of course there are departments that focus on the mechanical offshoots of the human rights idea, technicians of constitutional rights, of human rights groups as part of social movements, of philosophical ideas like autonomy and liberty, and the like.  But these are bit parts of a broader story, not the main act.

Here we come to what I think is one of the main reasons human rights as an idea has succeeded to the extent that it has.  It is an intellectual cuckoo, thriving on the use it has made of the nests of other ideas.

Consider the sweep of intellectual history so brilliantly described in Michael Sandel’s account of  Justice on BBC4 recently (and I hope the link is still available when you read this).  Sandel discusses the influence of three pivotal thinkers, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham on the way we think today.  He never mentions human rights but what clearly comes through is how our subject is a cuckoo’s collage of past thinkers’ best bits.

  • From Kant we have taken this idea of the absolute importance of treating the individual correctly, of respecting him or her as a person and of never reducing such a person to being a mere instrument of our will.This works well with what we think of as unqualified rights but which are in fact uncompromising prohibitions: the refusal to countenance torture and slavery are the clearest two examples.  But carried too far it can seem too extreme, unreasonable even – as Kant often appears, even to his followers today.
  • So from Bentham human rights takes not the crudity of happiness at all costs but the need when we are realising rights in law sometimes to subjugate our ideals to the exigencies of the moment, to qualify our view of what rights entail to take account of what might be deemed ‘necessary in a democratic society’ (to borrow a phrase from the European Convention on Human Rights).  Thus is the deal reached between representative government and the dignity of the person – Kantian on essentials, Benthamite on means so long as they do not destroy these essentials.
  • From Aristotle we get our rich reading of human rights, the one which this project has consistently followed, the idea of the moral goal of human rights being the creation of a platform for our better selves, albeit (and here maybe we differ a little form Aristotle) with the idea of what is better being left to us, with the only demand we make being that we think about the question and address seriously the challenge of leading a successful life – what Ronald Dworkin in his recent book calls our ethical obligation.

The promiscuity of human rights extends across departments, plucking the importance of place from Anthropology, a sense of transcendentalism from Theology (albeit without God), the value of morality in international affairs from a branch of IR, and much else besides.

I could go on.

8.  A great virtue of human rights is its relative intellectual incoherence, its freedom from the disciplined thought required within disciplines. Its strength hinges on a kind of energetic flexibility that would be impossible were the subject more pleasing to those who value deep and consistent thinking above all else.

Freed of the discipline of discipline, the human rights perspective roams free across all fields of study, throwing itself into every sort of disciplinary battles –  a kind of ethical shop steward for the species (and indeed beyond, into animals and even  trees).

Soaring From The Ivory Tower

It is this vital, vibrant stupidity that allows human rights to escape into public discourse to impact on corporations (track twelve), to be the successful focus for emancipatory movements everywhere (track two and track five), to reach hearts as well as minds (track four) and even to resist (using all its weapons: compassion; law; solidarity) the counter-terrorism juggernaut (track fourteen)

And Law?

My own specialist field and the one on which my assumptions are hardest to flush out:

9. Human rights need law, but as the messenger of ideas rather than their creator.

More on this and on law generally next week, when – in the final essay in this series – I turn to what the right human rights future would look like and how best to get there. Law has a huge part to play in this, a supporting act that is always veering towards centre stage.

And my tenth assumption, in many ways the one that makes this project possible, which drives me and I suspect many of my readers and contributors too

10. There is a right rights future – and it is one that is worth fighting for, not only because it is right but also because it is achievable.

More on this as well, next week and at the Literary Festival the following Thursday.

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17 Responses to T19 – Leaping Out Of The Box

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  2. Paul Bernal says:

    I’ve found the whole process of The Rights’ Future both enlightening and enjoyable – in a way it seems a little disconcerting that it will shortly be coming to a conclusion, as it’s become part of my weekly routine. I’m certainly going to be coming along to the Literary Festival event.

    One thing that particularly resonated with me in this week’s track is the last word of the last of your points: achievable. For me, that’s the most important aspect of the human rights project – it has to achieve something. It has to be grounded in the pragmatic, producing real results for real people in the real world. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy academic discussion and philosophical investigations, but the reason I’ve been following what might loosely be described as a ‘human rights path’ over the last fifteen to twenty years is that I’ve wanted to do something that has a real impact. Whatever we write and say, whatever we think and believe, we have to do our best to make sure that the effect of it is real and positive.

    • christina says:

      Pragmatic. Hooray Paul.
      I wonder what your thoughts are on rights for women? I know we have many common agreements in terms of privacy and intrusion and micro management by the state. See you Thursday

      • Paul Bernal says:

        Christina, I’m writing about feminist critiques of privacy and autonomy at this very moment – or at least I’m trying to write about them, because it’s a huge subject, and one that I agree with you is paid far too little attention, partly, in my opinion, because it’s such a difficult topic. There are other things that get in its way from a most pragmatic perspective: men (like me) seem to often feel that they aren’t really qualified to talk, think or write about the subject, while some women don’t want to be pigeonholed (and hence largely ignored) as ‘feminist thinkers’ rather than just ‘thinkers’, which in itself says a huge amount of the inherent sexism of our academic systems.

  3. In terms of whether ‘human rights constitute the best language available’ I would very much agree. Socialism and justice are both vital terms, but neither fully embodies the principles and beliefs behind the human rights concept. Furthermore, each carries with it its own baggage, especially when it comes to general misunderstanding of the content of these terms (such as the continued use in some quarters of ‘socialist’ as a pejorative term). As Conor mentions, they also allow a flexibility and capacity for change, which is very much needed. As new crises and global events arise, our understanding of human rights changes, and we adapt the rights we believe we have. As the world moves on, so must our rights.

    The concept of the self being ‘the starting point for human rights’ is also spot on for me. Human rights are the individual’s arsenal against the more obvious power of the rich and of states. A concept of rights also works against ‘the selfish self’, by giving the weaker individual a barrier against the whims of the selfish.

    I’m very much looking forward to next week’s post on the role of law. I have made my opinion clear before, but I see the law as the enforcer of the human rights consensus. I’m definitely looking forward to the event, and meeting some of the other contributors.

  4. Federico Burlon says:

    I would like to underscore the importance keeping human rights pragmatic. I agree with Paul that to continue being an inclusive political project human rights must remain “achievable.” Although it may be inevitable and perhaps indispensable that they have an academic dimension, human rights as a political project of empowerment and freedom must remain practical and accessible. In light of the turmoil in Tunisia and Egypt, understanding the importance of making human rights achievable is essential. The protests remind us that there are still many people around the world (in Africa, Asia, and Latin America) who have been shunned by neoliberalism, structural adjustment programmes, and Western-imposed ‘liberal’ regimes. They do not often appear on the front-page of newspapers, nor are they the subject of high-level international talks or state of the union addresses. They have no property, no jobs, and no income, save perhaps from aid from the government or charities, which only perpetuates their dependency. They lack access to education, they lack representation, they do not pay taxes, and they remain severed from the political life of their countries. I am talking about a group of people different from what we understand as the ‘poor.’ The poor, in many ways, remain the subject of development and inclusion policies. I am referring to a social stratum that has been disjoined from, and has therefore ceased to be part of, society. Although one may regard them as disempowered, I would make the case that they are enormously powerful. In fact, they have nothing to lose. While governments worry about defence budgets, illegal uranium enrichment programmes, and aircraft carriers without aircraft, these people are toppling regimes (For another example see Argentina in 2001). I believe that they represent the ultimate challenge for human rights. Their situation is a catalogue of human rights violations, yet it is impossible for them to access these rights. For these reason, if we aim to put forward a version of human rights as an inclusive, empowering, liberating project based on giving everyone equal esteem, we will have to show why human rights and not violence and looting are a better alternative for these people to have a voice.

  5. Zoe Fiander says:

    I would echo Paul and Holly in saying thanks for this project – the essays and the responses have been very thought-provoking – and I think constructive too (I know Paul and Federico make the point on achievability which I’m sure you’ll answer). I’ll come along to the Literary Festival event too and hope to see some of you there.

    On this week’s track/round-up: the vast majority of this I agree with. The relationship between the first four points is very neatly set out (which is quite something given that it seems antithetical to argue that something which needs to be fought for is actually instinctive). I can’t find anything to disagree with here, not for lack of trying!

    I do have to query point 8 in that it seems this way of thinking about human rights *is* coherent – and hasn’t part of this project examined how we can sort through the competing perspectives to find a robust (even if dynamic) framework for rights? Perhaps I misunderstand you?

    There is also some tension between point 4 – to a lesser extent point 3 – and point 8, because intellectual incoherence tends to lead to bad political arguments. I’m not saying that all good political arguments are coherent – many effective soundbites are utterly meaningless – but it is certainly easier to make a clear argument with a foundation there, or with ideological coherence. And I disagree that intellectual coherence results in inflexibility or inability to transcend disciplines – I think the best ideas that have transcended disciplines have done so precisely because they seemed intellectually (or ideologically? or instinctively?) coherent. Perhaps I am biased as I would like all 10 points to hang together in a ‘deep and consistent’ way…!

  6. Lily Megaw says:

    One of the most enlightening themes of this project for me has been the exploration of the individual as the centre of human rights, and the coming together of two conceptions of human rights that I previously thought were irreconcilable.
    First there is the idea that human rights need to be based on an idea of individuals as equals, with a shared essential core – ‘an essence’. Without this, a human rights perspective would have shaky foundations (assumption no.1, T3). Second there is the notion that human rights are for protecting the vulnerable and the weak from an abuse of power (CT 8). For me, this second conception leads to the idea that human rights cannot be static or too concrete. They need to be allowed to develop over time, to be able to respond to contemporary demands so that individuals can make use of their emancipatory power. The rights language has developed over time – from an argument for citizen’s rights, to arguments for self-determination, a wider range of social rights (workers’ rights – T10), the right to development, etc. This second conception takes into account context, noting that the rights language needs to be able to relate to the circumstances faced by the vulnerable.
    I previously thought of these conceptions as mutually exclusive – the first necessitating a completely decontextualized individual to support the universalistic foundations of the theory, and the second rejecting universality to focus entirely on context and circumstances, considering human rights to be entirely constructed. I now realise that there is a half-way point. I hope I am right in saying that The Rights Future has put forward the idea that human rights both rely on a vision of individuals united by a shared essence, a truth, but they also develop over time in relation to context and can be (rather, they must be) emancipatory in their use. We need struggle and solidarity, but we also a deeper meaning – a truth (T3). Both are vital components of human rights.

  7. Favio Farinella says:

    Paul is right when he says that The Right’s Future is part of our weekly routine. The project was full of ideas, but most important, tolerance and respect.
    The first time I read the Manifesto at the beginning of the project it seems to me it was a challenging new ‘general theory of human rights’. Some months -tracks and ideas- later I feel it is much more than that.

    The Manifesto brings implications for:

    … the nature of human rights. The Manifesto makes us understand that human rights are not an elaborated set of ideas to convince or impose on other societies, pretending they are universal, but instead it reminds us the existence of common feelings that are to be transmitted among cultures. Empathy, caring for vulnerable people do not belong to any particular society, culture or religion. Any human being is capable of that, but we have a duty to create the circumstances in which every individual could develop those natural dispositions.
    Human rights is our common language.

    … lawyers. Another development I learn out of the Manifesto is its flowing vision of human rights. Any static vision of human rights dies when the Manifesto propose to take the rights to the streets not in the sense of political violence but compromised activism. Without static rights, progress is easier. The flowing of rights will depend on the particular circumstances of each society, but it is the only way by which individuals could ‘flourish in their lives’.
    Most of the time -we- lawyers tend to stress the second word of the idea of human ‘rights’ and the consequence is that we take rights’ breaches as an academic or procedural analysis of pros and cons that can help to succeed in a logical debate or a courtroom. Successful progress will take place out of academies and courts -but with their support-.

    … Politics. Every principle of the Manifesto lead us to take sides. Conor’s words aim to take action … on behalf of the individual, the dispossessed, the weak. The progressive language of human rights is something like a tabula rasa where rights can be written again and again according to the changes needed after their implementation. It is like the monitoring principle of environmental law, ensuring that ongoing procedures are performed rightly according to the aims set and if not, deciding timely corrective actions where necessary. Politics become a useful tool to advance human rights ideas based on empowering individuals to ‘flourish in their lives’, as Conor says.
    From this view human rights are more comprehensive than political doctrines because its main concern is the human being, not power.

    … international law. The international law of human rights is changing priorities of classic International law: tolerance and empathy among peoples are emphasized instead of sovereignty. Democratic political decisions are taken out of the majority. As electors we must support those parties which propose tolerance and care for the immigrants, minorities and dispossessed, instead of their expulsion or isolation. We as individuals contribute to general policies and we shall assume that responsibility.

    Finally, there are implications for us as participants. Personally, I will not look at human rights as before, as something static that entirely depends on the legislative will.
    Human rights are basically what people claim for when they are denied to live their life.
    The perpetual will to change injustice.

  8. Colin Harvey says:

    Again, I think Conor is right to advance an understanding of rights as the rallying cry. and a particular version of it that is political, in the sense that it does not start and end with ‘the law is the law’ style reasoning. The principled pragmatism and flexibility of this global discourse is what makes it so appealing, as Conor points out. It is also a discourse that is sufficiently grounded nationally and globally to have real meaning and ‘teeth’. That it leaves productive tensions everywhere precisely because of the insistence on humanity – that give potential footholds for activism – is part of the appeal, but is the thing that most puzzles and frustrates those seeking definitive closure of the conversation, and who see it as standing in the way of direct action against the ‘undeserving’ and those who do not ‘belong’ to the national club (this is starkly evident in governmental frustration at the implications of Art. 3 ECHR in the deportation context, and is also surfacing in the current debate on the voting rights of prisoners).

    The bit that continues to raise questions is around ‘grounding’ of these rights sufficiently concretely to give them meaning, in ways that acknowledge and celebrate the ‘everyone’ of human rights, rather than just the rights of the ‘citizens of a republic’ or subjects in a democratic system. There seems to be something of this going on in the nationalist critiques of the HRA in Britain (an Act that when you read back over the debates was often sold, even by its staunchest advocates, in highly nationalistic terms – count the number of references to ‘British’ in the White Paper). This is not to defend a bland and rootless cosmopolitanism (national constitutional rights protections make a significant contribution to the global debates, and people can be rightly and justifiable proud of honorable rights-based national traditions) – but to lend support to those who argue for cosmopolitan versions of constitutionally-grounded rights, ie those who insist that the rights belong to everyone first (that we see the person first – or humanity over legality and status), those who keep the doors open to the international and comparative debates, and those who are not afraid to think that progressive constitutional conversations might have useful things to add to the international debates as well.

  9. A number of people have expressed their thanks to Conor for this project in their comments, and I would like to join the chorus. It has been a great project, and one which has challenged us all to think more broadly than we might otherwise. And as others have said, the weekly challenge has become a part of the routine of life – without ever becoming routine in itself, I should add! I’m only sorry that I am too far away to join with others of you at the LSE Literary Festival, which I’m sure will be a fascinating event.

    There is a great deal with which I agree in this penultimate post – such as your initial point Conor about the language of human rights. This language can be analyzed in a range of different ways, but to me its power comes back to two key things – both of which you talk about: one is justice and the other is the inviolability of the person (the sacredness of the person, in older language). It seems to me that in years of teaching about human rights, it is these two key things which draw people in, no matter what their background. People may have diverse conceptions of justice, but there is something at the core of it that they can intuitively express through rights language. And people have many different ideas about what it means to be a person, but one of the few brute facts about life is our embodied individuality, our selves being present in these discreet physical packages – and the dire consequences of not respecting these “packages”: consequences which play out physically, socially, spiritually, psychologically, in the law and above all in politics.

    One of the other observations I would make about the way you articulate your conception of rights in this post, is the way in which the use of the language of rights does depend on context, and in that sense does very much depend on the underlying philosophical and political approach. A lot of people have claimed to object to rights and rights language because of its individuating potential – that is, their atomizing force. Or because of the selfishness that some see in demanding rights (like the well known (meant ironically) right to television reception, which I use as a teaching tool in the class room). But when one looks at how Conor sets this post up, rights are about caring for others, reaching out, empathizing with strangers – rights are seen and interpreted here as a means for creating community, for generating fellow feeling across the gulfs that often separate us. This, I think, is true, and is a very necessary thing in the world of global consumer capitalism where it is only too easy for us to ignore others and to become fixated on our own survival or – for those of us slightly better off – our own desires for accumulation.

    I completely agree with points 4 and 5, and as my comments above and previously will testify, I think the emphasis on the self that Conor expresses in point 6 to be crucial. As I indicated above, one cannot wish the self away, no matter how collectivist one’s philosophy might be or become. Individual embodied selves are us, as it were, and I think that one of the prime reasons that human rights works as a political, ethical, social, emancipatory force is because it recognizes this front and centre.

    As an academic, I agree with you on point 7 and take it as a salutary warning about the dangers of becoming disengaged from the world beyond the classroom and the study – although, writing as we do with Egypt constantly in our thoughts at present, it is hard to see how one could become disengaged in the way that your point is a warning about.

    I agree with Zoe’s reluctance to go all the way with you on point 8. I take your point, but I also think that human rights has often caused confusion because of the license that people sometimes give themselves to NOT think things through properly, to not seek for consistency. I know you probably use the term incoherence more for effect than for its literal sense. My claim would be that there is a deep consistency that runs through all of this – and indeed, that when it is recognised it does rule out some pathways. I take your view on group rights to be a prime example of this. But this (as your case shows!) does not rule out the availability of “energetic flexibility” – something that you have been exhibiting in spades over the last 20 weeks or so!

    Not being a lawyer, I completely agree with you on point 9! ☺ At the end of the day human rights are normative ideas which need to be translated into political institutions, and this is the key role of the law, in my view. And it is when those ideas are being effectively translated into our institutions that we achieve great improvements in the well being of human persons, individually and collectively. But rights still have a future when this process is halted or hampered. In much of our world today – despite the progress of recent decades in some places – people do not have the human rights institutions they need. And yet they are still animated by the key ideals of human rights – justice, freedom, flourishing. For as long as people hold on to such visions of human possibility, there will always be a future for human rights.

  10. christina says:

    Its been a hard week. I am enormously grateful and appreciative of having been allowed to participate in one of the great british institutions.
    Each week I’ve spent a lot of time and thought on my contributions, and realised that at times I’m off at a tangent to where Conor is going.

    However It has been very exciting, and clarified my thinking and beliefs, about human rights. As a philospher and a wordsmith, I will focus on the language, so human rights is about humans, and universal sufferage is what it says. Universal.

    But as an original woman’s libber, who believes in liberation for all disavantaged and vulneralble groups, I keep returning to the question what about the women.

    Initially conor and `I are in total agreement.

    1) Human rights are part of what it is to be human. Just as man has a physical, intellectual and spiritual being, so he has a moral and ethical one. So does wo(man).

    Again back to the mantra,
    look to the local; look to the national; look to the global; make the rights active and real.

    2) the way in which these rights are activated is through the political will, but a country in which the legislature, executive, and judiciary is composed predominately of white Oxbridge males, not just the majority , but an overwhelming one in each case,means that some serious sorting need to be done at home, before we accuse other countries of violating human rights.

    3) how do we make the statements of rights transparent, how do we hold these bodies accountable? Through a free press. In this country, at this time, I need say no more.
    However, there is a movement to put further restrictions on the press, the test case being the sexual predilictions of a certain male into S and M. So many people believe in his right to privacy, with little attention to other instances, say, MP expenses?
    Excuse errors as not a home, not sure if this will post.

  11. christina says:

    4) If the press cannot be relied upon, the role of the investigative journalist is crucial. Many war crimes, and major fraud, company or governmental have been exposed through investigative journalists. Few people have heard of Heather Brooke, yet by going to the high court, with the assistance of Matrix chambers, she exposed the MP’s allowance scandal

    The heritage of investigative journalist is a proud one, from Orwell, James Cameron, John Pilger, Wilfred Burchett, Lee Miller, Martha Gellhorn, Heather Brooke.

    5) The law must be applied, nationally, and globally if need be, to abuses against the planet(trees?!). when it involves Transnational corporations, too big, too powerful, and with massive influence in government. The law is our best, and our only defence. We must claim our rights. If need be, we claim them on the behalf of the peoples whose livelihoods are threatened or destroyed…Nubian villages. Not the trees, but the peoples.

    What about the women?
    It seems that the majority of HR law students are women, but many of them are saying where are our role models? Mostly men, apparently. And for me personally LSE comes over as overwhelmingly male, with occasional women speakers, from outside UK. Look at the brochure of public events, count the photos, count the speakers. So in public life, so on TV. Dimbleby. Fry, ,women are heard not seen, on day time TV.
    I represent invisible women, and I wonder when they will claim, not fight, their human rights. Equal pay act 43 years old and still not implemented.
    Conor I could go on. I probably shall.
    Thank you for this opportunity, but you’ve opened a bit of a Pandora’s box, and our correspondence will not end here!
    Best wishes, to all our contributors
    It’s been a great experience, a ground breaking on in some ways, and look forward to meeting up on Thursday.

  12. christina says:

    Final comment,
    Am concerned about Conor. Leaping out of the box is one thing, but an Ivory Tower is very high, and any leaping is likely to lead to a broken leg, or worse. It seems our Conor may have magical powers, as he plans to soar! Rapunzel had hair, but academics are not allowed out, they are our visionaries, and must remain removed from the world!

  13. Craig Valters says:

    This project has gone a long way to helping me understand and develop views on human rights I can be comfortable with, so thanks Conor – and all other contributors.

    Following on from everyone’s excellent comments, what matters to me is whether human rights make a real, achievable and genuinely positive difference. Since I’ve started to possibly ‘believe in’ human rights, my worry is that I’m leaping aboard a sinking ship, dragged down as it is by misunderstanding and misappropriation. We have a great deal to be worried about – the political rhetoric of human rights threatens (and in many instances is successful) in drowning out the central compassionate thrust that should be at its heart. Central to this, I feel, is an understanding of the power of words/labels. All words/labels, whatever their original significance, can grow to have idiosyncratic elements, partial or wholesale changes to their meaning. This is all the more important within the political realm, where human rights discourse is the subject of constant rhetorical flourishes. The transparent power relations within the UN, the ‘War on Terror’, the libertarian rights project – all of these are different challenges which serve to undermine an very idea of human rights which must be understood as genuinely universal.

    Increasingly, what I really think is important, if you want human rights at the heart of our political future, is not to be shy about it. We need to challenge those who appropriate it, with a clear-sighted and forceful rebuttal rooted in the universal language we have at our disposal. It’s only in being vocal about this that the right rights’ future can come about.

    We all seem to agree that struggle, solidarity and action are part of the story, as is compassion. The weakest point made within this project I believe (and Conor has said is one of the most important) is the idea of understanding compassion as literally innate and extrapolating human rights culture from it. My point of diversion is the idea that we need to make this true, even if it is not so. I don’t think that’s the case. Sure, there are many superb examples of compassionate acts, but there will always be a counter egotistical example to hand. A compassionate culture can be built. Projects such as this one serve that end – frankly put, we don’t need the white lies.

    Many of us who have played a role in this project (and of course perhaps Conor himself) can hardly now prescribe some set of rights to all humans (or animals or trees) should have as a result of the project, but we can know that the language of human rights should be empowering and compassionate, leading us to support those who clearly become oppressed or disenfranchised by their state (or non-state-actor). In promoting this language of human rights in a compassionate manner, we may win the political fight for human rights that ensues.

  14. Jose-Manuel Barreto says:

    I would like to join those who congratulate Conor about this way of thinking about human rights. It is entirely standard in the times of blogs, but it is very rare in the field of the theory of human rights. Theory is generally a solitary and mono-logic task. In the launching of the project Costas Douzinas compared Conor’s weekly essays with Charles Dickens weekly publication of his novels in Victorian newspapers. I think he was right. But I would like to add the interactive quality with which the internet and the blog format enhance this project. I would even relate this blog to the dialogues of Socrates with his fellows in Athens – with the difference that Conor allowed us much more room to dissent than Socrates gave to his disciples, who usually ended up agreeing with him.

    Being one of those who has voiced more differences with Conor’s approach, my last post will be in a similar vein . As already mentioned, one of the main strengths of this initiative is its dialogic character -it has opened a dialogue. However, this promise has fallen short of the objective of thinking ‘the rights’ future’. Such an endeavour would have required a much more open dialogue. Christina has asked ‘What about the women’, when pointing to the fact that those invited to speak at LSE are mainly men. My objection goes in a similar direction. I am afraid that most of those who participated in this dialogue are from LSE, or have some connection to LSE, or live in London, as myself. I think the position hold by LSE, the Law School and the Human Rights Centre in the academy all over the world has not been used enough as to widen the scope of the invitation beyond LSE.

    This is not only a question of logistics. There is a very long tradition of voices constructing the theory of right, while silencing others. This project has walked in the right direction allowing others to speak. However the sheer scale of the project of exploring the ‘rights’ future’ cannot be attempted with legitimacy unless it involves all those who, in one way of another, have to do with human rights -all of those who are victims of human rights violations, or who are agents of the struggle for rights: women, ethnic minorities, workers, refugees, foreigners, the poor, peasants, the LBGT community, and a very long etcetera, and not only from the UK.

    The task of thinking the ‘rights’ future’ requires a world-wide dialogue, not only because we are in the times of globalisation -a circumstance in which the world has been in since the Sixteen century. A world-wide constituency is needed for this endeavour mainly because until now it has remained the privilege of those thinking from a Eurocentric perspective. Thus, the dominant theory of human rights includes Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Habermas, Rawls, Rorty.

    This project has remained within the enclosure of this Eurocentric theory of human rights -the dominant theory of human rights. The current essay rehearses again the cannon of the philosophy of human rights, including Kant and Bentham. The previous essay put forward the project of scrapping the rights of the peoples -one of the contributions to human rights made by the victims of European colonialism. Thinking human rights requires a dialogue between Eurocentric and Non-Eurocentric theories of human rights, between those in the industrialised countries and those in the ‘South’ or the ‘Third World’.

    I hope Conor’s idea does not end here, but incarnates in new projects in which a wider constituency of interlocutors is invited.

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