Conor Gearty: 'To work its moral magic, human rights need certainty'

From a Hamlyn lecture, given by the Rausing Director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, at the London School of Economics


What does it mean to believe in the right to liberty, or in any other human right for that matter? To work properly, this language of human rights does seem to need to be based on truth, on being right, and on knowing we are right. The very term "human rights" is a strong one, epistemologically confident, ethically assured, carrying with it a promise to the hearer to cut through the noise of assertion and counter-assertion, of cultural practices and relativist values, and thereby to deliver truth.

To work its moral magic, human rights need to exude this kind of certainty, this old-fashioned clarity. To say "I have a right to" is not to suggest something, it is to state it; it is not to ask, it is to demand. Those of us who are part of the human rights community do come across a bit smug in contrast to the rest of society - we know the right answers, we have special access to the truth.

This is not ordinary politics, we say, this is morality, this is about right and wrong - and we know, even if you mere mortals don't, which is right and which is wrong, not as a matter of policy but as a statement of truth. This is not how most of politics works. Indeed it is not how the world works: uncertainty rather than certainty is, perhaps more than anything else, the key defining feature of our culture today.

Where does this leave the term "human rights"? The easy answer would be to confine it exclusively to the legal sphere, to say that human rights can only mean the values encapsulated in documentary form in international, regional and national legal agreements, as interpreted by decision-makers and, at a later remove where there has been dispute, the courts. But this is a very narrow approach that fails to capture what many people, perhaps most, mean today when they refer to "human rights". The words can be made to do more work, to reach a wider shared meaning beyond what has been reduced to legal form.

But which values should drive the language of human rights, and how can we avoid the criticism that they are purely Western and therefore entirely non-universalistic?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Campaign Manager, Stevenage

£34000 - £36000 per annum: Charter Selection: This market leading organisation...

Senior Insight Analyst - SAS

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Senior Analyst Vacancy - Urgent Requriem...

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
People hold the iconic rainbow flags at Pride  

Let's stop LGBT people 'coming out of the closet'

Chris Godfrey
Tulisa Contostavlos arrives to face drug charges at Southwark Crown  

How was Tulisa's case ever allowed to proceed?

Ben Rose
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform