Globalizing Rights, edited by Matthew J Gibney <br></br>Human Rights, Human Wrongs, edited by Nicholas Owen

An intellectual passion play in a theatre of dreams

Stephen Howe
Sunday 29 December 2013 02:40

The annual Oxford Amnesty Lectures have been a startling success since their foundation in 1992. Crowds have packed into Christopher Wren's venerable Sheldonian Theatre – and, unlike most events in Oxford, those crowds have mingled town and gown, young and old. Organised mainly by a volunteer committee of students and young dons, the lectures have brought together thinkers, savants and human rights activists from around the world and from many fields.

In a way, the success is surprising, for asking celebrated intellectuals to come and talk about human rights (and hoping to raise money) is not self-evidently a clever move. Being an eminent physicist, literary theorist or journalist does not necessarily endow someone with heightened moral sensitivities – sometimes one almost suspects the reverse. There is even less guarantee that Professor X or Sir YZ will have anything new, important or even intelligible to say about the issues on which Amnesty International campaigns. And when it comes to publishing, one can't be sure that a talk that sounded all right on the night will hold any interest in print, or that a collection of such talks will hang together as a book

These two books collect the 1999 and 2001 lectures. All good citizens should probably want to buy them, even if they do suffer those shortcomings, simply because they are published in support of such a good cause. It turns out, though, that no self-sacrifice is involved. Both are immensely rich, challenging, stimulating volumes. Reading them is a little like turning out, apprehensively, for a charity fund-raising dinner, and discovering that the food and company are very good indeed.

The contributors' lists are star-studded: Susan George, Noam Chomsky and Joseph Stiglitz in Globalizing Rights; Peter Singer, Gitta Sereny, Tzvetan Todorov and Susan Sontag in Human Rights, Human Wrongs. Less predictably, all have something compelling to communicate, that doesn't just repeat ideas from their previous writing, that is directly engaged with Amnesty's work, and – not least important or unexpected – speaks to readers far outside their specialist fields. Writers with notoriously convoluted styles, such as Homi K Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, are as lucid and accessible here as they are ever likely to get (though Spivak slightly undermines this by appending no fewer than 31 pages of footnotes).

Each book has a clear, coherent, overarching theme, despite the extreme diversity of the individual lectures. Editors Matthew Gibney and Nicholas Owen provide thoughtful, substantial introductions that set out those themes. Globalizing Rights includes a substantial "Response" to each lecture, often from people who disagree sharply with the lecturer's philosophical or political views. Thus Alan Ryan comments on Chomsky, and Richard Rorty on Kwame Anthony Appiah. Human Rights, Human Wrongs adopts a slightly different format, with briefer introductions to each lecture – again delivered by outstanding thinkers. The exchanges are not only stimulating, but a model demonstration of how such deep disagreements can be expressed without rancour and coexist with a shared commitment to the values that Amnesty's work struggles to uphold.

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