The Hamlyn lectures have always played an important part in spreading ‘human rights discourse’ around the world. Started by the Hamlyn trust, its first lecture, Freedom and the Law by Lord Denning in 1949 was an eye opener with regard to the law and fundamental freedoms. In 2005, Conor Gearty presented presented the lecture on CAN HUMAN RIGHTS SURVIVE: THE CRISIS OF AUTHORITY. Truly speaking, I haven’t read anything better on the subject yet (after dworkin that is). Excerpts below;


– “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 needs 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 here 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 anymore: uncertainty rather than certainty is, perhaps more than anything else, the key defining feature of our culture today.”

– “But still despite it all this ‘nonsense without stilts’ seems to bloom. Like some kind of mysterious plant that can thrive only when not rooted firmly in the soil, human rights as an idea defies its apparent shallowness and goes from strength to strength. The plethora of international, regional and legal instruments that embed the term in various codes of law has been one of the most remarkable features of legal development over the past sixty years. Almost nowhere is now without its human rights charter and its set of guarantees of fundamental freedoms. Away from the law, much contemporary political activity is suffused with the language of rights: it is as though not to assert a right to what one desires is to make a fatal admission as to its unimportance. With the end of the Cold War and the consequent failure of socialism to maintain (for the time being at least) an ideological challenge to capitalism, ‘human rights’ has stepped into the breach. It has sought, with some success, to hold back the tide of the market and of unmediated self-interest, despite these forces being driven forward by the strong winds of globalisation. At times, it has seemed that it has only been this barely-rooted plant that has lain between us and capitalist anarchy. Or, as we saw last night, a prime ministerial police state.”

– “Democracy is part of the human rights story because it is the best way we have yet found of reflecting our inherent equality in the political arena. Moral progress is measured by how seriously we work through the insight that we are all equal, how much of a chance we give to each of us to grow as we choose, even where the growing is not of the sort we would choose to do. Freedom and respect for human rights involve at bottom a recognition of the contingency that is inherent in all our efforts to tie down words and ways of living, a rejection of right answers in search of the chance to develop as best we can. Schumpeter was right when he said that ‘to realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly’ was what ‘distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.’ (There are limits of course, but these are for my third lecture, in Belfast.) But once all this is realised pluralism’s shelter is much less leaky that we first imagined.”

The Complete text of the lecture is available here…….

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