Wolfson scholars collaborate on a unique exhibition on the art of major world religions at the Ashmolean Museum.
The 2012 Berlin Lecture, by Baroness Helena Kennedy
On Monday 28th May, the leading human rights lawyer Baroness Helena Kennedy gave a stirring defence of the principle of universal human rights when she delivered the Annual Isaiah Berlin Lecture on law and globalization at Wolfson College last week.
Baroness Kennedy, an acclaimed champion of civil liberties, expressed her admiration of Isaiah Berlin for his commitment to civil liberties and his passion for ideas, describing him as “one of the greatest scholars and creative thinkers of the twentieth century”.
She took as the starting point for her lecture the global economic crisis, which clearly demonstrated the importance of accepted norms to regulate today's interconnected world, and the need for the law to cross national borders to hold wrongdoers to account in the globalized marketplace.
Addressing issues such as the position and treatment of women, same-sex rights, immigration, and asylum policy, Baroness Kennedy charted the development of the idea of universal human rights to better understand the controversy it attracts today. She offered the salutary reminder that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was drafted at the urging of Winston Churchill as a way of unifying people behind principles that would prevent the type of atrocities that had taken place in the Second World War. This effort to embed values in law was not intended to create global law, she explained, but to bring about a template against which national laws can be measured.
Whilst acknowledging that developing nations may see human rights as a preoccupation of the wealthy, she vigorously defended human rights discourse against the claims of cultural relativism, which relegates human values below the claims of local culture. Strict cultural relativism, she argued, can often be a justification for human rights abuse, and uncritical acceptance of cultural relativism prevents us from examining the very societal structures that create the cultural norm.
To underscore her argument, Baroness Kennedy persuasively articulated the underlying principle that, “individuals should have the freedom to choose whether they wish to live their life according to the prevailing cultural and religious principles without fear of punishment, and that governments and laws have to provide these protections”.
She dismissed the “throwaway contention” that human rights values are exclusively a Western construct, describing the many non-Western societies in Asia and elsewhere that recognized the founding values that emerged as human rights in the twentieth century long before the West did.
Commenting on the Prime Minister’s response to the European Court’s judgment on prisoner’s right to vote, Baroness Kennedy acknowledged that the judgment has provided a perfect vehicle for arguments of national sovereignty and overreach of the European Court. Her response was unapologetic: the rise of globalization has led to a negative retreat into nationhood, and the ideology of universal human rights does indeed place some values above state sovereignty.
She blamed both politicians and the tabloid press for some of the distortions that have been associated with the ECHR, clarifying that judgments handed down from Europe can be interpreted to fit with the culture, history, traditions, and polity of each nation.
She also defended the claims by Abu Qatada to remain in the UK, arguing that, no matter how unattractive his politics and views of the world may be, we should reject calls to make basic human rights contractual or contingent on good behaviour, and that Britain’s commitment to protect against torture would be diminished by deporting him to Jordan. It is exactly these controversial cases, Baroness Kennedy claimed in closing, which will make human rights the big idea of the twenty-first century, as democracy was the big idea of the last.
23 October 2017Imagining the Divine: Exhibition23 October 2017The College Record 2017
The Wolfson College Record is a formal account of the past year and includes the final President's Letter from Professor Dame Hermione Lee.9 October 2017Message from the Acting President
A warm welcome to those new to Wolfson, and a warm welcome back to those who have been travelling during the summer or hiding away in libraries or...
Concert and Plays24 - 24Oct OctStaging the Modernist Life: Auto/biography, performance, and H.D.Tuesday 24 October -1:30pm to 2:30pm
In this lecture/performance, Sasha Colby will discuss the process of transforming auto/biographical materials into biographical drama in her recent book project Staging Modernist Lives: H.D., Mina Loy, Nancy Cunard, Three Plays and Criticism (McGill-Queen's UP, 2017). With an emphasis on the poet, novelist, and memoirist H.D.Networking24 - 24Oct OctSlanguages exhibition: launch partyTuesday 24 October -4:00pm to 7:00pm
Our Creative Multilingualism Languages in the Creative Economy exhibition will feature the work, archives and ephemera related to the work of three Birmingham-based artists who use different languages in their musical and artistic work.Lectures and Seminars25 - 25Oct OctTennyson, Celebrity and PortraitureWednesday 25 October -5:30pm to 7:00pm
This lecture will explore how publishers became responsible for promoting authors through portraiture in the mid-Victorian period. In particular it will focus on Edward Moxon and his role in expanding the readership of both William Wordsworth and Alfred Tennyson. While portraits of Wordsworth were relatively scarce, Tennyson was surrounded by sculptors, painters and photographers, which led to a new and disturbing experience of literary celebrity that had a major impact on his career.