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.