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AC Grayling on the human rights “sceptics”

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From The Guardian

Critics of the UDHR and of the idea of human rights in general are of many kinds, but the three chief camps consist of the complacent, the inconvenienced and the disappointed. The former are those who, born, bred and fattened in peaceful and reasonably sane parts of the world, have the luxury of caviling and complaining at will, sometimes arguing that there is no such thing as a right, that talk of human rights is variously Eurocentric colonialist arrogance, or hot air, or pious claptrap, or all three. A few days in a windowless cellar with periodic episodes of water-boarding and electric cattle-prodding would change these minds faster than most.

The inconvenienced range from those who think one man is worth two or more women and therefore do not like talk of equality and rights, to those who (like Jack Straw and his new friends at the Daily Mail, from which his predecessor David Blunkett seemed to get most of his policy ideas in the days that followed Labour’s first flush of reform – led by Jack Straw’s Human Rights Act: what irony) have punitive and coercive instincts, and wish not only to lock people up or deport them, but make them suffer extra penalties while doing so, out of revenge and hostility.

The disappointed are those who point to the continuing mayhem, genocides, wars, use of torture and long detention without trial – by would-be respectable western governments too – and say that fine talk about human rights has made not a jot of difference, and indeed has often served as a fig-leaf for abuses.

Of these three camps the third has by far the most cogent point. But what one should draw from it is not defeatism, but renewed determination to make the idea of human rights work. In any case we are, from the long view of history, in the very earliest days of trying to construct a world order, a global sentiment, in which concern for human rights is widespread and operative. Enforcement is the key issue, and here we are in even earlier days: the International Criminal Court, for example, is an infant that does not yet walk. To give up on the idea of human rights now, so soon into the project of trying to remedy the world by its light, would be wrong… The campaign for human rights is the best hope for humankind, and it would be dereliction not to work to make that hope bear fruit.

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Written by Richard Wilson

December 10, 2008 at 8:52 pm

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