The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CCADD.


CCADD Meeting 14th January 2009


CONOR GEARTY on ‘Liberty and Security’


The speaker began by suggesting that the concept of Human Rights can function as an antidote to the prevalent moral relativism of the secular culture of our time.  In particular it can be a ‘solution’ to the conflict between the two opposing notions of liberty and security at the present time.


The modern conflict originates, for Britain, in the seventeenth century.  On the one hand there is the Republican tradition about liberty.  This was spelt out in opposition to the despotic monarchy of the time (i.e. that of Charles I and the ‘divine right of kings’).  It asserted liberty as the freedom of individuals to think and act in a free and democratic community, or state, in which authority rests upon the consent of the governed through free elections of its leaders and a sovereign assembly.  Such a ‘republic’ needs security from outside attack, for it is likely to be embattled.  On the other hand is the tradition deriving from Hobbes.   This too begins from a claim to untrammelled freedom for the individual in the ‘state of nature‘ who has a right to everything.  To this extent Hobbes is the father of human rights.  But he also recognises that such liberty is unsustainable without an unambiguously sovereign authority able to govern the community thus established, by creating laws which cannot be gainsaid.  The Hobbesian state was also in need of effective security from attack.  (There was a third version of liberty at the time associated with the Levellers but these were defeated by Cromwell). 


Locke’s concepts of liberty and security derived from the above, but he saw liberty as a benefit created by the people to protect their rights.  This was exemplified in the United States, where human rights are regarded as unerodable.  In the UK a tradition developed for a process of democratic change, including (eventually) a universal franchise and the protection of groups which oppose the majority, or ’established’ order of things.  For example, in the 1920s the Home Secretary William Joynson Hicks was confronted by a problem with the Communist Party, which could be ’criminalised’ because of its use of ’the wrong kind of speech’.


The Human Rights movement draws on the Republican tradition in that it sees democracy as necessary for the best life for individuals.  Hence the need for civil and political rights to be respected (e.g. right to vote, rights of free speech and assembly).  But the ‘republican’ assembly must offer the opportunity for a good life, notably through education, social and economic rights, the rights of the elderly etc.  In terms of security the Human Rights movement adopts the outlook of F.D. Roosevelt, who had a much more ‘holistic’ view of the issues (talking of freedom from fear, from want etc.) than many of the politicians of today.  All of this is crucial in the post 9/11 world, since opposition to the abuse of human rights of others is key to the assertion of human rights as such.  The purpose of the criminal law is to prevent such abuse.  It is necessary, for example, to understand terrorism, i.e. a systematic contempt for human rights, as a criminal matter.  It is hoped that President Obama will recognise this.  It must be dealt with in terms of breaches of specific legal conventions, not by blanket condemnation in which the President has virtually ‘Commander in Chief’ powers which are superior to the rule of international law.




What effect does the use of human rights language have?  Ans: it ensures that, unlike e.g. the US government at Guantanamo Bay, evidence of wrongdoing is necessary for any powers of detention to be used.


What do you think should be done with terrorist suspects at e.g. Guantanamo Bay, who have not been convicted in any court?  Ans: A human rights approach would be to show how they have breached specific international conventions.  Even the establishment of ‘military commissions’ to try them shows that human rights have had some influence on US government thinking.


What about the impact of new technologies of weaponry etc.?  Ans: The human rights movement can be ‘Luddite’ here.  For example the use of DNA and intercept evidence, and suchlike techniques, is quite compatible with support for human rights.  Nobody can claim a ‘right’ to oppose the rule of law, and if such techniques help to genuinely convict criminals well and good.


Is not there a covert religious commitment behind the human rights movement even though it claims to be plainly secular, even hostile to religion?  Ans: Yes, this is clear from the way human rights language is used.  But the representatives of religion are often their own worst enemies in this.


How can you justify not retaining the privacy of our DNA etc?  Ans: it’s a matter for the law.  For example, the police have sometimes used DNA, for example, to convict a plainly guilty rapist.  The House of Lords have upheld the legitimacy of such use in defence of human rights.  The European Court of Human Rights, which has said the opposite, clearly made a mistake on this point.


Is not all this talk of human rights just a matter of enlightened self-interest?  Ans: Yes, but such self-interest needs constant buttressing by deeper considerations.


Has not the hidden ‘God’ behind human rights talk failed?  What of the psychic cost of this?  Ans: the speaker agreed with the implication of this point, and gave an example of a student at LSE who had to abandon the course for this sort of reason.