Book Reviews

Publication Date01 Jun 2007
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6478.2007.00392.x
Book Reviews
CAN HUMAN RIGHTS SURVIVE? by CONOR GEARTY
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, xvi + 174 pp., £12.99)
At one level, this book of the 2005 Hamlyn Lectures is Professor Gearty's
apologia pro vita sua,alife in which he has travelled from support for
human rights through profound scepticism about, even opposition to, their
legal manifestation, to a belief in their importance as long as they are
understood in a particular way, coupled with an acute awareness of modern
challenges to their authority. It embodies the mature reflections of a highly
intelligent, experienced, and knowledgeable human-rights academic and
practitioner on one of the defining features of post-Enlightenment social
discourse. The book is likely to make you feel amused, cross, worried, and
hopeful, sometimes all at the same time, frequently provoking disagreement.
It is never dull, and it is important.
The first chapter sets the scene, and almost immediately one encounters a
suggestive terminological instability in the term `human rights'. Sometimes
they are plural, suggesting a variety or collection of particular rights. At
other times the term is singular, suggesting a movement, enterprise or
programme. (The Home Office's usage is similarly unstable. When its
Human Rights Task Force was wound up after the implementation of the
Human Rights Act 1998, each member was presented with an attractive glass
paperweight inscribed with the words `Human rights comes to life'.) In the
title of the book, the term is, I think, being used in the latter sense, and it is in
that way that the main argument of the book is to be understood.
Gearty announces (p. 28) that the task of chapter 2 is:
...totranslate the political and legal success of the idea into the philosophical
arena, to construct non-nonsensical foundations for human rights, support
systems that defend the idea not by the simple invocation of past glories but in
terms that ring true today, that run with rather than against the grain of
contemporary assumptions about what it means to be right or wrong.
This, he says, involves a search for a non-religious form of truth. He adopts
the view of Pascal that human dignity consists in thought which is the basis
of morality (p. 30). The mind identifies moral obligations towards others,
and their entitlements flow from that. There is much to be said for this view
as a basis for human rights, which seem to me to serve as a requirement for
moral justification of things done to others, posing questions rather than
providing answers save where the things done are so awful as to be
absolutely unjustifiable. However, it follows that statements about human
rights have no absolute truth value. How should one respond? Gearty notes
280
ß2007 The Author. Journal Compilation ß2007 Cardiff University Law School. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd,
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA

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