When it comes to human rights, we want duty-free

Human rights are brought ‘into disrepute by trying constantly to inflate all of them’, says Onora O’Neill

Statue of Edmund Burke at Trinity College Dublin. Is Burke’s attitude to human rights relevant today?

Statue of Edmund Burke at Trinity College Dublin. Is Burke’s attitude to human rights relevant today?

Fri, Apr 18, 2014, 01:00

Baroness Onora O’Neill is an intellectual with a common touch. She has done the BBC Reith lectures, a Ted talk on trust and accountability that has been viewed more than a million times, and will next week deliver a paper in Dublin on human rights – How to Turn Lofty Ideals into Real Commitments – as part of President Michael D Higgins’s ethics initiative.

It’s billed as the inaugural Edmund Burke Lecture in memory of the Trinity College Dublin graduate and philosopher of conservatism (next time you’re passing College Green, look through the gates and that’s his statue on the left). While Burke supported struggles for self-determination in the US and Ireland, he criticised the notion of abstract rights and asserted instead the primacy of inherited rights and established customs.

O’Neill, who was born in Northern Ireland and whose credits include an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland, shares something with Burke in emphasising the importance of duties in tandem with rights. Together, they provide today’s idea: If you take rights seriously you must ask how are they going to be delivered.


What was Burke’s attitude to human rights, and is it relevant today?
Onora O’Neill: “My view is that Burke was committed to an account of the rights of man; there’s no doubt about that. He then insists there is something mistaken about giving an abstract account of the rights of man, and then he talks about circumstances. I think circumstances are very important if we want to take rights seriously.

“You can’t simply assume that, magically, these rights will emerge. Rights are very closely allied to there being quite a strong competent state, and that means several things, including the rule of law and an adequate tax base. It does not necessarily mean democracy, though that might come down the road.

“In thinking about rights we have to think about the necessary conditions about realising them, but we also have to think about the necessary conditions about realising the whole range of them.

“What’s a consistent way to interpret, let’s say, the rights of the child? I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It starts out: ‘mankind owes to the child the best it has to give’. If it owes the child that much then nobody else has any rights at all.”


This is an error, you say, to promote one particular right over others?
“I don’t really believe these single-issue conventions help us very much because in the end you have a question of how do you get these rights into one frame.

“I should mention one thing, which is edgy. Yesterday, I was talking to the UN Special Rapporteur on women’s rights and she said it was a great pity that the [British] Equality and Human Rights Commission [which O’Neill chairs] has embraced ‘neutralism’. I couldn’t make out what neutralism was; then gradually I realised her complaint was that gender rights – which were very important in her mind – were diluted by thinking about things like disability and age and race and ethnicity.”

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