‘It is time for those who believe in human rights to keep their nerve’

The lessons of civil rights leader and human rights lawyer Kevin Boyle’s life are still relevant

Kevin Boyle with Mary Robinson, for whom he worked as a speech-writer and chief adviser during her final year as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Photograph: Courtesy Michael O’Boyle

Kevin Boyle with Mary Robinson, for whom he worked as a speech-writer and chief adviser during her final year as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Photograph: Courtesy Michael O’Boyle

 

The course of Kevin Boyle’s life reflected the turbulent progress of the international human rights movement. From its modern manifestations in the late 1960s to its emergence as a powerful force helping to shape the international agenda in the 1990s and 2000s, Boyle was at the forefront of a struggle, based, as he put it, on the “extraordinary appeal of the concept of common humanity and the belief in universal rights and freedoms to be enjoyed by all”.

With the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document Boyle revered – as its foundation, he devoted his energies as an activist, advocate and academic to the establishment of a legal framework for a global order based on human rights. It put him at the cutting edge of issues that today remain a source of controversy and conflict around the world: freedom of the press and expression; state-sanctioned killing and torture; coping with terrorism; the clash between liberal values and the forces of Islamic fundamentalism and extreme nationalism; the rights of women, gays and minorities; the struggle to build a robust international system to protect human rights in challenging times.

Moreover, in his final years, Boyle, who died in 2010, presciently identified a series of emerging new challenges. In 2008, for example, he noted that “the use of technology to effectively eliminate the right to privacy” – a fundamental right for people to be able live in dignity and security – was becoming “a distinctive human rights issue of the current era of global terrorism and counter-terrorism”. He also warned that “the enormous accumulation of storage of information by private corporations” could have “long-term worrying effects on personal freedom” – a decade before concerns over the political manipulation of Facebook, YouTube and social media became a burning international issue.

In the years since Boyle’s death, an increasingly toxic combination of terrorist attacks and counterterrorist abuses, anti-immigrant sentiment fuelled by economic inequality and waves of migration, often of people fleeing violence, poverty and persecution, discrimination against Muslims and other minorities, the rise of far-right political parties and leaders, and the abuse of the tools of technology has led to a significant weakening of some of the human rights safeguards Boyle fought so hard to establish.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has undermined democratic institutions, imprisoned opponents and intensified attacks on the Kurds, whose rights Boyle sought to protect in a series of landmark cases he brought to the European Court of Human Rights in the 1990s.

The relative tolerance of the China that Boyle visited in 2008, where he gave university lectures on international human rights law, has been replaced by a more severe crackdown on dissent, civil society and openness under the autocratic rule of President Xi Jinping. Moreover, Boyle’s warning more than 30 years ago that “full freedom of information is not a luxury but may literally be a matter of life and death” has been graphically illustrated by the Chinese government’s catastrophic cover-up of the early spread of the frightening Covid-19 Coronavirus.

At the same time, the thuggish thievery of Vladimir Putin and the emergence of extreme nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland have eroded the promise of a more liberal order in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

From Donald Trump to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, to Brexit, populism and intolerance have become politically fashionable again. And the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, with its robust human rights protections, has threatened the delicate political framework that brought peace to Northern Ireland, whose intellectual underpinnings Boyle played a major role in crafting.

Amid alarming headlines such as The End of Human Rights, some analysts have warned that “the human rights movement is facing the greatest test it has confronted since its emergence in the 1970s as a major participant in the international order”.

With so many setbacks, it would be easy to conclude that Boyle spent much of his life in a losing battle. But that would be wrong. He had many triumphs in his long and colourful career. His contributions to international human rights law on issues like discrimination, press freedom and torture, from the historic Dudgeon case which decriminalised homosexuality in Northern Ireland and led to its legalisation in the Irish Republic, to the Kurds, for whom he obtained a measure of justice, to the many journalists and writers he helped to free and protect – as well as his crucial contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland – constitute an enduring legacy.

Beyond that are the countless people he trained and inspired who today continue to work on human rights issues around the world, and who will, in turn, train and inspire others. More broadly, Kevin Boyle had been steeled by the political struggles on the streets of Northern Ireland, and the intense courtroom battles of later decades. For all his idealism, he was a hard-headed realist. He was well aware, as he wrote in 2008, that the “ambition of universal human rights as a whole is clearly an ambition that has not been realized. The majority of mankind does not enjoy the promise of full human rights.”

Unlike some others, Boyle recognised that human rights can never be taken for granted. With the threat to existing human rights standards in the UK posed by Brexit and the erosion of civil liberties in the US amid the Trump administration’s retreat from the traditional American role as a champion of democracy and multilateralism, Boyle’s belief that human rights have to be fought for over and over, despite the likelihood of setbacks, seems more relevant than ever today.

For him, as his long-time friend and colleague, Tufts University law professor Hurst Hannum observed, “it was not always about winning the battle. It was making sure you haven’t lost the war – that you were still on the field.” Boyle’s style of fighting was low-key, but he was dogged in pursuit of justice, and passionate about providing the tools and structures for others to do the same. He recognised that establishing legal norms was just one step, although of crucial importance.

He learned from his early experiences in Northern Ireland that to implement such changes also requires political engagement. While he would undoubtedly find much of what has happened in the years since his death to be depressing, Boyle would likely have been thrilled by such emerging movements as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the US high school students mobilizing against guns, public demands to combat climate change, the huge demonstrations against the emergence of authoritarian leaders in eastern Europe, and the dogged determination and remarkable courage of the journalists, lawyers and civil society activists fighting, often against daunting odds, in places like the Philippines, China and the Middle East.

]Moreover, in the words of Francoise Hampson, a fellow law professor at the University of Essex, “as far as the newer challenge to a rules-based international order is concerned, the old Kevin would have done something about it”. As he did in the case of Salman Rushdie, where he devised and led the campaign to defend the writer after he was targeted by Iran’s Ayatollahs, it is not hard to imagine Boyle seeking to build a coalition to fight back, using the same combination of analytical, legal and political skills he brought to his work on human rights.

This kind of clear-eyed, understated but committed view underpinned Boyle’s approach to human rights, as did his refusal to lose hope or give up. As Mary Robinson, for whom Boyle worked as a speech-writer and chief adviser during her final year as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, declared in her farewell speech on September 11th, 2002, using words Boyle may well have crafted and certainly agreed with, “human rights are not expendable. It is time for those who believe in human rights to keep their nerve.” That was true then, as the world reeled from the fallout of the 9/11 attacks a year earlier. It remains equally true today.
Mike Chinoy was a long-time foreign correspondent, serving as CNN’s first Beijing bureau chief and as senior Asia correspondent. He covered the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s. He is currently a Hong Kong-based non-resident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute. His new book is Are Your With Me? Kevin Boyle and the Rise of the Human Rights Movement (Lilliput Press)

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