Convert to the concept of human rights law now its champion

Conor Gearty’s new book warns against the erosion of our fundamental rights

Professor Conor Gearty: “I was hostile to legalised human rights within the British debate.” photograph: dara mac dónaill

Professor Conor Gearty: “I was hostile to legalised human rights within the British debate.” photograph: dara mac dónaill


Today, he is one of the most ardent champions of the cause. Through his work as a lawyer, teacher and writer, he has become one of the subject’s most recognisable public advocates in Britain and further afield. Yet, as Prof Conor Gearty agrees, there was a time when he wasn’t at all convinced by human rights.

He used to see it as a bourgeois tool for thwarting radical change, and once opposed the very idea of a Human Rights Act. “When I came to England, which is where I have worked all my professional life, I saw an extreme negative judiciary, reactionary and, among other things, anti-Irish,” Prof Gearty says.

“I was hostile to legalised human rights within the British debate because I felt this would be to empower a community of men who were drawn from a narrow class base, and who had a record on my own country which was scandalous.” His position grew into a more general political stance that saw human rights law as being at odds with democracy – in that it empowered judges to contradict the wishes of majorities.

Traces of that latter concern remain – he still has doubts about Irish constitutional arrangements that allow judges to strike down acts of the Oireachtas, for example – but Prof Gearty says the entire culture of the British judiciary has changed. More broadly, he now sees human rights as the answer to many of the seemingly intractable questions we face.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 but the ideas it contained barely featured on the global agenda until the 1970s, and the subject took off again after 1989. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, it became a modern language for new states.

The declaration however, has arguably always co-existed uneasily with the fact that, in international law, national sovereignty retains primacy.

Countries have committed themselves to two contradictory ideas, he points out. “One is that they respect national sovereignty and don’t penetrate the veil of the nation state. The other is that they commit to what they call basic, inalienable, fundamental human rights. It’s important, in my opinion, to recognise that these are contradictory, and not try and produce a false synthesis.”

In this analysis, the world has it both ways. We have set up systems to scrutinise countries’ behaviour, but leave it to countries to do the scrutiny. “So you have, for example, the Human Rights Council at the United Nations. And who is on it? Well, not just the good guys but quite a lot of the bad guys too.”

More recently, the idea of universal human rights has been challenged – not least, since 11th September 2001, by counter-terrorism – “because it stops being about human rights – it becomes just our rights”.

But environmental protection also asks searching questions of human rights. Is a movement that asks us to make decisions which are inhibitive of our lifestyle, possibly diminishing our capacity to flourish in order to protect future generations, not in conflict with human rights? Not necessarily, says Prof Gearty.

“If you speak [of human rights] in the narrow language of constitutional rights and judicial protection, it may be in conflict. If you’re talking about human rights as a term that captures the energy and the commitment of the civil society dedicated to the protection of the weak, then they’re very similar.”

The move towards localism – exemplified by the way in which the economic crisis has fuelled scepticism verging on hostility towards international organisations and ideas such as human rights – is dangerous, says Gearty.

In his latest book, Liberty and Security , he warns a form of “neo-democracy” may be emerging where there is the appearance of protection for human rights, elections and respect for the rule of law but none of the reality.

“So you take a country like Russia, which is in the Council of Europe, which is subject to the European Court of Human Rights . . . and yet is governed by Putin. People disappear if they are antagonistic and judges, despite the commitment to the rule of law, deliver convictions to order, as far as one can tell.

“And yet it’s kind of democratic. That would be my fear – that these terms don’t disappear, but that they become plastic.”

CV: Conor Gearty

Conor Gearty studied law at UCD and qualified as a solicitor in Ireland before completing his PhD at Cambridge University. After teaching for several years at King’s College London, in 2002 he moved to LSE, where he became director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights. He is now a full-time professor of human rights law at the school.

Prof Gearty is also a founding member of Matrix Chambers. In Dublin tomorrow evening, he will deliver the 29th Hugh M Fitzpatrick Lecture in Legal Bibliography, with a paper entitled: ‘Was Michael Collins a Terrorist - or a Human Rights Worker? Reflections on Law and Revolution in Ireland, 1916-22’ (The event is booked out).

“It occurred to me that Michael Collins was a nice peg on which to reflect on these broad issues of what are human rights, how do you protect them, why is political violence called terrorism, why is some called terrorism and others not.”