Circumstances require us to rethink human rights, says lecturer

Baroness Onora O’Neill. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Baroness Onora O’Neill. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times


Changing circumstances require us to rethink human rights and their counterpart duties, a leading moral philosopher said in a public lecture in Trinity College Dublin last night.

Baroness Onora O’Neill, a philosopher and author born in Northern Ireland who is a crossbench member of the House of Lords and the chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, was delivering the inaugural Edmund Burke lecture, which will be an annual event to mark Trinity’s connection with the 18th-century philosopher, historian and politician.

Ms O’Neill said we cannot assume that the interpretations and implementations of human rights proposed at a given time are beyond question and need no revision, adding that currently favoured ways of adjusting rights to one another may not be optimal.

She gave the example of current interpretations of rights to privacy which, she said, may not prove adequate, or even feasible, in the face of revolutions in communications, encryption and data mining technologies.

She added that current interpretations of rights to family life may not prove adequate, or even feasible, in the face of transformations in family structures.

“The abstract human rights standards listed in [human rights] declarations and covenants may remain widely accepted, but their interpretation is not likely to remain either constant or undisputed,” Ms O’Neill said.

She said changes in circumstances had brought challenges, even to well-governed states which now face challenges that were hard to imagine 50 years ago at a time when globalisation was only beginning.

She said the powers of states to secure and respect human rights has been reshaped and sometimes reduced as the strength of many non-state actors has grown.

“Even states with robust laws and a strong commitment to human rights, and I think of the states of north western Europe . . . can find it hard to secure all rights for all persons,” Ms O’Neill said.

“Increasing migration, increasing tax evasion, financial cross-border crime on a large scale, the consequent diminution of state revenues, the ‘off shoring’ of corporate governance, economic power, all of these and many other facets of our world can reduce and reshape state powers and can produce and reshape state revenues and so make it harder for states . . . to secure respect for or to realise rights,” she said.

“Globalisation, in short, weakens states in certain ways and strengthens non state actors,” Ms O’Neill said, adding there was now a widespread realisation that more of the duties to respect and realise human rights may have to be assigned to non-state actors, but that the implications of doing this remained unclear.