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Can Human Rights Survive? The crisis of authority

Hamlyn Lecture series
Speaker: Professor Conor Gearty, Rausing Director, Centre for the Study of Human Right
Chair: Stephen Sedley, Lord Justice in the Court of Appeal
November 2005

Download the text of the lecture (PDF)

An expanded version of these lectures was published by Cambridge University Press in 2006.


For years the subject of human rights was on the margin of legal and political debate, supported with zeal by the few and ignored by the many. Then, with the end of the Cold War came recognition, prestige and immense influence. Vast numbers of new believers were recruited from the lost ideologies of past eras. The excesses of the global market drove even capitalists into its embrace. Democracy everywhere redefined itself to make human rights an essential part of its make-up rather than the subversion of true majority rule that it had long been believed to be. By the start of the new millennium, the idea of human rights was well-entrenched as the key ethic of its age, the moral music that was to accompany 'the end of history'.

It has not worked out quite like this. We have had 11 September, the war on terror, the revival of political religion and the slow, dawning realisation that the whole planet is at grave risk from the consequences of human success. In Britain, the Human Rights Act seems to have disappointed its promoters, preserving inequality and injustice while doing little to secure the political liberties of the citizen. And behind all these doubts looms an even larger one: what on earth are human rights? How can we tell what they are? Is this not a piece of modernist junk that needs to be thrown off with all the rest of the 'truth' garbage that has held back human history?

In these three lectures, to be delivered at LSE (10 November), Durham (15 November) and Belfast (17 November), Conor Gearty considers whether human rights can survive these challenges and what it needs to do in order to do so. In his first lecture at LSE, he asks how the idea needs to be made to work in our age of relativism, uncertainty and anxiety.

Conor Gearty was born in Ireland and graduated in law from University College Dublin before moving to Wolfson College, Cambridge in 1980 to study for a Master's Degree and then for a PhD. He became a fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge in 1983 and in 1990 he moved to the school of law at King's College London where he was first a senior lecturer, then a reader and finally (from 1995) a professor. On 1 October 2002, he took up a new appointment as Rausing Director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights and professor of human rights law at LSE.

Conor Gearty has published widely on terrorism, civil liberties and human rights. His books include Terror (Faber, 1990) and two books with K D Ewing, Freedom under Thatcher (1989) and The Struggle for Civil Liberties (2000). Conor is also a barrister and was a founder member of Matrix chambers from where he continues to practice. He has been a frequent adviser to judges, practitioners and public authorities on the implications of the UK Human Rights Act, and has frequently lectured at home and abroad on the topic of human rights. He has appeared in human rights cases in the House of Lords, the Court of Appeal and the High Court.

His latest book, entitled Principles of Human Rights Adjudication, is a study of the place of the Human Rights Act in Britain's constitutional order. It locates the measure in its political and historical context and analyses the case law from the perspective not only of principle but also of practical experience.