Conor Gearty – On Fantasy Island, Britain, Europe and Human Rights



Earlier today we had the pleasure of listening to Prof Conor Gearty and Prof Andrew Byrnes speak about human rights in the European and Australian contexts in the lead up to the launch of Conor's new book, On Fantasy Island: Britain, Europe and Human Rights.

AHRCentre Director, Prof Andrea Durbach closed the proceeedings with the following:

It is a sheer delight to welcome back Conor Gearty (and Aoife Nolan and Eile), who last visited the Faulty in May 2006. One of the many chores we foisted upon Conor during his visit 10 years ago, was to deliver the AHRCente Annual Leture, which he did at the State Library, introduced by the then NSW Attorney General, the Honorable Bob Debus, MP. Conor spoke to the topic: Human Rights, Human Security: Protecting Rights in the National Interest. The UK Human Rights Act had been enacted by the Labour government eight years earlier and at the time Conor had struggled to accept the assumed legitimacy and boundless promise of human rights and challenged the narrow confines and perhaps exclusive individualistic aspirations which underpinned them. But increasingly, and with his formidible dissection of the foundations of rights and the consequences of their absence, Conor has over the years reclaimed and reasserted the essential struggle for and significance of the practice and importantly, the language of human rights of which he wrote in 2006:

[The] language of human rights notices something extraordinary about us, which is that we have the capacity to humiliate and to engage in cruel action. But, in having that capacity, we recognise also its wrongness. … [and] we go further and … we see in our species a capacity to engage in a commitment to universal human flourishing … it’s also about something more sophisticated … about the power of collaboration with strangers, to reach across cultures and ethnicities and divides, to integrate.

I’ve often thought of human rights as a kind of visibility project; trying to get people to see people, trying to get people to recognise that they are people. And that’s partly what democracy was about, so to me democracy and human rights go hand in hand.

A few years later, Conor publicly declared (in an article in The Guardian in December 2009) that he had ‘changed his mind about the Human Rights Act’, arguing that:

… Human rights are not any longer a bourgeois way of fighting socialism (which is what I thought they were). In our bleak, post-1989 capitalist era they have become (for now) the only way of doing socialism.

The Human Rights Act has done some very good work, a fair bit that is neutral and hardly anything at all that is downright destructive. The terrorism laws have been sharply modified. Asylum provision has been strengthened. The inquest system has been transformed for the better. Britain's imperial adventures abroad have been rendered accountable at home. A new law of privacy has undermined media efforts to make money out of prurience. Police common law powers to control protest have been reined in.

In short, human rights are the answer to many of the seemingly intractable questions with which we are faced. There may come a time when it will be safe once again to attack the term – but we are not there now and it may be quite a while yet before it is safe to change my mind back.

And thankfully, before he has had time to change his mind, Conor has taken up the struggle to preserve this ‘alien intrusion on British law’ with its ‘modest’ but significant protections, against great odds. He has thoughtfully and forcefully come full circle - first doubting, then acknowleding and now protecting the fragile gains of human rights, while we, as a nation, have stayed at first base, repelling a generous, sophisticated embrace of democracy. So, Conor Gearty, for this book and your work, we thank you and ask that you do all within your power to stop any slides towards the repeal of the Human Rights Act and its reach towards cosmopolitanism. It’s demise will allow those in this colony trying their best to keep rights at bay, to put the nail in the coffin of an Australian Bill of Rights and to claim the success of the Human Rights Act as a failure as they bob about on our Fantasy Island, lost at sea. Please join me in thanking Andrew and Conor and celebrating the launch of Conor Gearty’s On Fantasy Island: Britain, Europe and Human Rights.  


The book launch was co-hosted by the AHRCentre and the G+T Centre of Public Law.