University of Edinburgh
Professor Christine Bell’s opening lines were salutary. Sixty five years ago the world stood exhausted and near ruined by global conflict, while the suppressed aggression of the Cold War mounted. In this moment of brokenness, we declared our humanity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gave voice and vocabulary to the dignity of persons. The inaugural University of Edinburgh Ethics Forum asked if the UDHR still speaks to our needs, and for our aspirations.
The Ethics Forum aims to bring together academics, students, practitioners and members of the public to discuss the ethical dimension of current affairs. Professor Christine Bell (University of Edinburgh, School of Law) and Professor Tim Hayward (University of Edinburgh, Politics and International Relations) presented reflections on the challenges and opportunities we face when considering the future of the UDHR. The University of Edinburgh is a major partner in the newly invested Global Citizenship Commission, led by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The opening session of the Commission is hosted by the University, and the Ethics Forum asked speakers and audience to consider what contributions could be made to the Commission’s work. Christine Bell spoke from her research and experience in working with Human Rights in conditions of conflict. Drawing on her work as member of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Professor Bell told how human rights had themselves became embroiled in the conflict and were appropriated by various sectarian interests and resentments. Bell highlighted the intimate relationship between the legal, social, and political dimensions of human rights in the Northern Irish conflict and demonstrated how they became an important part of the peace process. Human rights became transformed from a cause of conflict, to a means of addressing social, economic, and political conflict peacefully.
Professor Tim Hayward spoke to limitations in the vision of humanity in the UDHR. Whilst the UDHR mandates respect for humanity, it neglects the place of humanity in the world. Humanity’s environment is a condition and medium of our lives. Ignoring our environmental interests and duties threatens both the world around us, and humanity’s future within it. Tim Hayward also cautioned our unreflective use of rights talk, and the distorting effects this has on our moral relationships with others. Complexities about the nature of rights can distract us from recognising their ethical core. Most fundamentally rights talk is about right and wrong. Talk of right and wrong may at times provide a more compelling shared moral language. And given the urgency of demands of global and environmental justice, a common moral vernacular is imperative.
Our speakers attracted a full house of students, academics, and members of the public. Should the UDHR take a more regional character, recognising the varieties of moral traditions? Do human rights instruments depoliticise struggles for freedom, equality, and justice by prioritising a rule of law which is often implicated in injustice? Should human rights instruments be broadened to include corporations as bearers of rights and responsibilities?
Whatever its flaws and omissions, the UDHR makes claims on us we cannot ignore: can we declare the dignity of our humanity in our law; and can our laws dignify our aspirations to unqualified universal respect for all? Many of us will now turn to the Global Citizenship Commission to listen and contribute to this vital ongoing conversation about the future of the UDHR.