Great expectations as first ethical draft goes online

LSE professor opens debate through his weekly essay on human rights. Matthew Reisz reports

October 14, 2010

Costas Douzinas, director of the Institute for the Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London, described him as "a postmodern Charles Dickens, obsessed with social justice and the iniquities of the law, who has chosen to write in instalments".

He was speaking about Conor Gearty, professor of human rights law at the London School of Economics, at an event to launch an innovative new writing project, The Rights' Future.

Each Monday, starting on 11 October, Professor Gearty will post online an essay of 1,500 to 2,000 words dealing with a major aspect of human rights, and inviting anyone to post comments.

On the following Friday, he will produce a revised and perhaps extended version, which hones the arguments, takes account of criticism and incorporates new examples.

These will then be brought together with additional material and published as a book at the LSE's Space for Thought Literary Festival in February 2011.

The project has a number of related aims. Professor Gearty hopes that opening himself to "reasoned engagement" will "enrich and mature my own perspective".

In addition, although he believes that human rights represent "a fundamentally progressive ideal in a world which has precious few ethical resources to hand", he also acknowledges that they are often seen as the rarefied concern of lawyers and a metropolitan elite, with little relevance to the lives of most people.

The Rights' Future is expressly designed to "get past the usual human rights audience", with visits to local schools and face-to-face debates adding yet another dimension.

But despite his "commitment to collegiality", Professor Gearty also has his own firm perspective on human rights and is determined that the book should "retain a strong authorial voice and not get watered down to the lowest common denominator and the soggy middle".

He believes, for example, that "human rights is too important a term to leave to the liberals, the market-slaves or the neoconservatives".

To provide a further sense of direction for the project, therefore, Professor Gearty has set out a contentious 10-point manifesto stating, for example, that "labour rights are essential to human rights", that "the great religions are more friend than foe to human rights" and that "in taming counter-terrorism law human rights has the chance to renew its soul".

"The Big Society", Professor Gearty reflected at the launch, "may soon mean universities are too expensive to go to and full of the kind of people we don't want to teach."

He hopes The Rights' Future will create "a true public partnership" to move forward a crucial discussion. It remains to be seen whether others will imitate its publishing model.

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