This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage.
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page

UConn Advance

Speaker: Human rights not enforced
By Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu
May 2, 1997

Human rights violations demand action, one of the world's most eminent philosophers told a University audience.

Maintaining power by torturing dissidents, denying the rights of women and imposing censorship "demands practical opposition, not theoretical discussion," Bernard Williams told about 200 faculty, staff and students April 23 in the Dodd Center's Konover Auditorium.

Williams, the Monroe Deutsch Professor of Philosophy at the University of California-Berkeley, who also has taught at Oxford, Cambridge, London, Princeton and Harvard universities, gave the second annual Sackler Distinguished Lecture on the topic of "Human Rights: The Challenge of Relativism."

The lecture was supported by a gift from philanthropists Raymond and Beverly Sackler, intended to bring internationally renowned speakers to UConn to discuss human rights issues.

Once described by the London Sunday Times as "the cleverest man in Britain," Williams enlivened his discussion of human rights with illustrations from across the centuries and around the world.

Joking that a typical philosopher might start with the question, "What is a right?" Williams said, "Actually we've got a pretty good idea what human rights are. The problem with human rights is not so much with identifying or defining them as with getting them enforced."

Human rights are universal, and their violation is acknowledged "everywhere, always, and by everyone," he said.

Not all rights are human rights, he said. Some rights are not recognized at other times and in other places.

But to respond in such cases that "what's right for us is not right for them" does not work in practice, Williams said. As long as the different groups don't come into contact, relativism is quite harmless but it is also irrelevant. "As soon as it is applied to any situation where you can have an effect, that doctrine becomes simply hopeless," he said.

What to do?
What to do about violations of human rights, however, "is on every occasion a political question," Williams said. People should avoid being ideological missionaries and take action only in cases of gross violation of human rights, he cautioned. Otherwise there is a risk that intervention may make matters worse.

One fundamental human right is freedom of speech and information, Williams noted. Throwing a newspaper editor in jail, for example, is not only a human rights violation in itself but often is associated with other violations of human rights. "It's a basic violation of human rights ... because it's impossible to answer any other questions without correct information and freedom of criticism," he said.

Modern communications may help alleviate human rights violations by making secrecy more difficult, Williams added.

"Because of the fact that the world's communications are as they are, there is now no 'we' and 'they' ... there is only 'us.'"

Issue Index Advance Homepage