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The idea of human rights


My brief for this piece was to write on human rights. That left two main options. I could undertake a fairly specific black letter critique of bills of rights. I am a strong opponent of these instruments, in either their entrenched, constitutionalised form or in their statutory, enacted form. The former you see in Canada and the United States of America; the latter you see in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and in Victoria. In my view both forms are pernicious; both forms undermine democratic decision-making; both forms unduly enhance the point-of-application power of unelected judges on a host of issues that are in effect moral and political ones – ones over which judges (committees of ex-lawyers as Jeremy Waldron continually reminds us) have no greater expertise, no superior moral perspicacity, no better pipeline to God than the rest of us non-judges, otherwise known as voters.

Here I have chosen the other option, writing about human rights more generally – what they are; where they come from; what people presumably mean when they invoke this abstraction of ‘human rights’ and when they intone, rhetorically, ‘Don’t you want your rights protected?’