Speech by Lord Alton at ADF International Media Symposium, September 2017
My friend Alan Sears – who it’s wonderful to welcome here tonight with Paula – has a love of G.K.Chesterton that I share.
Alan recently used these words of Chesterton, that appear in“What’s Wrong With The World” and that are about the nature of freedom. Chesterton, with his love of paradox, believed that;
“Most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.”
Friends – as those of you gathered here know all too well - for every claimed right there is a responsibility; for every claimed entitlement, there is a duty.
Yet, in our distorted, diminished and flaccid language of rights and entitlements we have abandoned the language of responsibilities and duties and timidly accepted an impoverished view of what freedom means.
In Orthodoxy, published in 1906, Chesterton memorably wrote that “to admire mere choice is to refuse to choose”– and yet choice has become the foundation stone of organisations that claim to champion rights and freedoms.
Choice without reference to the consequences is as impoverished as the concept of rights without responsibilities. Freedom for the pike is death for the minnow; freedom for the hunter is death for the hunted.
When it comes to the struggle for life itself, or in the struggle of conscience and belief against coercive liberalism or angry atheism, all know that we are greatly indebted to Alliance Defending Freedom for providing the intellectual ballast, rapier like arguments, and a counter narrative to the impoverished concept of freedom that I have described.
In a television interview, last week, in my opposition to the ending of the lives of children in the womb I was accused by the interviewer, of ignoring “the right to choose”.
I pointed out that my opposition to abortion stems from the belief, supported by science, and law, that life begins at fertilisation and that its protection must, therefore be paramount. I cited the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3, which says that “We all have the right to life, and to live in freedom and safety.”
Of what use are the other 29 articles if choice trumps the very right to life itself? And what effect does this denial of the right to life have on how we interpret the UDHR’s other articles?
The Declaration was born in the embers of war ravaged Europe. It sat alongside the Genocide Convention.
In 1943 Rafael Lemkin had coined the term ‘genocide’ heavily influenced by the atrocities suffered by the Armenians thirty years earlier, and at around the same time he learned of losing 49 members of his own family in the Holocaust.
He died exhausted and gaunt in 1959, having dedicated his life with ferocious energy to building international legal structures to prevent genocide from ever happening again.
I cannot help but wonder what Lemkin would make of the resignation of Carla Del Ponte, who quit the UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses in Syria citing a "lack of political will" and criticising the UN Security Council which, in her words, "do not want justice”.
This follows years of inertia from the international community in the face of crimes so unimaginably cruel that Del Ponte herself recently said she had never seen their like, even in Rwanda.
In the face of ethnic and religious groups being wiped from the map the Security Council and the International Criminal Court have been exposed as toothless and the Genocide Convention mere ink and paper.
The desire for lasting peaceful cooperation, justice and the horror of war provided the impetus for the creation of the UDHR and the Genocide Convention.
Certain principles were at the heart of the project – although some, like Article 18 of the UDHR – which insisted on the right to believe, not to believe, or to change tour belief, were notably opposed by Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union – in a prefiguring of the pincer movement that is such a danger to Judaeo Christian beliefs in our own times.
Other of those principles created a creative tension, (between western and eastern philosophical traditions, about whether there should be mention of the Divine, or not) but the political will was so strong that the actors of the day worked through and got the job done for the good of the many. It was the practice of law and politics at its best; and we can learn a great deal from that.
Recall that those principles are clear, that they rely on a notion of universal truth.
They are, among others: that humanity has a shared dignity in simply being human; that we are both dependent and autonomous rational subjects; that at the heart of a thriving society and one comprised of flourishing individuals is the liberty to express those rational and spiritual capacities; and all that is good flows from recognising these foundation stones.
Implicit in that endeavour was the centrality of fundamental human rights and the upholding of human dignity: a dignity of difference, as Jonathan Sacks, Lord Sacks, our former Chief Rabbi puts it.
Central, too, was the upholding of just laws and the responsibilities that governments must have towards the vulnerable, the voiceless, the powerless and the weak.
Today, we see those central achievements undermined by an intolerance that in recent weeks led to the leader of a political party resigning because he believed it had become impossible for him to carry out his duties while being true to his faith; and a call last week to a Member of Parliament to leave the House of Commons because of his opposition to abortion. That the person making the call described herself as“pro-choice” showed a peculiar and rather stunted understanding of the English language, the limitations of choice, and the limitations of free speech.
I would encourage Tim Farron and Jacob Rees Mogg with Raphael Lemkin's famous exhortation that"if you act in the name of conscience you are stronger than any government.”
Abandon your conscience and of what use are any of to anyone else?
It was Chesterton, again, who understood to what this leads:“Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice, it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.”
What kind of tyrannical society do we create when we suppress conscience and silence religious faith by suppressing it and driving it into the catacombs?
Isiah said “remember the rock from which you were hewn; remember the quarry from which you were dug”. When a country like ours develops collective amnesia, and forgets what and, Who made it what it is, we are all in grave danger.
Friends, we are undoubtedly facing an existential crisis in how we understand the way to protect our foundational freedoms today.
We are facing a crisis in our belief in international justice; we are facing a crisis in the protection of the right to free religious expression as befits our nature and we are too often found to be making excuses for our lack of political will to do anything about it.
Take the crisis in international justice: There can be no bigger test than our response to the greatest injustices. Genocide in the Middle East; crimes against humanity documented by the UN in north Korea; the impotence of the Security Council and the ICC. Where here is the political will of our forbearers for international justice?
Consider the crisis in freedom of religion or beliefand the lack of political will to take seriously the systemic abuse by regimes such as North Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, or Saudia Arabia; the threat in the UK of poorly framed ‘hate speech laws’; the sacking of women like the two Scottish midwives who refused to take part in abortions; and the coercive pressure for people in public life to have private opinions in line with whichever consensus happens to rule the influencer classes.
Against all of this we need to be far more P.C. - politically courageous.
Now many of you in this room have fought hard for many years to protect these fundamental rights at a time in which many have become complacent. But there are too many others who are complacent about the rights and freedoms they enjoy - but also complacent or ignorant as to what is at their source.
We must insist that there are universal truths, as recognised in the very project of the UDHR.
Such truth is not merely the construct of the majority or the powerful, but the very foundation stone that enables both justice and a diverse, thriving, society. Our utilitarian relativism has proved a short term gain for able or powerful actors but is undermining our foundation stones: true justice rooted in truth.
With many of you in this room, in recent years, through ADF International, I have been helped and sustained in that shared struggle to protect the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of human flourishing.
I want to especially pay tribute to Alan Sears for having the vision to establish ADF in the UK – and to Ryan Day, Laurence Wilkinson, and Paul Coleman, and his wonderful team here and around the world.
In the States, we follow with admiration the endless battles you have in the Courts and your effectiveness in securing crucial appointments – and your investment in future leadership. Your Blackstone Legal Fellowship has, among other things, been preparing law clerks for service to judges - now more than 600 strong- with a higher percentage of your students than Harvard now appointed.
That is a good deed in a nasty world – and one which offers great hope for the future./
Let me end, as I began, with Chesterton. He said: “According to most philosophers, God, in making the world, enslaved it. According to Christianity, in making it He set it free.”
In reshaping the debate about what constitutes true freedom, about how rights require responsibilities and how choices inevitably must be weighed against the consequences, none of us harbour any illusions about the difficulties facing us.
These freedoms were hard-won and there is a new generational battle underway. It is time to recommit ourselves to that cause tonight; and it is why ADF is so welcome in our midst in this great Palace of Westminster tonight.