Why are so Many Students Dumfounded by the Question: “What’s Wrong with Human Rights?”

by | Sep 29, 2014

I often find that one of the best questions to ask prospective trainee barristers is: “what’s wrong with human rights?”  It’s a question that leaves some dumbfounded as the interview room fills with a silence permeated with the interviewee’s sense of being asked a question to which there cannot possibly be an answer.  Others address the different question: “what’s wrong with human rights promulgated in Strasbourg?” – the implication being that human rights stemming from London would be okay.  But only the best applicants are able to formulate an argument against human rights.

The purpose of the question is not to test what an applicant believes, but to test the applicant’s ability to think about an important legal issue of the day.  The academically able ought to be able to grapple with an issue in the round and be able to formulate arguments for and against.

There are several arguments against human rights that the dumbfounded could have developed such as: “they take power away from elected politicians and vest it in the judiciary”, or “they are formulated in such a vague way as to make the law uncertain and contentious”, or “they cause social and political problems to be viewed as legal ones”.

It’s not surprising so many students have a one-sided view of human rights when they have so little exposure to journals or debates that question the belief that human rights are an unalloyed good.  Most authors on human rights argue for the expansion of their reach.  Some argue that human rights have gone too far but few question the foundational basis of human rights.  There are numerous human rights ‘debates’ but the speakers are invariably academics, campaigners or practitioners who embrace the human rights discourse.  These articles and debates rarely stray beyond considering whether human rights have gone too far/not far enough or whether they need greater domestic authority/less European input.

In an attempt to generate a fundamental debate over human rights the Institute of Ideas has assembled a panel of speakers who aim to address some fundamental questions about human rights:

●    Is there a connection between the natural law rights (civil liberties) of the Enlightenment, that sought to restrict the state’s power, and modern day human rights that seek to expand it?

●    Would a British Bill of Rights represent a more democratic alternative to the European Convention on Human Rights, or would it transfer powers from judges in Strasbourg to judges in the UK?

●    Would a British Bill of Rights be a triumph for democracy or of populism?


Addressing these questions will be a formidable panel of lawyers and writers who should be able to cover all bases:

  • Martin Howe QC, member of the Government’s Bill of Rights Commission.
  • Helen Mountfield QC, Matrix Chambers and trustee of the Equal Rights Trust.
  • Rupert Myers, barrister and writer.
  • Adam Wagner, barrister and editor of the UK Human Rights Blog.


I’ll be there too, in order to give the answers that the most able pupillage applicants were able to give (although often through gritted teeth) to the question: “what’s wrong with human rights?”


From Magna Carta to ECHR: do we need a British Bill of Rights?

Monday 6 October, 18.30 until 20.00

Foyles Bookshop, 107 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DT

Tickets £7.50 (Purchase) / £5.00 Concessions (Purchase)


Click here for details of other legal debates organised by the Institute of Ideas.


Jon Holbrook is a barrister and contributor on legal issues for spiked and the New Law Journal.  He has been shortlisted for the Halsbury Legal Journalism award 2014.  Follow him on twitter @JonHolb

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