I am greatly honored by the invitation to speak to a group that is committed to my own deepest beliefs—the belief in a free world that is a world of basic rights and liberties for all.
I’m not going to dwell at any length on the question of the concepts of human rights. You’ve probably heard quite enough about that in the course of this day, and above all, you have heard my good friend, Baroness O’Neill, who will have done as well as anybody on this matter. I would like at least to state that I’m one of those who use a narrow concept of human rights, and I say this in order to make my subsequent remarks more comprehensible. In my view, even the United Nations’ Charter of Human Rights, as well as many other recent statements, include in the concept important matters, even crucial matters, but matters that I personally do not describe as human rights.
For me, human rights have to do with the inviolability of the person, habeas corpus, the inviolability of the person in the sense of the basic dignity of every human being. They have to do with the right of expression, and the right of expression includes not only such matters as freedom of speech, but also and crucially the freedom to pursue and conduct scientific research. And the concept of human rights includes the right of participation. It implies an element of inclusion. It implies that every human being should be able to take part in what happens in her or his society. That is my concept of human rights as I’m going to employ it in my subsequent remarks.
It is undoubtedly one of the tasks and one of the great interests of the scientific community to pursue the defense of human rights and, indeed, the implementation of these basic rights. But it is undeniable that the scientific community has not always done terribly well in this process. I am, just now, writing a little book on the question of who, among the public intellectuals, and they include quite a few of the members of the scientific community, prove to be immune to the great temptations of totalitarianism in the 20th century. The number of those who truly proved immune is not very large. It is quite amazing, as one looks at the history of Europe, and not just of Europe, between the First World War and 1989, the end of the cold war. It is quite amazing how many intellectuals, how many scientists and scholars have preferred the comfort of life to the strains of fighting the temptations around them. It is amazing how many have made their peace with the regimes that were, after all, regimes of [totalitarianism], but they have made their peace and hoped that in this way they would be left in peace.
It was a short-sighted attitude by many. It was short-sighted because, without any doubt, the regimes that were thus tolerated, and in an indirect way supported by those who do not insist on basic liberties and rights, were in fact strengthened. It is also beyond doubt that these regimes removed the foundations of free research, free thought, and other creative activity on the part of scholars, scientists, and public intellectuals in general.