Our programme of activities on this theme aims to develop new understanding of the tensions at the interface between global norms and local attempts to realise justice, rights and equality. It seeks to encourage creative thinking as to the innovative language and spaces needed for pursuing ideas of the common good in an unstable world.
The conceptual terms of justice, rights and equality remain contested despite a historical drive to emphasise their universal value, promote their inter-dependence and institutionalise democratic political order. Debate persists relating to the meaning of justice in Western and non-Western traditions, and its differences in national and local contexts. Long-standing arguments about the ‘cultural relativism’ of rights and the validity and value of different ‘generations’ of rights continue in both theory and practice, and underpin how different actors around the globe perceive of and seek to implement human rights. Inequalities persist within and between countries, and while there is a consensus that these inequalities require to be addressed, fundamental disagreement remains as regards whether and how equality should relate to redistribution, and how rights and equality should relate to the political accommodation of groups in divided societies. Little consensus exists on how justice, rights and equality relate to one another. Are rights-based societies invariably just societies? Are equality and justice only attainable where democratic political order has been established?
All of these time-honoured controversies are taking on a different complexion in what appears to be a rapidly changing ‘global political marketplace’. Firstly, the era in which international organisations supported transitions towards peace and democracy, has entered a phase of disillusionment. Secondly, relatively recent political dynamics seem to be opening up questions of justice, equality and human rights in more settled states, in ways which implicates their prevailing political order. Thirdly, many of the international institutions which underpin global justice, equality and human rights, and the very concept of internationalisation as a solution to global problems, appear to be under attack and suffering a crisis of confidence.
The current discourse and practice in the area of justice, rights and equality remain firmly grounded in universalising and harmonising language and aspirations, and have a strong international and regional apparatus. Yet, the compromised position of universal language, norms and institutions forces us to re-think how to reinvigorate and re-address arguments of justice, equality and rights in the new global political marketplace. The clash of global normativism with local realities gives rise to questions as to:
- the nature and validity of different understandings of justice, rights and equality;
- the extent to which they can be effectively reconciled;
- the need for, and feasibility of, locally-tailored solutions to perceived global problems;
- and the role of new actors, with varying degrees of influence and often divergent interests, in securing justice, rights and equality.
Underpinning these questions is the search for a new articulation of what constitutes the common good in an increasingly fragmented, uncertain and turbulent world.