The category of conscience has played a key role in the history of human rights. However, since a high point in the decades after the Second World War, much of the human rights movement appears to have become relatively less interested in the issue. Instead, claims of conscience have often become the domain of the religious right. The article asks how this has happened, and whether human rights—widely accused of a retreat into technicalities at the expense of intense conviction—has lost anything along the way. In doing so, the article treats conscience as a historically embedded and contested category, exploring the types of subjects that claims of conscience conjure up, the forms of difference they can reproduce, and the conflicts they both create and mediate. The central argument of the article is that the protection of conscience has been a claim to privilege, and therefore often been discriminatory in terms of the types of person and forms of conviction that it seeks to protect.
A Divided Conscience: The Lost Convictions of Human Rights
Tobias Kelly is professor of political and legal anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include freedom of conscience, political violence, and human rights. He is the author of two monographs: Law, Sovereignty, and Violence amongst West Bank Palestinians (2006) and This Side of Silence: Human Rights, Torture, and the Recognition of Cruelty (2012).