Lord David Alton brings his battle for justice to Notre Dame

The Nanovic Institute for European Studies welcomed human rights campaigner Lord David Alton to its Forum Lecture on February 15, 2022. Baron Alton of Liverpool—who was elevated to the House of Lords as a life peer in 1997—has served in Parliament for over 40 years, first as a Liberal Democrat MP in the House of Commons and now as a Crossbencher in the House of Lords. He is known globally for his advocacy against genocide.

In his presentation, Lord Alton continually stressed the importance of understanding history so that we do not allow horrific events to repeat themselves. Regarding the Armenian Genocide, Lord Alton lamented “the attempt to eradicate the Armenians was carried out under the cloak of legality. These were not mass murders commited spontaneously by mobs,” and even now, “history books targeted at children do not include what happened to the Armenians.”

Lord Alton is working to combat genocide and human rights violations in foreign countries by standing up for truth in his position in the House of Lords and in the U.N. He explained that even when pro-life provisions are brought up in U.N. conferences, the Chinese Communist Party continually vetoes laws that would prevent it from attempting to exterminate the Uyghur population in China, while the Iranian government uses its veto power for laws that would keep it from discriminating against and eradicating Christians.

Lord Alton thinks that “the world’s response [to genocide] has not been good enough—we have duties to predict, to prevent, and to punish those who are responsible for these crimes and to protect the victims of genocide.”

In early January 2021 Lord Alton worked to pass a law in the House of Lords to amend the Trade Act to prohibit the U.K. from engaging in trade with genocidal regimes. He also recently worked to pass an amendment that will allow people who served for the British crown or are children of those who served for the British crown to more easily enter the U.K. from Hong Kong.

Lord Alton, when sitting down to speak with the Rover, reflected on the foundations of his commitment to human rights even in the face of attacks from world governments and his supposed political allies. He emphasized the central influence of both his upbringing as the son of an Irish immigrant in public housing and his Catholic faith in forming and keeping him firm in his positions against the abuses of human rights, including those of the unborn.

His experience with poverty as a child implanted a deep care for those on the bottom rungs of society, but this passion initially manifested in his early “political activism,” which included protests against Soviet crackdowns in Czechoslovakia and Western involvement in the Vietnam War.

It was, however, his later experience living in one of Liverpool’s poorest neighborhoods during his time in university that reinvigorated his faith and its role in his public activity; Lord Alton described the religious faith he encountered among the poor community in Liverpool that he would later serve as MP as “not overt pietism but belief.”

Lord Alton also spoke about how he views the decline in religious faith as a troubling issue for his times, particularly in Britain and Europe where belief is no longer “a natural thing.” This problem is especially apparent in discussions around the matter of abortion, where Lord Alton has often distinguished himself from political allies who make “human rights” the subject of their work.

Calling it the “supreme” and “paramount” human rights issue, Lord Alton bemoaned the position of the unborn in society today, calling the situation particularly “intolerable” in Britain. He was particularly concerned with the denial of a platform to anyone who spoke out on pro-life issues in his home country. Providing advice for how one can combat the strictly enforced orthodoxy on abortion in Western world, Lord Alton suggested that we ought to engage those in our lives by listening to their perspectives and finding common ground where possible. Drawing upon a Scriptural example of his strategy, he said, “most of us can’t be Paul, but we can be Barnabas.”

Lord Alton told the Rover that there is still hope in a world occupied by regimes that attack the sanctity of human life. His advice to Catholics is to “always stand for truth,” and that “not caring [about these issues] encourages tolerance for them, and tolerance encourages dictators to take charge.” He warned, “If you are silent when people far away from you are being hurt, you allow this to happen to you.”

Margaret Mathis is a freshman classics major and constitutional studies minor who loves sewing and hopes to become an attorney. When she is not narrowly escaping trademark infringement while hand-sewing the Notre Dame logo onto everything she owns, she can be found translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Hesburgh library. Reach out to her at mmathis@nd.edu.

Luke Thompson is a sophomore from Flagstaff, Arizona majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies, political science, and theology. A proud resident of distant Carroll Hall, he can often be found speed walking across campus to avoid being late to class again. Please reach out to him at lthomps7@nd.edu.

Photo credit: Nanovic Institute for European Studies, University of Notre Dame