Symbols of colonial empire across the United States and Europe were toppled in the summer of 2020, focusing global attention on sins of the past. Movements for Black liberation targeted Confederate monuments and police violence; societies reckoned with their treatment of colonial subjects and indigenous and migrant populations. King Philippe of Belgium expressed public regret to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo for the human and financial toll of decades of colonial rule. In March 2021, the city of Evanston, Illinois, and the Jesuits of the United States and Canada announced historic reparations programs. These interventions signal new possibilities for communities to confront obligations in justice beyond narrowly legalistic approaches or amnesic tendencies.
Some scholars have begun to frame migration itself as a form of reparations. The journalist and author Suketu Mehta proposes that immigration quotas be based upon host countries’ negative impact on others. Rather than punishing migrants forced from home, he insists that host nations pay the costs of colonialism, of unjust trade and environmental degradation, of wars imposed. Approaches like these, which consider histories of relationship and transnational forces that threaten human rights, challenge paradigms and policies that render vulnerable individuals the primary sites for enforcement. In Reimagining Human Rights, William O’Neill re-theorizes human rights in ways that take memory seriously and move beyond individualistic tendencies and standard theoretical tensions. His innovative analysis attends to complex causal forces and levels of responsibility. A reconstructive interpretation of rights as observed in the testimony by victims and their advocates foregrounds recognition, restoration, and a renewed understanding of the common good.
In compact yet lyrical prose, O’Neill synthesizes and extends his scholarly reflections on political philosophy, restorative justice, refugee rights, and Catholic social thought. He integrates South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) testimony with insights from philosophers, poets, novelists, and Scripture. Indeed, the text itself exemplifies his summons to “remember the effaced,” given that the testimonies and scholarly voices incorporated span multiple continents and disciplines, often within a single page. O’Neill’s experiences beyond Berkeley’s “Holy Hill” also inform the work. In one chapter, for example, his ministry as Catholic chaplain at the Federal Women’s Prison in Dublin, California, feeds an analysis of hyper-incarceration and the plight of immigrants; he skillfully unveils how the adversarial adjudication of guilt and a rubric of “just deserts” vindicate the formal, procedural rule of abstract rights, ignoring the pervasive impact of discriminatory policing and sentencing practices and a “carceral imagination” that essentializes difference as grounds for denying rights.
For even where human dignity is affirmed in law or ostensible social consensus about what constitutes flourishing, we encounter those whose equal dignity is unequally endangered. O’Neill takes seriously the ways traditional legal and ethical reflection has served to mask and perpetuate domination, while also rehabilitating human rights in a manner that includes and empowers. A commitment to equal consideration, then, demands preferential treatment for those whose basic rights are most imperiled. In prioritizing the moral urgency of those whose equal dignity is unequally denied, O’Neill rightly insists on the epistemic privilege (and participatory rights) of the excluded to ensure the validity of policy, noting how illusory consensus can fail to account for the systematic distortions that result from coercion or bias.
Centering victims of injustice not only unmasks such dynamics but serves to help envision a different future. Weaving their narratives throughout—like that of Lukas Baba Sikwepere, blinded in a brutal police attack and later tortured in Cape Town—O’Neill indicates how in testimony, rights can reveal what has been silenced; rights become “a mouth to tell of suffering,” to use an image from one of his favored novelists, Chinua Achebe. Proposing narrative testimony as a “grammar of dissent,” his discursive rights do not emerge from an abstract philosophical thought experiment, but from the very mouths of those who remember, which invites solidarity. This deconstructive role of rights in revealing systematic injustice then sets the stage for forging collective memory and the recognition of claims and duties. O’Neill shows how, as testimony is woven into collective memory, the role of rights becomes a clearing within which new stories can be told, offering a threefold framework of rights as recognizing, redeeming, and redressing claims—a far cry from standard Western emphases on rights as immunities or entitlements. His argument thus charts a path between those who privilege a thin liberal metanarrative of rights or thick communitarian narratives of virtue to conceive of rights as “narrative grammar.” Basic human rights (and corresponding duties) are thus specified by the internal goods shown forth in such rhetorical practices of claim-making.
In advocating for this middle road, O’Neill analyzes dominant philosophical traditions that defend and that interrogate “rights talk.” He shows how in the TRC, “rights speak in victims’ stories,” not grand narratives of legitimation or “apodictic certitude.” His reconstruction of rights “from below” is reminiscent of Linda Hogan’s recent approach, published in Georgetown’s same Moral Traditions series. She draws upon scholars from the Global South to similarly critique abstract human-rights discourse, grounding respect in shared human experiences of vulnerability. For Hogan, it is cross-cultural, multireligious dialogue that re-grounds an “embedded universalism,” whereas O’Neill recontextualizes rights via the literature of testimony as the work of rights and the “grammar of remembrance.”