Bahai News - Human rights and religion Monday, September 25, 2000

Human rights and religion

UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson believes 'there should be a more intense dialogue between religious leaders and the human rights community.' Religious leaders have 'great power to strengthen respect for human dignity', she argues

Shortly before the world's Heads of State and Government met in New York for the United Nations's Millennnium Summit, a less publicised but no less important meeting took place in the same city.

For the first time, 1,000 religious and spiritual leaders gathered for what was called the Millennium World Peace Summit. They came from all of the great faiths, including Bahai, Buddism, Christianity, Confuscianism, Hinduism, Indigenous Peoples, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism.

The goal of the Religious Summit was to identify ways that the worldwide religious and spiritual communities can work together as interfaith allies with the United Nations on specific peace, poverty and environmental issues.

I welcomed the holding of the Religious Summit for many reasons and was encouraged by its outcome. It was highly appropriate because of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of all forms of Intolerance Based on Religion or Belief, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1981, which I discuss below.

Religious leaders have great power to strengthen respect for human dignity. Their active support and involvement are essential if the goal of universal human rights is to be achieved. I believe that there should be a more intense dialogue between religious leaders and the human rights community. We have a great deal in common - perhaps more than is sometimes realised.

But, in everyday life, how many of us take the time to speak to or learn from people with different faiths or backgrounds? An experience which I found enlightening was when my office organised a seminar with Islamic scholars to discuss Islamic perspectives on the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

What was interesting was that, in all the discussions, no one expressed doubt about the relevance of international human rights standards. Rather, there was emphasis on accepting international standards, including the Universal Declaration, in promoting and protecting human rights at the national level.

And attention was drawn to how human rights are actually lived. The principles of Islam relating to human dignity and social solidarity are a rich resource from which to face the human rights challenges of today. Islamic concern with human dignity is old; it goes back to the very beginning.

The message I took from the Islamic seminar was the importance of dialogue between different cultures and religions. We must get away from the tendency to be deaf to, and even to demonise, cultures and religions different from our own.

There can be no denying that religion is often a pretext used to justify violation of human rights. It is heartening, therefore, that the outcome of the Religious Summit took the form of a commitment on the part of the religious leaders to work closely with the UN "to promote the inner and outer conditions that foster peace and the non-violent management and resolution of conflict."

The final statement of the Religious Summit says much about the relationship between religion and human rights. It speaks of the UN and the religions of the world having a common concern for human dignity, justice and peace; it says that religions have contributed to the peace of the world, but have also been used to create division and fuel hostilities; it notes that in an interdependent world, peace requires agreement on fundamental ethical values; and it concludes that there can be no real peace until all groups and communities acknowledge the cultural and religious diversity of the human family in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding.

It is important to emphasise the common ground between religion and human rights - and between religions themselves - because difference is often accentuated, usually to justify assaults on the rights of others. The best description of the relationship that I have come across was spelt out by Vaclav Havel and is worth repeating:

"I am convinced that the deepest roots of that which we now call human rights lie somewhat beyond us, and above us; some- where deeper than the world of human covenants - in a realm that I would, for simplicity sake, describe as metaphysical. Although they may fail to realise this, human beings - the only creatures who are fully aware of their own being and of their mortality, and who perceive their surroundings as a world and have an inner relationship to that world - de- rive their dignity, as well as their responsibility, from the world as a whole; that is, from that in which they see the world's central theme, its back- bone, its order, its direction, its essence, its soul - name it as you will. Christians put it simply: man is here in the image of God.

"The world has markedly changed in the past 50 years. There are many more of us on this planet now; the colonial system has fallen apart; the bi- polar division is gone; globalisation is advancing at a dizzying pace. The Euro-Ameri- can culture that largely moulded the character of our present civilisation is no longer the predominant. We are enter- ing the era of multi-culturalism. While the world is now envel- oped by one single global civilisation, this civilisation is based on coexistence of many cul- tures, religions or spheres of civilisation that are equal and equally powerful."

Havel was speaking two years ago on the occastion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that great post-war enunciation of the fundamental rights to which everyone is entitled, simply by virtue of being human.

The accusation is sometimes made that the Universal Declaration is a Western-engineered document; even that it is an attempt to be a substitute for religion - "a doctrine for those who believe in nothing else", as one commentator put it.

The records of the drafting of the Universal Declaration show that this was far from being the intention. The drafters sought to reflect in their work the differing cultural and religious traditions in the world. Representatives of African, Asian, and Latin American countries played a prominent role in the drafting, the results of which were intended to be a distillation of major legal, religious and philosophical beliefs.

As the Preamble puts it, the 30 Articles of the Univeral Declaration are "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations." The Universal Declaration and the covenants and conventions which it inspired spell out the individual's fundamental rights and show how these can be achieved and protected.

The essence of human rights is that they are universal: they apply to everyone, wherever they live. The right to freedom of conscience and religion is a central tenet of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 states:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in his community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

These rights are elaborated in the Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance Based on Religion of Belief adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1981. As well as expressing the conviction that freedom of religion and belief could contribute to peace and social justice, the Declaration calls on states to take all effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination and appropriate measures to combat intolerance on the grounds of religion or belief.

Sadly, there is no shortage of examples of assaults on freedom of conscience and religion in many parts of the world. The UN Commission on Human Rights felt it necessary to appoint a Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance to examine incidents and governmental actions inconsistent with the 1981 Declaration and to recommend remedial measures.

Among the global trends identified by the Special Rapporteur are: (i) a tendency to perpetuate policies, legislation and practices which violate the right to freedom of religion or belief; (ii) the spread of religious extremism; and (iii) persistent discrimination and acts of intolerance affecting vulnerable groups such as minorities and women.

The Special Rapporteur, whose title is to be changed to the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, plays a useful role in alerting the international community to his findings. However, the cases highlighted tend to be individual instances of intolerance and discrimination rather that the root causes.

Attention has been drawn to the need for elaborating preventive strategies and for promoting dialogue between the religions. In this regards, the words of Theo Van Boven, in his seminal work Religious Freedom in an International Perspective: Existing and Future Standards are worth quoting:

"What is at stake in the promotion and protection of religious liberty is not the search for objective truth but the enhancement of respect for the subjective rights of individuals or groups of individuals and communities. On the basis of this understanding, the measures of implementation, at a national and international level, should focus on the pro- motion of constructive dialogue between religious communities themselves and between these communities and the public authorities in a spirit of tolerance and respect."

I am glad that Ireland has been active in the efforts to promote the right of freedom of conscience and religion by acting as sponsor for the annual Resolution on this topic at the Commission on Human Rights and through support for the work of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Just under a year from now, the international community will have a unique opportunity to strike a blow against discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief at the World Conference against Racism, which will take place in South Africa from August 31st to September 7th, 2001.

The full title of the Conference includes not only racism and racial discrimination but also xenophobia and related intolerance. Since religious difference is so often used as a pretext for categorising individuals or groups of people as different, I believe that the World Conference can play an important role in devising new measures to fight this scourge.

That is why, when I circulated a Visionary Declaration against Racism reasserting the value of tolerance and diversity on the occasion of the Millennium Summit, I made sure to bring this initiative to the attention of the religious and spiritual leaders who gathered in New York and to ask for their endorsement.

The Visionary Declaration was launched by President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and is placed under the patronage of Mr Nelson Mandela. More than 50 leaders have signed, including the Taoiseach, and many others are planning to sign in the near future.

The Visionary Declaration recognises that racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance persist because they are rooted in fear: fear of what is different, fear of the other, fear of the loss of personal security. It says that we are all members of one human family and that, instead of allowing diversity of race and culture to become a limiting factor in human exchange and development, we must re-focus our understanding, discern in such diversity the potential for mutual enrichment, and realise that it is the interchange between great traditions of human spirituality that offers the best prospect for the persistence of the human spirit itself.

I see the Visionary Declaration as serving two purposes: to promote tolerance and diversity as a vision for the 21st century, and to raise public awarenes that during the time leading to the Conference - less than a year - all our efforts must be aimed at making the World Conference substantive and action-oriented.

The World Conferenece is the ideal occasion for governments to adopt a declaration and a detailed, practical plan of action which will provide the standards, the structures, the remedies - in essence, the culture - to ensure full recognition of the dignity and equality of all, and full respect for human rights. I look forward to the valuable support of all the world's religious and spiritual leaders in this most worthwhile cause.

Mary Robinson is United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

©Copyright 2000, Irish Times

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