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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
Mary Robinson is United Nations High Commissioner for Human
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