Issue 43, July 2004
PROMOTING HUMAN RIGHTS AND PEACE –
Fifty-five years ago a Magna Carta for humankind was drafted. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an emphatic response to the rights committed in the years leading up to and during the Second World War. The realization that denial of human rights to any group in any country could have far reaching effects everywhere threatening international peace and security prompted the appointment of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights charged with the task of drafting the Declaration. Though it was not clear at the time the Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly, the extent to which it would have full legal force, in the decades that followed, the Declaration has found wider acceptance and has been instrumental in giving a fillip to the development of international humanitarian law. Many countries have either reference to these rights or explicitly included them in their written constitutions. However, there still remains a nagging question: Are the rights mentioned in the Declaration truly universal?
Even during the drafting stage, the cleavage between western and non-western philosophical approaches to human rights became apparent. ‘Although there were occasional references to relevant ideas in non-European traditions such as Confucian or Islamic thought, a European and American frame of reference dominated the deliberations from which the Universal Declaration emerged.’ Third world perspectives, subsequently so prominent in the United Nations system, were underrepresented in the process of drafting. Thus, the final version of the Declaration essentially reflected the Western philosophical tradition. As Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad of Malaysia put it, "“here is a difference in the perception of human rights between the East and the West. Whereas the West is almost obsessively concerned with the rights of the individual, the East is more concerned with the rights of the community.” This view is shared also by the Vietnamese and the Chinese who reject the very concern with human rights as bourgeois, western and incompatible with their traditional values and vision of the good life. For them, social solidarity, a prosperous economy and a strong and powerful state are the highest national goals. And the individual has meaning and value only to the extent that she or he serves society.
The initial cultural and philosophical differences in the approach to human rights were drowned, though temporarily, during the cold war years by ideological competition between capitalism and communism. The capitalist ‘free’ world took upon itself to champion the cause of human rights while decrying that the totalitarian, communist states were denying basic rights and dignity to their citizens. In the mean time, the so-called developing countries of the south and east were struggling to survive by grappling with mundane problems like poverty, disease and ignorance and, exploiting, whenever possible, the ideological conflict to their own material/economic advantage.
The latter half of the twentieth century and the first three years of the present century are replete with events that have brought great urgency to promote human rights on a wider scale in order to ensure our well-being. The break-up of the Soviet Union, several major conflicts and wars in different parts of the world, the rapid process of globalization, new technologies and the growing threat of terrorism pose new challenges. On the one hand, the shrinking global village and the emergence of a single political ideology based on free market economy provide unfair advantages to the developed nations and restrict the means of the poor countries to develop. On the other hand, though terrorism was not a new phenomenon, the event of 11 September 2001 in the United states marked the beginning of a growing global menace to security of anyone anywhere on this planet. It is unfortunate that the new wave of terrorism is imbued with a religious connotation with undertones of a clash of civilizations.
Freedom and democracy are the foundation stones necessary to build a just and prosperous society. Freedom of the individual should reflect his/her ability to exercise rights in a responsible manner. Democracy provides a framework for good governance without denying any section of the society the opportunity to express its views and convictions. Those who see freedom of the individual as purely western or Christian in its origin should know that until recently Catholics enforced strict religious hierarchy and the Protestants systematically suppressed dissent within their own jurisdiction. Religious freedom, as a fundamental right of all individuals, was not effectively institutionalised among the Protestants until Roger Williams established Rhode Island as an independent territory. As Robert Traer explains, “When Asians or Africans practicing Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic or indigenous traditions assert their cultural rights today and complain that international human rights law is dominated by Western individualism, they are challenging the universality of the idea that communities are formed by individuals who enter into a social contract. In historical terms, of course they are correct. Until very recently, all societies were formed more around kinship and ethnic identities, than by the voluntary decision of their individual members. Prior to modern democratic forms of government, individuals had little say about the laws that governed their societies. Any assertion of the universality of human rights, therefore, must be acknowledged as a contemporary claim that such rights are universally the necessary social conditions for human dignity”.
Every society strives for human progress, which can be defined as movement toward economic development and material well-being, socio-economic equity and political democracy. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wisely said, “success of any society in making progress is determined by its culture, not politics”. Culture is the entire way of life of a society, its values, practices, symbols, institutions and human relationship. In many instances, culture is derived from religion. Religion influences a culture’s belief system and practices, which is why when individuals or communities convert to another religion, their attitudes and way of life may undergo significant changes.
As can be seen from the table, more than eighty per cent of the world’s populations of some six billion adhere to one or the other religion. Their values, behaviour pattern, concept of right and wrong and their view of the society are all impacted by the religious beliefs they hold. It is therefore important to examine how far the basic religious texts, hierarchy, institutions and those who authoritatively interpret the scriptures give credence to the human rights enshrined in the 1948 Declaration. Assuming that these rights are universal, one may seek to answer ‘how can religion be instrumental in promoting human rights and in preventing human rights violations?’ In the present political climate in the uni-polar world, one is graciously accorded the freedom to ‘conform’ but not the freedom to ‘differ’ or ‘disagree’. How does this fit into the concept of human rights and with religious fundamentalism?
1. Christianity : 2 billion
The 1948 Declaration in its preamble states ‘that the “recognition of inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. The Declaration is secular having no religious affiliation and, therefore, does not mention God as the ultimate source of human rights. Practically all religions subscribe to the concept of God, with the notable exception of Buddhism. In the Judeo-Christian tradition persons have human rights because they are created in the image of God. Theistic Hinduism believes that all humans are God’s creation and individual rights would follow when one performs one’s own dharma or duties. In that sense all rights are considered as a reward for the responsibilities undertaken and duties discharged. This underscores the ethic of responsibility and loyalty towards the community in the same manner as Article 29 of the Declaration, viz. “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible”. To further strengthen the idea that rights entail responsibilities, several prominent western intellectuals and politicians including Helmut Schmidt subscribed to the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities drafted by the Inter-Action Council in September 1997.
In Islam, Dr. Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour explains, ‘the main pivotal and the most pervasive concept is God; the One, the Creator and Commander of all worlds. He has created human beings and has given them human rights. However, they also have some duties and responsibilities towards Him. They can not do whatever they wish or live in whatever way they like, even if all of them agree and have consensus about it; and even if what they agree upon gives all of them the greatest pleasure possible in this world…. The Declaration of Human Rights, having its roots and origins in the liberalist mindset of the modern West, can by no means accommodate in its entire framework the concept of God, the concept of the world beyond and the implication of these two, i.e. the concept of sin. The very language, tone, insinuation and undertone of the Declaration are all in defiance with such a concept’. In spite of this, many Muslims agree that Islam was the first to recognise basic human rights and almost fourteen centuries ago it set up guarantees and safeguards that have only recently been incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Buddhism’s main aim is to understand dhamma or the true nature of things, their intrinsic lawfulness as it were. Buddha declared: ‘Who sees dhamma sees me. Who sees me sees dhamma’. Human nature and human relationship are derivatives from dhamma, the true nature of things. While many Buddhists are reluctant to identify the dhamma with human rights, others claim that dhamma is that universal morality which protects the weak from the strong, which provides common models, standards, and rules, and which safeguards the growth of the individual. It is what makes liberty and equality effective. The Dalai Lama rejects that there is any incompatibility between human rights of the Declaration and the ‘Asia values’. Seeing no contradiction between the need for economic development and the need for human rights, he warns that human rights should not remain an ideal to be achieved but a requisite foundation for every human society.
Confucius (551-479 BCV) was a self-educated man. Like his personality, his teachings are natural, human and simple. The key concept of Confucianism is the Chinese character jen, which has been variously translated as virtue, love, magnanimity, or human-heartedness. Confucius’ philosophy was not founded upon supernaturalism. Humanity was central in his philosophy. “Virtue,” he said, “is to love men (sic). And wisdom is to understand men.” Jen is complemented by virtue (te) and righteousness (yi). China and other countries in East Asia, influenced by Confucianism, have propounded a set of “Asian values” to differentiate an Asian model of development from a Western model identified with individualism, liberal democracy and, human rights. However, scholars like WM. Theodore
Globalisation marks an extraordinary new stage in humanity’s voyage in civilization. Many things distant and alien do not any longer command our awe and suspicion; we can learn and understand them, first-hand. At the same time, they generate tremors in our community’s belief system and cultural heritage that have, until now, given us cohesion and identity. The wave of change is too strong to counter, but can be harnessed to build a better world where human dignity is sacred and human rights are respected. Peace and well-being in the present are equally important as the promise of salvation, heaven, moksha or nirvana in the life after. Religions can serve to heal past wounds, build harmony in multi-religious societies and ensure that fanaticism does not hold peace a hostage.
Religions can play a dual role: ensure that all adherents within their own religions are treated with equanimity; and, clarify the attitude towards those outside their fold. There is growing tendency in many religious traditions to interpret scriptures in a manner as to permit improved treatment of women, minorities and other socially or otherwise handicapped groups. In a number of instances, male chauvinism has given way to equal opportunity and better treatment for women. Gays and lesbians are increasingly looked upon as deserving treatment similar to the one meted out to the rest of the community. Roman Catholics have, since Vatican II, embraced human rights as a pre-requisite for human dignity, and many priests, nuns and lay leaders have been engaged in human rights struggles in Latin America, Africa and Asia. These are encouraging trends though there is still a long way to go.
Hatred and distrust for others stem from some of the religious beliefs and practices. Evangelical Christians who tirelessly fight for religious tolerance in other countries and urge their government to penalise any nation that seeks to restrict or deny the fundamental human right of freedom of religion or belief, should support attempts to legislate laws in their own country which would require teaching of evolution according to Christian values and belief in public schools. Since the event of 11 September 2001 there is a spontaneous tendency to refer to any terrorist as Islamic or Muslim. Hindu fundamentalism has caused the death of hundreds of Muslims and other minorities in India in recent times defying the constitutional rights of the minorities. ‘Fatwa’ and ‘jihad’ in the name of Qur’an are wrathful onslaught against non-conformity and individual freedoms. Religions and religious leaders can do a great deal to promote tolerance towards those with a different perception.
Prof. R. Sampatkumar is Secretary General, International Society for Human Values, a non-governmental organisation based in Geneva, Switzerland whose aim is to facilitate dialogue involving culture, religion, business and science.
A belated Muslim response to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur – A. Rashied Omar