Rights & Religion-Complementary?

Having Faith in Human Rights: Rights and Religion as Complementary Concepts

An address by Natalie Samarasinghe (UNA-UK) to Westminster Faith Exchange on 2 April 2008

I am here today to talk about having faith in human rights. I chose this title not just because it is an obvious pun but because I want to talk about rights and religion as complementary; about what it means to have faith in both these concepts; and how we can overcome the commonplace perception that they are difficult to reconcile at best, and totally incompatible at worst.

History is peppered with conflicts between religious and secular values. At the macro level we have the Enlightenment; the emergence of nationalism; and the 19th century colonization and conversion drive. At the micro level, every problematic inter-religious marriage or religious conversion are examples.

But although such conflicts are not new, I believe that we are now standing at an important crossroads where religion and human rights are concerned. The past few years have seen a polarization of these two concepts, even in previously liberal quarters. The so-called war on terror has ushered in an era of black and white morality and reasoning, and this has led to religion and human rights being pitted against one another. 'They’ are religious fundamentalists, ‘we’ are secular. ‘We’ respect human rights, ‘they’ do not. Taken to the extreme, this has resulted in a further depreciation of the role of religion in public life. Religion is portrayed as being dangerous, either in direct terms through fundamentalism, or indirectly, through fear that religion in public life is divisive. Similarly, human rights -in essence a tool of the vulnerable -have been aggressively claimed by certain Western governments as something that -along with democracy and good governance -must be exported to other parts of the world. Again, taken to the extreme, this thinking leads to two worrying conclusions: first, that we have fully implemented human rights in our society and no longer have anything to learn, and second, that these values belong to us alone and can only be imposed on others.

Of course, none of these extreme scenarios are accurate, but by constantly thinking in black and white terms, we run the risk of accepting them at least in part. In the end, ordinary people will be come wary of both religion and human rights. When I told a friend the subject of this address, he groaned and said: “why on earth did you agree to to talk about the two most controversial topics at the same time” And I can understand him. The messages we send out are not clear. We uphold human rights and yet are comfortable with limiting them. In a recent article in Prospect, Julian Baggini compares answers in surveys carried out by the Telegraph and the BBC. When asked to identify from a list of phrases those they considered important in defining Britain and what it is to be British, the top answer with 61% was British people’s right to say what they think. In third place with 54% was a sense of fairness and fair play. Yet when specific issues came into play, these values became less important. 52% of people said they wanted to limit freedom of speech to prevent the spread of radical Islam, and 30% did away with fairness by agreeing that given the threat to Britain from terrorism we should be less concerned about protecting the rights of ethnic minorities.

The 1998 Human Rights Act has also come under attack by politicians and the press, despite its positive impact. Likewise, the role of religion in public life is not treated in a uniform manner. Politicians turn to faith-based NGOs to augment public services, and to religious groups to magically create social cohesion, but then deal haphazardly with issues that arise, for example, over gay adoption vis--vis Catholic charities, or the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace. Sustained reform of the concept of multiculturalism and its impact on British society has also been lacking.

Analysis of these ‘shades of grey’ is vital, not least because it shows that religion and human rights occupy common ground in Britain. When I sat down and began to think of their similarities, I must confess my first thought was that both concepts suffer from the fickleness by which they are treated in the public sphere. Both are at times embraced -often as the solution to many pressing problems; and at times, vilified -usually as the cause of the exact same problems.

But there are many other areas of overlap. Both doctrines continue to have great relevance to British people. Faith-based organizations are thriving and have successfully adapted to a changing political and social landscape. As I mentioned earlier, members of UNA-UK work with local religious groups on their shared concerns about climate change, poverty, and international peace. Moreover, these links have contributed to social cohesion at the community level, and are testament to the fact that such cooperation not only does work, but is happening all the time. Finally, there is the obvious link between faith and the human right to freedom of religion or belief. This is protected in Britain by the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. And all of these instruments were inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 60th anniversary of which, we are celebrating today with this event.

The Declaration is a remarkable document. It was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1948, and sets out the basic rights and freedoms to which every human being is entitled. It contains 30 clear and fairly concise articles on the right to life, liberty and nationality; to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to work and to be educated; the right to food and housing; and the right to take part in government.

To those of us who work in this field, these rights have become so familiar that one can almost forget the immense challenges that faced the drafters of the Declaration. The very concept of universal rights is one that remains contested today. Are there needs relevant to every person here, regardless of our faith and backgrounds? Are there rights that are fundamental to a Muslim, a Buddhist, and a Jain? Some people would answer 'no'. They would argue that rights and needs are culturally-determined. This is certainly not my view -I am a firm believer in universal rights. But agreement about them is not a given.

With this in mind, it is remarkable that it was possible to produce a document like the Universal Declaration. It is even more remarkable that it has remained relevant for sixty years. The Declaration is an early example of the UN's capacity to bring about international cooperation and consensus. A committee of eight members, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, drafted the Declaration. They came from different regions of the world and sought to ensure that the text would reflect the diverse values inherent in the world's principal legal systems, and religious traditions. Achieving this was not easy. The text was revised several times before it was submitted to the General Assembly. The General Assembly, in turn, scrutinized every single word of the Declaration, voting a total of 1,400 times on practically every clause. Today, the Declaration is accepted virtually everywhere. It has been translated into 369 national and local languages, and is the best-known and most-cited human rights document in the world.

For me, the acceptance and acceptability of the Declaration by all religious groups is part of its enduring appeal. But many have sought to strengthen this by trying to forge a religious history of rights, which incorporates the biblical Ten Commandments, the infinite compassion of the Bodhisattva, and the Koran’s imperatives to help the orphans, the needy and the wayfarer. But although I admire the sentiment -and indeed, more should be done to elaborate religious perspectives on rights -such efforts are irrelevant to me. Human rights need no validation other than that we have by virtue of being human. They are not, as some of my more enthusiastic colleagues pretend, a competing belief system.

In fact, I strongly believe that religion and human rights are complementary concepts. Concepts that can mutually reinforce each other. Religious groups can increase their impact and relevance through human rights. I already outlined the various issues that local UNA branches and faith groups work on. Another example, is the challenge to the traditional religious, conservative right in America by the emerging religious left -which does not only ask what would Jesus do, but also what would Jesus drive, or rather, would he drive at all considering the environmental impact? Human rights can bring together diverse religious groups and foster improved relations through shared values.

And it is not just religion that can benefit. By embracing them, faith groups could do much to foster the culture of understanding and respect for human rights that Britain should have. Whilst religious histories of rights might take some imagination, it is relatively easy to create a British history of rights. The Magna Carta. The creation of Parliament. The Enlightenment. The pivotal role of the UK in establishing the League of Nations and the UN. The British lawyers, led by the Conservative Lord Chancellor Kilmuir, who first drafted the European Convention. In fact, the consultation paper on the Human Rights Act was entitled “Bringing rights home”. It is bizarre that a nation that has contributed so much to their development, should still be so wary of human rights.

In large part, I believe this is due to the libertarian/communitarian dilemma. Many people see rights as libertarian, pitting the individual against society. And Britain, from war-time solidarity to trade unions, from the WI to local FC, is deeply communitarian. And as a result, I think that people are -whether or not they should be -threatened by liberal rights that apply to everyone regardless of whether they are one of us, or what they have done for us. Faith and morality can play a strong role in alleviating this by giving us a personal connection to human rights. This would help enormously in enabling every person to take ownership of these values. The combination of personal and communitarian acceptance would go a long way to create a British embracing of human rights, and could potentially usher in a new era of social cohesion. Many inspiring human rights activists were and are religious: Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Shirin Ebadiand Martin Luther King. They also espoused a communitarian philosophy of rights. King is a particularly potent example. Some of you might have seen the excellent BBC2 documentary on his religious side; which apparently sits so uneasily with our perception of human rights heroes that we appear to have blocked it out! King, as the son of a preacher, was always a man of faith – but it is likely that he may have started out as a pastor because of the communitarianism of black churches, the only real black institution with power in America at that time. However, he describes in a speech how he was forced to become aware of his deep need for religion with regard to his work after receiving a death threat. The more radical a human rights campaigner he became, the more blatant and strong his religious convictions were.

But how can we bring about similar change today? The UN has given us a strong foundation with the Universal Declaration and all the instruments it has inspired. And various committees and independent experts have provided guidance on how to protect and implement rights. In 2006, the Special Rapporteurs on Racism and Freedom of Religion produced a report on incitement to hatred and the promotion of tolerance. One of their conclusions was the need to promote reciprocal knowledge of religions -a suggestion that has recently been made in Britain by the teachers’ union. The UN has also considered ways to solve conflicts, for example, between freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Perhaps most importantly, the UN is a source of legitimacy, inclusiveness and consensus, as well as a global platform which is necessary to address problems that transcend the boundaries of religions and nations. Problems such as climate change, communicable diseases and the growing food crisis. These are problems that we all share, regardless of our faith or lack thereof, and we must all seek to take action together. Former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold once said ‘in this age, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.” Martin Luther King may have added “and the road to action, necessarily passes through holiness.”

Please do not reproduce without the permission of Natalie Samarasinghe (UNA-UK).

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