Human dignity, religious rights, and Obama

By The Hon. David Kilgour on July 2, 2009

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 without dissent. It proclaimed: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.....Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."

Article 18 deals with religion: 'Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes...freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.'

Eleanor Roosevelt was chair of the original Commission on Human Rights, a standing body of the United Nations, constituted to undertake the work of preparing what was initially conceived as an International Bill of Rights. The drafters, which included the Montrealer John Humphrey, hoped that it would quickly be followed by a more detailed listing of rights in a legally binding form, but it was not until 1966 that the two international human rights' covenants--the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)--were adopted. Almost a full decade later, the covenants finally came into force.

The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief was passed in 1981, primarily because the UN General Assembly was concerned about continuing intolerance and discrimination based on beliefs. It provides for the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and seeks to ensure that no-one should be discriminated against because of their beliefs. 

The General Assembly reaffirmed this Declaration in 1997 in a resolution that focuses on encouraging states to provide within their legal systems genuine freedom of thought, conscience and religion and effective redress against violations. The United Nations has to date been unable to codify the Declaration into a more binding document.

The effort for now over 60 years has been to transform paper principles into practical protections. The protection of human dignity, including religious freedom, is normally more effective in countries where there are independent judicial systems, including effective and sensible human rights commissions. Canada has been a leader in upholding the rights promoted in the UDHR.


Gao Zhisheng

Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, human dignity backed by an independent judiciary remains a distant dream. Many individuals have paid terrible prices for their courageous pursuit of what Canadians often take for granted.

Consider the case of Gao Zhisheng, a Beijing lawyer and Nobel Peace prize nominee. In 2001, he was named one of China's top ten lawyers. He donated a third of his time to victims of human rights violations, representing miners, evicted tenants and others. However, when he attempted to defend members of the Falun Gong spiritual community, the party-state unleashed its wrath. This included removing his permit to practise law, an attempt on his life, having police attack his wife and 13-year-old daughter, and attempting to deny the family any income.

In 2006, Gao was sentenced to three years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power," although international pressure appears to have caused a suspension of the sentence for five years. Predictably, Gao spoke out again. In his most recent article, he wrote about over 50 days of excruciating torture. Happily, his family was able to depart China for safety in the United States, although he remains in China--circumstances unknown.



Given its predilections, it is regrettable but unsurprising that the government of China instantly rejected many basic recommendations made in the report of the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, released on February 11. Even though one can argue that these recommendations were "gotcha" in design, with the wide expectation that they would be rejected, they include a number of basic human rights positions, including ones to:

-- guarantee all citizens of China the exercise of religious freedom, freedom of belief, and freedom of worshipping in private. As Canada in its statement to the Working Group noted, respect for this freedom includes respecting the freedom of belief of Falun Gong practitioners;

-- publish death penalty statistics. As the UN rapporteur on torture Manfred Nowak and UN rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Asma Jahangir have both pointed out, provision of these statistics is necessary to determine if any explanation can be given for the discrepancy in the number of organ transplants between the years 2000 to 2005 and the numbers from identifiable sources of organs for transplants other than disappeared Falun Gong practitioners. 

-- abolish all forms of arbitrary detention. The detention of large numbers of Falun Gong practitioners without charge and without information about their location facilitates their abuse. 

-- implement the recommendations of the Committee against Torture of November 2008. The Committee recommended that China conduct or commission an independent investigation of the claims that some Falun Gong practitioners have been subjected to torture and used for organ transplants and take measures, as appropriate, to ensure that those responsible for such abuses are prosecuted and punished, and

-- take effective measures to ensure that lawyers can defend their clients without fear of harassment. Gao Zhisheng is only one of a number of courageous lawyers who have been persecuted.

Religious Freedom and Social Harmony

To be sure, Beijing is not alone in being guilty of gross and systematic human rights violations against their own peoples. For example, Iran has often used religion as an excuse to persecute its own people and to confront other nations. We are witnessing that now in its repression of its citizens demands for democratic reform.

These countries, of course, are not alone in using religion to justify crimes against their people and humanity in general. One observer noted that "More people have been slaughtered in the name of religion than any other single reason." Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who spoke in February at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, noted the obvious: religion, he said, is "an excuse for so much evil." On the other hand, such violence demonstrates the power an enduring ideal will have. Religion is not tiddly winks--or one might suggest that it has been the decline of religious commitment in the European/West that has eliminated it as an impetus for mass violence. If it isn't important, why fight about it? But for others, it is life and death important.

Using religion as cover for evil stems from the doctrine that religions are exclusive. Religious extremists deny the rights of others whose beliefs or non-beliefs are different from their own. This offends the principles of the UDHR as it is offensive to the basic foundation of all religions, which is love for all humanity.

Religious freedom is about acknowledging and respecting others' rights to choose a different belief -- or no belief. If we grant such freedom to each other, harmony among religions will become reality.

In our daily lives, how do we achieve such harmony? How indeed when it takes two to make peace while it takes only one to make war?

First we might consider how to build harmony among the three Abrahamic religions.


Abrahamic Religions

There is a perhaps apocryphal statement to the effect that a British prime minister, upon contemplating the problems of the Middle East, sighed and said "If only Jews and Arabs could act like Christian gentlemen." Of course, one could also hypothesize the proverbial Jew or Muslim making a comparable statement directed at the ignorant hostility of the other religions.

Several years ago a seminar at the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa was told that one of the major causes of violence in the Middle East was the widespread view that Jews and Muslims do not worship the same God. This misunderstanding, we were told, encourages members of both faith communities to dehumanize and thus to demonize followers of the other.

In reality, Jews, Muslims, and Christians worship the same God, albeit in different ways and with differing emphasis. Each of these monotheistic faiths believes that life has profound value and meaning.

The widespread ignorance about each other is a major obstacle to mutual respect and building harmony. All of us must work harder to eliminate this knowledge deficit, while recognizing that greater knowledge may also prompt greater intensity over differences by eliminating the vague aura of good feeling that may conceal diametrically opposed principles. We may conclude that knowledge is a better base for understanding than ignorance, but the phrase "to know him is to love him" is not always accurate.

Karen Armstrong writing in her book "The battle for God" states,  ".the liberal myth that humanity is progressing to an ever more enlightened and tolerant state looks as fantastic as any of the other millennial myths.Without the constraints of a higher mystical truth, reason can on occasion become demonic and count views that are as great, if not greater, than any of the atrocities perpetrated by fundamentalists."

Armstrong wrote her book before the events of September 11, 2001, but some of the related points she makes still seem valid. First, liberals

and fundamentalists in all three faiths must build bridges and attempt to avoid future confrontations. Each side must try to understand what motivates the other. Fundamentalists must develop a more compassionate assessment of their opponents to be true to their religion's traditions. Secularists, says Armstrong, "must be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance and respect for humanity which characterizes modern culture at its best, and address themselves more emphatically to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbours experience and which no society can safely ignore."


U.S. President Barack Obama also spoke at the Prayer Breakfast in Washington in February emphasizing the importance of developing religious harmony.

"We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together... the Golden Rule--the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth."

"It is an ancient rule; a simple rule; but also one of the most challenging. For it asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know or worship with or agree with on every issue. Sometimes, it asks us to reconcile with bitter enemies or resolve ancient hatreds. And that requires a living, breathing, active faith. It requires us not only to believe, but to do - to give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world."

These doubtless fine words presumably are deeply believed by the president; however--and it is a vital "however," such "leave well enough alone" logic requires immense restraint by those who believe themselves the recipients of God-given truths that either (a) must be vigorously shared with non-believers if necessary by force; or (b) are not open to compromise with non-believers. And when compromise is accepted at the cost of your soul and/or eternal damnation, the incentive to compromise disappears. It is easy to compromise when the topic under discussion is not existential for the discussants.

The UDHR and its core values, including non-discrimination, equality, fairness and universality, apply to everyone, everywhere and always. The Declaration continues to affirm the inherent human dignity and worth of every person, without distinction of any kind. Independent courts must be vigilant in their roles--always resisting pressure from the executive or inflamed public opinion. Unfortunately, even this "given" requires caveat--courts have judges and justices with agendas beyond the abstract perfection of The Law, and higher courts reverse lower courts. Which law, e.g. Sharia, is operative will often determine the verdict.

Ultimately to protect our human rights, we must be prepared to defend those of others. We must be prepared to defend the rights of everyone for due process and a fair defense vigorously. We only have true religious freedom when we allow others the freedom to choose their beliefs-or non-beliefs--based on our common and fundamental pursuit of a better world with legal equality for all. Only when we protect the dignity of all members of the human family do we truly enjoy our own.



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