Religion and Human Rights: The challenges of universalism and cultural particularism

Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chairperson of the UN Human Rights Commission and a driving force behind the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, holds the finished document. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Tuesday 10 December 2013 is World Human Rights Day, marking the 65th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly vote to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In recognition of this milestone, this week The Religion Factor features a series of reflections from scholars and practitioners on the relationship between religion and human rights, particularly in developing contexts. In today’s post, Erin Wilson reflects on the debate over whether human rights really are universal and the role that religions can play in relating values and rights from their particular cultural contexts to the universal and back again.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a remarkable document. It reflects almost two years of discussion, debate, conflict, consensus and, not least of all, a strong desire on the part of leading thinkers, politicians and activists of the late 1940s to promote the protection of certain rights of all people across all cultures, regardless of the state in which they lived or the style of government under which they found themselves. While the project at the time was a low priority for the United Nations and the major powers, the document has since become “the single most important reference point for cross-national discussions of how to order our future together on our conflict-ridden and increasingly interdependent planet.”[1]

Yet the UDHR is also a document that has been dogged by controversy since before its inception, with numerous scholars and politicians claiming that there is in fact nothing universal about the UDHR, that human rights are highly culturally relative and, at worst, that the UDHR is simply Western imperialism in another form. Given the multiplicity and diversity of cultures around the world, is it conceivable that we could identify even one right that is shared across these different contexts?

The drafters of the UDHR had this question at the forefront of their minds as they began their discussions. When the UDHR was put to a vote in the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, the UN had 58 member states from across North and South America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Oceania,[2] and number that has since grown to 193.[3] In putting the draft together, the committee consulted “all the world’s existing constitutions and rights instruments, as well as the suggestions that had poured into the [United Nations] Secretariat from members of the [Human Rights] Commission, outside organizations, and even from various interested individuals.”[4] To this already comprehensive list of documents was added responses to a questionnaire, developed by the UNESCO Committee on the Theoretical Bases for Human Rights. These responses came from “Chinese [including Confucian], Islamic, Hindu and customary law perspectives, as well as from American, European, and socialist points of view” and they included responses from such noted thinkers of the day as Gandhi and Aldous Huxley.[5]

The UNESCO Committee concluded that it was indeed possible to achieve consensus on certain rights across different cultures, but how deep that consensus went was another matter. The contested nature of universality is summed up succinctly in a story attributed to Jacques Maritain, a French Catholic theologian who was a member of the UNESCO committee. When a visitor to the committee expressed astonishment that so many different cultures and religious traditions could reach universal consensus on a vast number of ethical issues, Maritain commented ‘‘Yes, we agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the ‘why,’ the dispute begins’’.[6] The rights included in the UDHR were held to be universal, but their justification was and continues to be highly particular. As such, it may be the dilemma over the justification of the rights rather than the rights themselves that has led to charges of the UDHR being highly Western and a form of Western imperialism.[7] While the sources of many of the rights set out in the UDHR exist in some form or another across many cultures, the idea of “rights” themselves is a relatively modern European legal and philosophical development.[8] The challenge for activists, thinkers, politicians and all concerned with upholding the dignity of human beings in their own cultural contexts and to support others to do so in different contexts is then in some ways how to establish a channel for conversation across highly particular cultural discussions of human dignity and freedom, the universalist language of global debates on these issues and promote transnational solidarity.

The transnational nature of the world’s religions suggests they may offer one means of addressing the problem identified by Jacques Maritain of answering ‘‘why’’ we agree on certain rights. Religions can provide the culturally specific and sensitive response to the question of why certain rights present in the UDHR and other internationally agreed on human rights documents are important and relevant. Here are just a few examples of ways in which this occurs in practice. In Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, international NGOs are using connections with local religious communities to promote alternative approaches for addressing the HIV and AIDS pandemic in these countries.[9] World Vision International have developed a highly successful education and training program, Channels of Hope, which explicitly utilizes the scriptures and doctrines of Christianity and Islam to address attitudes of stigmatization and marginalization amongst religious leaders in developing communities to promote the rights of women, LGBT rights and the rights of children, amongst others, on issues such as gender violence, HIV/AIDS and maternal and child health.[10] Ecology movements in Thailand have made use of Buddhist rituals by ordaining trees to promote environmental protection alongside the rights of future generations to a sustainable society.[11]

Conversely, religions can also translate particularist moral standpoints into principles that may be widely, even universally, accepted.[12] Religions are able to provide this conduit because religions themselves can be both universal and particular. Religions, despite being different ethical, historical, and transcendental belief systems, are not necessarily incompatible with one another. Religions can be seen as ‘‘resourceful witnesses that attest to shared human experience’’.[13]

The Jubilee 2000 campaign on debt relief provides an example where religion both translates a particular value into a universal context and universal values into particular contexts. The Jubilee debt campaign utilized a specific, particular religious principle from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the year of Jubilee, to promote a universal global justice agenda for the cancellation of Third World debt thereby contributing to addressing abject poverty and promoting human dignity and flourishing. This demonstrates how particular religious values can be translated into universally acceptable principles. On the other hand, by framing the issue of debt relief in religious terms, campaigners in the United States were able to generate significant grassroots support and lobbying action for international debt relief.[14] The framing of debt relief in religious terms also assisted in gaining support from significant political ‘‘gatekeepers,’’ who could support or veto bills in Congress on the debt relief issue, such as Senators Jesse Helms and Spencer Bachus.[15]

This is not to say that religions should be universalized or that we should develop and promote international human rights institutions that are overtly religious. We cannot ignore the immense damage and injustice that has been done in the past when religions have attempted to impose their beliefs, values and practices on other cultures. I am not at all suggesting that religious frameworks and mechanisms should replace secular approaches and methods in the promotion of human rights. What I am suggesting is that religions present a useful channel for dialogue on the particularity and universality of rights and their justifications. Rather, religious and secular frameworks should instead complement one another and work together in ongoing discussions about what human rights are, which rights are significant and important in particular contexts and why.

Yet utilizing religions as a bridge across universal values and rights and particular local cultural contexts may require something of a shift in the way we think about human rights. There is a general assumption, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, that human rights are largely a product of the secular Enlightenment. As such, the move by faith-based development organizations and religious institutions to promote human rights is often interpreted as the secularization of religious beliefs:

‘Instead of speaking of “the laws of God,” “the rules of the church,” more and more frequently representatives of the Catholic Church refer to “human rights” and to “human values,” without mentioning a specific doctrinal background. Using such neutral language, the Catholic Church seems to enlarge its credibility in the eyes of the political actors’.[16]

Such views not only position the secular as neutral in comparison to religion, they also do not allow for the dynamism in religious traditions themselves. Attitudes and behaviours that scholars consider ‘secular’ may be different from what a faith community considered ‘religious’ a century ago, for example, but are entirely consistent with what they consider ‘religious’ today. Further, such a shift in the beliefs and values of religious communities may not necessarily be a secularizing of their beliefs but a ‘reclaiming’ of beliefs and values previously lost. John Carlson has highlighted that the concept of human rights is underpinned by a belief in the sanctity and sacredness of the human being – a belief that resonates in multiple religious traditions that hold that human beings are in some sense sacred, regardless of the reason why they are sacred.[17] In this way, the notion of human rights may be considered to be both ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ at one and the same time. Such insights challenge us to think about the multiplicity of ways – religious, secular, political, cultural, and many others besides – to promote human rights, dignity and flourishing in a pluralist, multicultural and diverse global society.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen

[1] M.A. Glendon, 2001. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: Random House, ppxv-xv

[2] Ibid, p50, 259

[4] Glendon, 2001, p56

[5] Ibid, p73

[6] P.A. Brink, “Debating International Human Rights” Faith and International Affairs 1(2): 17, emphasis in original. See also Glendon, 2001, p 77

[7] Glendon, op cit, p223-233; Schweiker, William. (2004) A Preface to Ethics: Global Dynamics and the Integrity of Life. Journal of Religious Ethics 32 (1), 28

[8] Glendon, op cit, p73

[9] M. Marshall and N. Taylor, 2006. “Tackling HIV and AIDS with Faith-Based Communities: Learning from Attitudes on Gender Relations and Sexual Rights within Local Evangelical Churches in Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, and South Africa”. Gender and Development 14 (3): 363–374.

[11] S. M. Darlington. 1998. “The Ordination of a Tree: The Buddhist Ecology Movement in Thailand”. Ethnology 37 (1): 1–15

[12] Schweiker, op cit, p28

[13] K. Jung, 2006. “Common Morality, Premoral Goods, and Religion” in Humanity Before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics, edited by William Schweiker, Michael A. Johnson and Kevin Jung. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, p204

[14] J.W.Busby. 2007. “Bono Made Jesse Helms Cry: Jubilee 2000, Debt Relief, and Moral Action in International Politics” International Studies Quarterly 51 (2), p266

[15] Ibid, p268

[16] L. Voye, 1999, ‘Secularization in a Context of Advanced Modernity’Sociology of Religion 60(3), p278

[17] J. D. Carlson. 2003. ‘Trials, Tribunals and Tribulations of Sovereignty: Crimes Against Humanity and the Imago Dei’ in John D. Carlson and Erik C. Owens (eds). The Sacred and the Sovereign: Religion and International Politics. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press pp. 199-200.