Faith in Human Rights

I suggest that despite all the conflicts and obvious difficulties we face, we can find hope in the revolution in human rights law which we have witnessed in the latter half of the twentieth century and in the strong support for human rights today among religious leaders of different traditions. In our world today, there is a common faith in human rights, which transcends the divisions of culture, class, country, and creed.

International Human Rights Law

We see this, first, in the development of international human rights law over the last forty-five years. International human rights law was developed along with the United Nations after World War II. The Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe showed clearly that state laws could be manipulated to justify the greatest of atrocities. Some global standard of morality and law was needed to judge such practices, and so in 1948 the new United Nations passed without dissenting vote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the next twenty years major treaties among the member states of the United Nations implemented this declaration. Now there is a clear body of international law defining fundamental human rights. John Humphrey, the great Canadian diplomat and human rights advocate, argues that this is no less than "a revolution in the theory and practice of international law." Today no nation can claim with any legal justification that it has the right to do with its citizens as it likes, as a matter of its domestic affairs. Now each citizen of the world can assert that she, or he, has human rights that transcend the authority of every government.

In its essence international human rights law is an attempt to protect and promote the social conditions for human dignity. It is a modern language about the true and the right. It affords protection for diverse religious and cultural practices, but it also clearly affirms the human dignity of all persons and declares degrading and discriminatory treatment of any person to be contrary to human dignity.

For instance, not only is religious freedom affirmed under international law, but the equal rights of women and men are also asserted, even as slavery and torture is condemned. In addition, the social and economic rights to work, health care, and social security balance the civil and political rights of freedom of speech and assembly. International human rights law is an attempt to protect the fundamental human dignity of each person and the diversity of cultures and traditions that shape the human communities of the world.

Human rights law represents not only a shared set of moral convictions but is also a faith. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains the following statement: "the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom . . ..”

As there was no legal precedent in 1948 for this affirmation of human rights, and as there was no philosophy or religious creed shared by the representatives of the world community who approved it, the drafters candidly admitted that their support for human rights was a leap of faith. They asserted that the world community should place its trust in a rule of law, which protects the human dignity of its peoples and their individual members.

Religious Support for Human Rights

This faith in now shared by many religious leaders as well. Religious communities have often been opposed to human rights, because assertions of rights have frequently been directed at religious authorities and have supported the secular ordering of society. At the time of the Universal Declaration, both Muslims and Roman Catholics objected to the document on the grounds that it did not recognize that all rights come from God. It should be noted, however, that liberal religious leaders were in the forefront in lobbying the United Nations to pass the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Moreover, today in most of the world's traditions, there is strong support for human rights among religious leaders who see the ethical standards of human rights law as representing a modern form of their religious teachings. I have documented this at some length in my book Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle (Georgetown University Press, 1991). This fundamental agreement, among religious leaders who differ in many ways and who represent traditions which historically have been opposed to the movement for greater human freedom, is surprising and encouraging. It suggests that the faith in human rights asserted through the acts of the United Nations, by supporters of the Universal Declaration and its implementing covenants, is shared as well by many religious leaders.

This agreement among religious leaders provides a foundation for international human rights law, which otherwise rests only on the consent of the government officials who have supported it. Religious leaders assert that human rights are grounded in the sacred ordering of the world, which may be known through their scriptures, precepts and practices. From diverse theological and philosophical perspectives, they assert that human dignity is fundamental to the purpose of life, and so they support human rights as the social conditions necessary for this human dignity.

Of course, there are also disagreements among religious leaders who support human rights. Not all agree that religious freedom ought to include the right to convert individuals from their religious tradition to another. Not all accept that women should have equal rights with men. Not all agree that adversarial procedures should replace consensual practices in the resolution of conflicts over human rights. However, these are arguments among many religious leaders who generally support the Universal Declaration and its implementing covenants, rather than objections made by those who repudiate international human rights law because it is secular or because it reflects the philosophy of cultures different from their own.

The Human Rights Experiment

To be sure, there are many problems in enforcing human rights. Torture, virtual slavery in employment, discrimination against women, the denial of civil and political rights as well as the lack of protection for economic and social rights, these are obvious to even the most casual observer. Such human rights violations are a result of human greed, lust for power, and the absence of the rule of law in many countries. Moreover, there is no world government that can exercise coercion to enforce international human rights law.

The lack of world government has meant that international law is uniquely an experiment in non-violent action. Its procedures and reporting mechanisms constitute a moral process that seeks to reinforce good conduct among states and to shame those who engage in inhumane behavior. It recognizes the force of evil in the world, but it is fundamentally a positive response that assumes that human beings are capable of doing what is true and right. Although it is too early to judge this experiment in non-violence an unqualified success, clearly the revolution in human rights standards and the support among both religious and secular leaders, indicates that this experiment in non-violence is worthy of our support and trust.

Faith and Hope

Let us then join with others in expressing our faith in human rights by supporting international human rights law and by working within our political and religious communities to strengthen its enforcement. Knowing the enormous capacity for evil which darkens the human spirit, let us nonetheless put our trust in human goodness, representative government, and in the capacity of religious communities to renew the deeper and more humane teachings of their traditions.

We can take hope from the rapid development of human rights standards in the latter half of the twentieth century. We can draw strength from the commitment of people all over the globe to the struggle for human rights and for a way of ordering life that protects the environment. We can find inspiration in the sacrifice of so many to save the children and the animals and the trees and the life of the earth community.

Our challenge now is to extend the great non-violent experiment of our time beyond human rights to embrace the life of the earth and all who share in its wondrous community. When I began my work with the International Association for Religious Freedom at the 1990 IARF Congress, I concluded my acceptance speech with the following words, which Marcus Braybrooke has very kindly reprinted in his recent book, Pilgrimage of Hope: One Hundred Years of Global Interfaith Dialogue (Crossroad, 1992).

"My friends, it is up to us. All we need do is love our children and our grandchildren, and then live so that they may live. All we need do is love the flowers and the birds and cherish their beauty and their music, and then live so that they may live. All we need do is love our religious and cultural traditions, our hymns and our chants, our prayers and our precepts, our scriptures and our sutras, our rituals and our rites, and then live so that we all may live. All we need do is love our God and our world, the heavens and the earth, the seas and the soil, and then live so that all life may live.” 

Montreal, Canada - 1992 © Robert Traer 2016