Human Rights

Concerned about "quagmire" in human rights, Baha'is launch new discourse

NEW YORK - Concerned that the goal of establishing a universal standard for human rights has become mired in competing international agendas, the Bahá'í International Community has launched an initiative to explore how best to strengthen the promotion of human rights and ensure their central place in the governance of human affairs.

"It is alarmingly apparent that human rights are being assaulted from all sides," said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community, at the opening session of the first effort in this new initiative, a "Human Rights Discourse," held 19-22 May 2008 at the BIC offices here.

"Human rights mechanisms have proven incapable of addressing, much less preventing, violations on a massive scale," said Ms. Dugal, while the elimination of various forms of discrimination "has yet to be manifested in spirit and in formal processes."

In launching a new discourse on human rights, Ms. Dugal said, the goal is "to begin to chart a course out of the quagmire in which human rights matters are bogged down."

Against that backdrop, the May event brought together some 30 individuals who specialize in human rights, international law, and social action to discuss the challenges facing the advancement of human rights and how the vision for a universal standard might be realized.

Participants, who came from 12 countries, included representatives of UN missions, officials of UN agencies, academics, and activists from human rights-oriented non-governmental organizations, along with one journalist. Many had prepared discussion papers in advance of the meeting.

The focus was on three themes: reconciling rights with responsibilities; the challenge of implementing the emerging doctrine of "responsibility to protect"; and how to safeguard established rights currently under threat.

The format of the meeting was informal, using a modified version of the Chatham House rules that gave participants the choice to remain anonymous in the attribution of their remarks, allowing them to engage in a free-flowing conversation without fear of offending particular governments or organizations.

While the discourse produced no formal outcome document, there was a rich exchange of ideas. A number of points emerged:

  • That rights and duties are interdependent among all actors in society, whether government, corporate, or individual. All human beings have a moral obligation to respect, uphold and defend the rights of others, especially in view of the principle of collective trusteeship, an understanding that every human being is born into the world as a trust of the whole.
  • Nevertheless, states have a primary responsibility to respect and protect human rights. In doing so, they must consider the human rights of individuals outside their borders. States should support the United Nations in protecting endangered populations, including responsibilities to prevent, react and rebuild, despite the costs and risks to personnel.
  • The attempts of governments who are committing human rights violations to enlist the support of other rights-violating governments should be resisted. Efforts must be made to ensure that the Human Rights Council is not politicized in this way.
  • An important step toward creating and implementing a universal standard of human rights is the involvement of individuals and organizations at all levels of society, through processes that emphasize the moral, legal, and religious foundation of human rights.

Humanitarian intervention

The discussion of the emerging doctrine of "the responsibility to protect" was among the most lively, as participants debated whether states should intervene militarily to protect populations whose rights are being violated or whether traditional norms of state sovereignty should hold sway. The doctrine is sometimes known as "humanitarian intervention."

Participants brought up real world examples, such as Darfur and Rwanda, as well as the humanitarian crisis that followed Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar last May, saying the international community should have felt the obligation to intervene militarily to prevent bloodshed or a larger crisis.

Others noted the complexities of such actions. "We should not be too euphoric about this abstract notion," said one participant, noting that, for example, it would have taken a huge military force to intervene in Burma if the military regime there wanted to fight. "The people with guns on the ground control relief."

National politics also prevents states from acting on a strictly moral plane. "People will recall that in Somalia, it took the deaths of just a few US military personnel to freeze the United States out," continued the same individual.

Nevertheless, participants agreed, the international community needs to find ways to strengthen its commitment to the responsibility to protect. "One dimension is winning support from the local population," said a participant who is a legal specialist in humanitarian intervention. "How do we inspire people around the world to support their governments in giving aid or sending in troops?"

Freedom of religion or belief

Another vigorously discussed topic concerned how to promote freedom of religion or belief. "Our laws, both national and international, loudly speak of freedom of religion with all its essential attributes, but our day-to-day practices evidence widely prevalent inhumanities and human miseries emanating from religious intolerance and discrimination," wrote one participant, in a paper prepared for the discourse.

Several participants noted that freedom of religion or belief has become something of a "second-class citizen" within the realm of human rights, in part because any dialogue about religion often becomes contested. As a result, the issue is often swept under the rug.

"It is very difficult to mobilize big, international non-governmental organizations on questions of freedom of religion or belief," said one participant. "It is very normal to be defended if you hold a political idea. But if you have a religion, they say, why don't you just hide that fact?"

One way to better enforce current laws on freedom of religion or belief, participants said, would be for the UN Human Rights Council to demand information on the efforts of governments to protect the right to change one's religion as part of the Council's periodic review mechanism.

A third area of discussion concerned the right to development. Participants called it complex and noted it means different things to different people in different places. The promotion of development is dependent not only upon the states but also supporting actors, such as the United Nations, multinational corporations, NGOs, and individuals. There is no way to assure human rights without international cooperation and an enabling environment, participants said.

The Bahá'í International Community intends to continue the discourse on human rights with further gatherings and activities in other places, said Ms. Dugal.

"Several participants said they saw the discourse as a way to help bridge the divide between north and south in discussions on human rights, and as a way to bring different coalitions together," she said.

"And we see this as an organic, ongoing process," said Ms. Dugal. "Our hope is to bring together and consult with more specialists on human rights, including those who work on the front lines as defenders at the national and even local levels."