In The Hague, religious leaders pledge support for universal human rights

In Brief: 

Excerpts from the 2008 Faith in Human Rights statement

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we ... pronounce and confirm that our religions recognize and support the human rights and fundamental freedoms of every human person, alone or in community with others.

We recognize our responsibility towards our believers and to the world at large and reaffirm our intention to take all necessary steps both within our communities and in co-operation with others to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms for each and every person, irrespective of religion or belief.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrates the dignity of the human person, irrespective of religion, race, sex or other distinctions.

We wish to emphasize the importance of two of its principles: that every person enjoys the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of religion or belief.

The rights, freedoms and obligations laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are recognized all over the world. Nevertheless, they are not fully accepted everywhere. We observe tensions with regard to a number of specific rights, such as the freedom of religion or belief, the principle of equality and the prohibition of torture. We wish to state clearly that the Declaration should not be regarded as a "pick-and-choose' list.

Among the charter signers of the Faith in Human Rights statement were:

  • His Eminence Ayatollah al-Uzma Al-Sheikh Bashir Hussain Al-Najafi / Grand Ayatollah of Hawza Al-Najaf, Iraq
  • His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso / 14th Dalai Lama
  • The Most Revd and Rt Hon. Dr. Rowan Williams / Archbishop of Canterbury
  • His Excellency Dr. Gerard J.N. de Korte / Bishop of Groningen, The Netherlands
  • Rev. Master Zhi Wang Lee / Founder / President Taoist Mission Singapore
  • Grandmother Mona Polacca / Hopi / Havasupai / Tewa Elder
  • His Holiness Drikung Skyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche / Supreme Head of the Drikung Kagyu Order of Buddhism
  • His Eminence Bishop Charles E. Blake / Presiding Bishop, Church of God in Christ International
  • Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie / President, Union for Reform Judaism
  • His All Holiness Bartholomew / Ecumenical Patriarch
  • Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia / General Secretary, World Council of Churches
  • Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Henry Sacks / Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth
  • His Holiness Sri Swami Dayananda Saraswati / Convener of the Acharya Sabha
  • The Right Reverend Bishop Athenagoras / Bishop of Sinope (Belgium)
  • Ms. Bani Dugal / Principal Representative of Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations

At an international interfaith conference on "Faith in Human Rights," religious leaders pledge to uphold the Universal Declaration and freedom of religion or belief

THE HAGUE, Netherlands - As the seat of the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration and several other institutions devoted to the nonviolent resolution of conflict, the Peace Palace here stands as more than a majestic building - for many it also symbolizes the ideal that it is possible to build a world without war.

In that light, the Palace seems an appropriate place for the signing of a ground-breaking statement on human rights and religious freedom by a group of religious leaders representing every major independent world religion.

Gathered for the signing were representatives of the Bahá'í Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, indigenous religions, Islam, and Taoism. Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands was also present on 10 December 2008, a date which intentionally coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The resulting 2008 Faith in Human Rights statement represents the first time such a diverse and high level group of religious representatives has explicitly endorsed the UDHR, and specifically stressed the importance of the freedom of religion or belief.

"We consider the freedom to have, to retain and to adopt a religion or belief of one's personal choice, without coercion or inducement, to be an undeniable right," says the statement.

The statement also emphasizes the universality of human rights.

"The rights, freedoms and obligations laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are recognized all over the world," says the statement. "Nevertheless, they are not fully accepted everywhere. We observe tensions with regard to a number of specific rights, such as the freedom of religion or belief, the principle of equality and the prohibition of torture.

"We wish to state clearly that the Declaration should not be regarded as a ‘pick-and-choose' list. There is an urgent need for a thorough reflection on the integral acceptance of each right."

In speeches at the ceremony, leaders both religious and secular hailed the statement as a milestone in the promotion of human rights, and especially freedom of religion or belief.

"A crucial moment"

"This is a crucial moment to affirm these principles," said Maxime Verhagen, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs. "Because unfortunately, respect for freedom of religion and belief is declining in many parts of the world. The position of religious minorities in particular is increasingly under threat."

However, said Minister Verhagen, "you are telling the world that religion and human rights are not in conflict, that in fact religion can be a major source of legitimacy for human rights."

Swami Dayananda Saraswati, a noted Hindu leader, said the statement is "especially important" because "it states that human rights embody universal values, valid for everyone. This implies that we do not accept that there would be double standards in values; thus, not one set of values for believers and another set for non-believers."

Adopted by the United Nations in 1948, the UDHR lists some 30 rights as a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations," including "the right to life, liberty and security of person," equality before the law, freedom of movement, the right to work, the right to education, and the "right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion."

The event was organized by Justitia et Pax (Justice and Peace Netherlands) in cooperation with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Justitia et Pax is the Dutch Catholic human rights organization, established by the Catholic Bishops Conference of The Netherlands.

Jonneke Naber of Justitia et Pax said the aims of the conference and statement were to stimulate human rights awareness within religious communities, to serve as the basis for further debate on common principles and practices, and to inspire believers to promote human dignity and human rights.

In a background paper she wrote for the event, Ms. Naber noted that more than three-fourths of the world's population follows one of the world religions, and said that religious leaders and communities "play an essential - sometimes very discrete - role in processes of social transformation."

"Faith-based organizations are often close to poor and less privileged people," wrote Ms. Naber. "Religious leaders have moral authority among large groups of people and have, in many cases, made statements against poverty and injustice and in favor of the protection of human rights. Furthermore, they often fulfill a role in encouraging their religious communities to actively work for the improvement of their societies. Support from all religions worldwide is therefore essential for the implementation of human rights."

One example of a new group lending its support to the issue was in the participation of Bishop Charles E. Blake, a major leader in the Christian Pentecostal movement. He is listed as a charter signatory and, in a videotaped speech to the conference, he said: "Basic human rights must be upheld and supported by religious people everywhere."

Paul Alexander, a professor of Theology and Ethics at Azusa Pacific University in California, said "Pentecostal involvement is an amazing development."

"There are approximately six hundred million Pentecostals in the world - 25% of all Christians," said Prof. Alexander. "They have traditionally not been involved in support of justice initiatives, peacemaking, and human rights advocacy at this level. Bishop Blake's endorsement, as the Presiding Bishop of the largest American Pentecostal denomination, might serve to encourage other Pentecostal leaders and communities to support international cooperation."

Nazila Ghanea, a lecturer at Oxford University who specializes in human rights said the event and statement were significant for exactly that reason - that religious leaders have such a profound impact on the thinking of their communities.

"It is very significant, also, because religious communities are often criticized for failing to respect or support human rights," said Dr. Ghanea. "So this is kind of a counter force to that. Especially in the context of the unfortunate link between religion and interfaith conflict at the communal level, this kind of a signal from an international gathering like this is very positive."

Against "cultural relativism"

Some participants said the statement was also significant for its effort to dismiss the idea of "cultural relativism" with respect to human rights. The term is often understood as a code word for the idea that different religious traditions or cultural experiences give license to some regions or nations to emphasize some rights and discard others, such as, for example, the equality of women.

"The rights, freedoms and obligations laid down in the Declaration are ‘universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated,'" said Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, using language from the 1993 Vienna Declaration on Human Rights, which itself sought to put notions of cultural relativism to rest.

"Despite the national and regional particularities, as well as historical, cultural and religious backgrounds of many, arguments regarding the cultural relativity of human rights should not be encouraged," said Rev. Kobia.

Bani Dugal, who signed the statement on behalf of the Bahá'í International Community, said it was significant that the statement, with its strong support for the universality of human rights, was signed by such a diverse group of religious representatives. "They are, for the most part, genuine leaders in their communities," said Ms. Dugal. "So it very much strikes back at this idea that rights are related to culture and traditions, or regional views."