UN rights declaration under threat: Glendon

22 Oct 2008

By The Record

Some Islamic cultures say UN rights document not universal.


Mary Ann Glendon


ROME (CNS) – Sixty years after the creation of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the document is under threat, several speakers said at a conference celebrating its anniversary.
The presumption that this landmark list of basic fundamental principles is a Western, Judeo-Christian invention and therefore would be inapplicable to Eastern, especially Islamic, cultures seems to be on the rise, they said.
The US Embassy to the Vatican, with support from the Knights of Columbus, sponsored an October 16 conference titled For Everyone, Everywhere: Universal Human Rights and the Challenge of Diversity, one of three conferences the embassy was organising this year to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN declaration.
US Ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon said the UN commission charged with drawing up a sort of “international bill of rights” asked philosophers if there were rights or values that people from different cultures, religions and political bents could agree on as universal.
With input from Confucian, Hindu, Muslim and Christian officials and scholars from around the world, the philosophers determined “that even people who seem to be far apart in theory can agree that certain things are so terrible in practice that no one will openly approve them and that certain things are so good in practice that no one will openly oppose them,” she said.
The agreement that there did exist “basic concepts of human decency” led to the drafting of 30 articles adopted by the UN General Assembly by a vote of 48-0.
Glendon said the nations abstaining from the vote were the six Soviet states, South Africa and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia objected to the articles on women’s rights and religious freedom; South Africa at the time ruled with apartheid and could not accept the concept of equality.
Sixty years later, the communist bloc has crumbled and apartheid has been dismantled, but Saudi Arabia “is indeed the Middle East’s black hole when it comes to human rights” by denying women and non-Muslims even the most basic rights of freedom of movement and expression, said Habib Malik, a professor at Beirut’s Lebanese American University.
Malik, whose father Charles helped draft the UN declaration, said the human rights record of many Middle Eastern countries “is close to abysmal.”
The reason why governments tend to be repressive and human rights are violated there is not because the people do not desire greater openness, he said.
It is “the combination of ideologically driven extremists, and a narrow-minded and conservative clerical establishment that thwarts any serious efforts” to overcome intimidating practices of the ruling regimes, he said.
Malik said the main reason a democratic culture cannot take root easily in the Middle East is because certain concepts – individual rights, non-Islamic law and the separation of religion from politics – “are considered alien or flatly unacceptable” from an Islamic perspective.
So while “the external husks of the democratic process,” such as political campaigns and elections, can make modest progress in parts of the Middle East, the basic democratic values of equality and freedom “get consistently left behind,” he said.
Some countries, like Iran, said they cannot adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as it would violate Islamic law and is based on Judeo-Christian tradition, he said. Iran has claimed the UN document can be violated because it is a man-made list of conventions while Islamic law, or Shariah, comes from a divine source.
He said member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in 1990 supported an alternative document, called the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which challenges the universality of the UN document’s belief in basic, inherent rights.
Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, said today marks “a time of testing and peril for human rights.”
Those who created the declaration after World War II did so to prevent the emergence of “more Hitlers, Stalins” and other tyrants and dictators, she said.
Part of the problem, she said, is the UN’s inability to prevent or stop modern-day genocides and other tragedies as it is “paralysed by the nature of its own structure and the ineptness that flows from the bloated bureaucratisation of the organisation itself.”
Elshtain also said so-called “positive rights,” such as the right to a paid vacation or free education, are more appropriately called “entitlements” and would be considered culturally specific.
However, she said, negative rights – such as the right not to be raped, killed or tortured for political reasons – are the natural right of every human and are therefore universal.
These fundamental human rights “are not arbitrarily invented because it just happened to be a good idea at a certain point in time,” Elshtain said. They “would exist even without state sanction” because they are “divinely sanctioned” rights derived from human nature, she said.
Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told conference participants that together with claiming one’s own rights comes the duty of respecting the rights of others.
He said the Church has been making a valuable contribution in “filling the gap between the letter and the spirit of human rights,” but it is also up to “public and private organisations to be at the service of the dignity and destiny of man.”
“No effort should be spared to banish every vestige of social and political slavery and to safeguard basic human rights under every political system.”