The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 without dissent. It proclaimed: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.....Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."
Article 18 deals with religion: 'Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes...freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.'
The drafters, which included the Canadian John Humphrey, hoped that it would quickly be followed by a more detailed listing of rights in a legally binding form, but it was not until 1966 that the two international human rights' covenants - the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)- were adopted. Almost a full decade later, the covenants finally came into force.
The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief was passed in 1981, primarily because the UN General Assembly was concerned about continuing intolerance and discrimination based on beliefs. It provides for the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and seeks to ensure that no-one should be discriminated against because of their beliefs.
The General Assembly reaffirmed this Declaration in December 1997 in a resolution that focuses on encouraging states to provide within their legal systems genuine freedom of thought, conscience and religion and effective redress against violations...The United Nations has to date been unable to codify the Declaration into a more binding document.
The protection of human dignity, including religious freedom, is normally more effective in countries where there are independent judicial systems, including effective and sensible human rights commissions. I am proud of the fact that Canada has been a leader in upholding the rights promoted in the UDHR. We are also a strong supporter of international efforts aimed at protecting human rights by establishing substantive judicial independence.
In Ottawa, for example, some of you may have observed the case of Momin Khawaja, who was convicted last October of participating in, contributing to, financing and facilitating a group of British extremists plotting to bomb London and other British targets in 2004. Even though the crimes he has been convicted of might have caused much loss of life, our legal system ensured his rights to a vigorous defence and due process. Lawrence Greenspon, Khawaja's lawyer, provided the world an exemplary demonstration of the importance of a person's right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty.
Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, human dignity backed by an independent judiciary remains a distant dream. Many individuals have paid terrible prices for their courageous pursuit of what we Canadians often take for granted.
Consider the renowned Gao Zhisheng, a Beijing lawyer and Nobel Peace prize nominee. In 2001, he was named one of China's top ten lawyers. He donated a third of his time to victims of human rights violations, representing miners, evicted tenants and others. When he attempted to defend members of the Falun Gong spiritual community, however, the party-state unleashed its full wrath. This included removing his permit to practise law, an attempt on his life, having police attack his wife and 13-year-old daughter and attempting to deny the family any income.
In 2006, he was sentenced to three years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power", although international pressure appears to have caused a suspension of the sentence for five years. Predictably, Gao did speak out again. In his most recent article a few weeks ago, he wrote about over 50 days of excruciating torture. He has since disappeared again, to the great concern of many in China and elsewhere. For his full account, please access "Dark Night, Dark Hood and Kidnapping by Dark Mafia" at www.david-kilgour.com in the Human Rights section.
The excuse used by the Chinese party-state for persecuting Gao Zhisheng is that Falun Gong must be eradicated. Falun Gong, as you may know, is an exercise and spiritual community, which promotes "truth, compassion and forbearance." Falun Gong is only one of the faith groups being persecuted in China. Many have criticized China for its persecution of spiritual communities.
UN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL UNIVERSAL PERIODIC REVIEW
I might note here that David Matas and I have expressed regret that the government of China has chosen to reject so quickly so many basic recommendations made in the report of the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, released on February 11th, including ones to:
1. guarantee all citizens of China the exercise of religious freedom, freedom of belief and freedom of worshipping in private. As Canada in its statement to the Working Group noted, respect for this freedom includes respecting the freedom of belief of Falun Gong practitioners;
2. publish death penalty statistics. As the UN rapporteur on torture Manfred Nowak and UN rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Asma Jahangir have both pointed out, the provision of these statistics is necessary to determine if any explanation can be given for the discrepancy in the number of transplants between the years 2000 to 2005 and the numbers from identifiable sources of organs for transplants other than Falun Gong practitioners.
3. abolish all forms of arbitrary detention. The detention of large numbers of Falun Gong practitioners without charge and without information about their location facilitates their abuse.
4. implement the recommendations of the Committee against Torture of November 2008. The Committee had recommended that China conduct or commission an independent investigation of the claims that some Falun Gong practitioners have been subjected to torture and used for organ transplants and take measures, as appropriate, to ensure that those responsible for such abuses are prosecuted and punished, and
5. take effective measures to ensure that lawyers can defend their clients without fear of harassment. Gao Zhisheng is only one of a number of courageous lawyers.
Religious Freedom and Social Harmony
Beijing's party-state has allies, who are themselves invariably guilty of gross and systematic human rights violations against their own peoples. One of them, Iran, has often used religion as an excuse to persecute its own people and to confront other nations.
Iran, of course, is not alone in using religion to justify crimes against their people and humanity in general. Harvey Milk once argued: "More people have been slaughtered in the name of religion than any other single reason." Lyon Roth quite properly pointed out last night that since WW2 as many persons as perished in the Holocaust have died around the world in other genocides.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who spoke last week at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, noted the obvious: religion, he said, is "an excuse for so much evil."
In my opinion, using religion as cover for evil stems from the doctrine that religions are exclusive. Religious extremists deny the rights of others whose beliefs or non-beliefs are different from their own. This is offensive to the principles of the UDHR as it is offensive to the basic foundation of all religions, which is love for all humanity.
The Qur'an, for example, declares that: "if anyone saves a person it will be as if he has saved the whole of humanity". In Hinduism, we are called to live "beyond the reach of I and mine"; in Buddhism, we are asked to "practise compassion." The Sikh scripture advises us that "God's bounties are common to all. It is we who have created divisions. "
Tony Blair shared the story of Rabbi Hillel, who was once challenged by someone who said: 'if you can recite the whole of the Torah standing on one leg, I will convert to being a Jew'. Rabbi Hillel stood on one leg and said "That which is hateful to you, do it not unto your neighbour. That is the Torah. Everything else is commentary. Go and study it."
Religious freedom is about acknowledging and respecting others' rights to choose a different belief as long as the belief serves as an instrument of god's unconditional love. If we grant such freedom to each other, harmony among religions will become reality.
In our daily lives, how do we achieve such harmony? I'll attempt to deal first with building harmony among the three Abrahamic religions.
A seminar at the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa was told several years ago that one of the major causes of violence in the Middle East was the widespread view that Jews and Muslims do not worship the same God. This misunderstanding, we were told, encourages members of both faith communities to dehumanize and thus to demonize followers of the other. When added to other regional issues, the result is terrible murders, bloodshed and mayhem often involving children and mothers.
In reality, we Jews, Muslims and Christians worship the same God, albeit in different ways and with differing emphasis. Each of our great monotheistic faiths believes that life has profound value and meaning. The widespread profound ignorance about each other is a major obstacle to mutual respect and building harmony. All of us must work harder in this new century to eliminate this knowledge deficit.
There is another important area of misunderstanding among all three religions: the large differences of viewpoints within each of them. No one has written about this sensitive issue more perceptively than Karen Armstrong in her book, The Battle for God, which examines why fundamentalism has grown in all three faiths. The Arab-Israeli conflict is one example she cites. It began as a secularist dispute on both sides, but today is seen through an almost exclusively faith prism by both sides. By the late 1970's, each of the three faiths in fact saw fundamentalism among its followers take centre stage.
How many Canadians know that about 50,000 Spanish Jews were welcomed by the Muslim Ottoman Empire when they were expelled from Spain after 1492? Centuries later, notes Armstrong, reform Judaism, especially in the U.S. after 1870, was progressive, liberal and disposed to privatize faith. Many believers in traditional Judaism felt themselves besieged and some even refused to participate in secular education or to participate in modern communities.
Many who led the movement to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, she asserts, were in fact atheists, who failed to understand that the land they sought was occupied by 750,000 Palestinian Arabs, who would be expelled from their homes in 1948. Religious Jews countered that secular nationalism in the Middle East or anywhere is usually a recipe for disaster for all. As we know, the past century is full of horrific acts, including genocides, committed by secular totalitarians.
The Battle for God notes that in the 16th century Muslims constituted approximately one third of the world's population. Three new Muslim empires were founded in that century alone: the Ottoman, the Safavid and the Moghul, with all three providing a cultural renewal comparable to that provided by, say, the Italian Renaissance.
I fast forward to 2009 because of limited time. According to Armstrong and many other commentators, fundamentalist Muslims around the world are today deeply concerned about two features of Western society:
1. the separation of religion from government/ politics;
2. they want their own communities to be governed by the laws of Islam (the Sharriah)
It is interesting that the five essential practices of Islam (prayers five times daily, declaring faith in the unity of God and the prophethood of Muhammad, paying a tax to ensure the fair distribution of community resources, observing the fast of Ramadan as a reminder of the difficulties of the poor, and visiting Mecca [if circumstances allow]) have some quite similar features in both Judaism and Christianity. Equally, some sacred events and other essences of these latter two faiths seem quite acceptable to Muslims generally.
I'd argue that believers of all three religions, each holding that humankind is no mere molecular accident, should agree on a host of issues, including the growing inequality of world incomes, the need to protect the natural environment, human dignity, and the necessity for peace and genuine harmony among all peoples and nations.
The rise of Christian fundamentalism, says Armstrong, parallels that of the two other religions, although I'll only mention a couple of features she cites of the American experience with it.
The 1787 Constitution of the Unites States does not mention God at all; the First Amendment formally separated religion from the state. By the middle of the 19th century, however, most Americans had become strongly Christian. The American Evangelicals, who seek a "righteous empire" based on Godly, not Enlightenment, concepts, became increasingly influential in the early part of the 20th century.
As Armstrong puts it, fundamentalism in all three faiths "exists in a symbiotic relationship with an aggressive liberalism or secularism, and under attack, increasingly becomes more extreme, bitter and excessive." During the 1960's and the 1970's in the U.S., faced with such an ethos, Protestant fundamentalists grew much more vocal. One of their major concerns was that the First Amendment was to protect religion from the state, not vice versa.
Post September 11
I've provided only samples from The Battle for God. The author's conclusion is that fundamentalists in all three religions have succeeded in rescuing their respective faiths from attempts to privatize or to suppress each of them. Fundamentalism is now part of the modern world, she concludes, and is here to stay.
Armstrong: "…the liberal myth that humanity is progressing to an ever more enlightened and tolerant state looks as fantastic as any of the other millennial myths we have considered in this book. Without the constraints of a higher mystical truth, reason can on occasion become demonic and count views that are as great, if not greater, than any of the atrocities perpetrated by fundamentalists."
Armstrong wrote her book before the events of September 11th, but some of the related points she makes still seem valid. First, liberals and fundamentalists in all three faiths must build bridges and attempt to avoid future confrontations. Each side must try to understand what motivates the other. Fundamentalists must develop a more compassionate assessment of their opponents to be true to their religion's traditions. Secularists, says Armstrong, "must be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance and respect for humanity which characterizes modern culture at its best, and address themselves more emphatically to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbours experience and which no society can safely ignore."
US President Barack Obama, who also spoke at the Prayer Breakfast in Washington , emphasized the importance of developing religious harmony.
"We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together... the Golden Rule - the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth."
"It is an ancient rule; a simple rule; but also one of the most challenging. For it asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know or worship with or agree with on every issue. Sometimes, it asks us to reconcile with bitter enemies or resolve ancient hatreds. And that requires a living, breathing, active faith. It requires us not only to believe, but to do - to give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world."
The UDHR and its core values, including non-discrimination, equality, fairness and universality, apply to everyone, everywhere and always. The Declaration continues to affirm the inherent human dignity and worth of every person in the world, without distinction of any kind. Independent courts must be vigilant in their roles-always resisting pressure from the executive or inflamed public opinion.
As you pursue your careers as lawyers, I encourage you to remember Obama's words and keep in mind that, to protect our own human rights, we must be prepared to defend those of others. Be prepared to defend the rights of everyone for due process and a fair defense vigorously. Remember that we only have true religious freedom when we allow others the freedom to choose their beliefs-or non-beliefs- based on our common and fundamental pursuit of a better world with legal equality for all. Only when we protect the dignity of all members of the human family do we truly enjoy our own.