Human Rights, the New Religion?

by Suzanne Long

from Signs of the Times, No. 18 - Jul 2005

Some thoughts occasioned by the publication of For All Peoples and All Nations: the Ecumenical Church and Human Rights, Canon John Nurser, World Council of Churches, available in this country from Gazelle Books Services.

Religion is no longer seen as the basis for the value and dignity of every human being. Instead, some argue, human rights, essentially secular, fulfil that role and replace religion as the way thinking people relate to the human world around them. Archbishop Carey in February 1993 said that human rights were not simply a matter of law but "they depended on a shared belief that they were 'the embodiment of absolute goodness'". (He was arguing for the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law and was immediately condemned for meddling in politics, of course.)

'Religion' is notoriously difficult to define but his comment picks up two of its aspects, 'shared belief' and 'absolute goodness'. Belief in human rights leads to committed action, sometimes heroic; doctrinal disputes (political and civil rights versus economic and social, individuals' rights versus the common good); and appeals to scripture (i.e. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) as final authority. The defence of human rights can provide the emotional and intellectual driving forces which are marks of religion. Human rights organisations form a human rights 'community' with members who are expected to contribute time and money and who experience solidarity both locally and internationally. Though not the equivalent of religions' denominations or sects some do have an element of that and there are hierarchies within and amongst them. The UN World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 could even be seen as the equivalent of an Ecumenical Council, with about as much effect on the ordinary person.

Archbishop Carey's comment notwithstanding, many Christians view the human rights culture with suspicion. They are inclined to murmur that there should be more focus on responsibilities or duties and less on rights. This does not go down too well with human rights activists or lawyers, who think it endangers the universality of rights - that they apply to the undeserving and unable as well as to the deserving and virtuous. You do not earn your rights; they are yours by virtue of being born. Many people, not just children, cannot be responsible.

What human rights lawyers argue is that rights create obligations, a far stronger word. The problem is deciding on whom the obligation falls and ensuring that it is met. In the grand scene it is the obligation of governments to protect human rights and to promote them. At the moment the fear is that measures to prevent 'terrorism' in the name of the common good are having a malign effect on individuals' rights, ours and those of some unattractive people. The development/aid agencies have worked hard, and largely successfully, to convey the idea that they are helping people get their rights but some Christians still think they are distributing charity.

The philosophical roots of human rights are fed from several streams, including Magna Carta, Roman Catholic Natural Law theology, Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, the French and American Independence Declarations. But it may be a surprise to some that the churches and other religious groups played such a key part in the birth of the modern post World War Two human rights movement. Canon Nurser's book explores these early days, showing how the churches helped to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The moving force was Frederick Nolde, an American Lutheran theologian. Both the United Nations and the World Council of Churches were coming into being at the same time, 1945. Nurser claims that the Churches' Commission on International Affairs, headed by Nolde, 'succeeded in changing the world'. Nolde was instrumental in getting a mandatory Commission on Human Rights included in the Charter of the United Nations and contributed substantially to the drafting of the Commission's baby, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, finally accepted by the then world community of nations in 1948.

Some Protestant church leaders saw the post war campaign for human rights as part of a Christian crusade and some of the framers of the Declaration could not imagine the Declaration without an explicit religious or spiritual foundation. Nolde came to see things differently; freedom, including religious liberty, he realised, needed to be placed in a common, religiously impartial moral space. The Commission on Human Rights eventually came to this view, deciding it was more important to be human than to be religious and removing any religious references from the final draft of the Declaration's preamble.

However, the Universal Declaration does include religious liberty and Nolde was influential in drafting the relevant Article 18. In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, the Chair of the Commission on Human Rights, he respectfully points out that freedom of conscience and religion must include more than worship and teaching, which can be seen as 'private' activities; that publicly manifested community and action are also essential parts of religious belief. The final text included these and, moreover, included the right to change one's religion. This led to the adoption of the Declaration by the UN General Assembly not being unanimous; two Islamic countries were unable to accept what Islam sees as apostasy as a right and the 'Soviet Bloc' was unhappy with the public manifestation bit, as well. These countries abstained in the vote.

Now the Commission on Human Rights is under attack on all sides because countries have played politics and use it to prevent their own human rights records being scrutinised. The UN Secretary-General would like to have it replaced by a Human Rights Council, with the same status as the other two UN Councils dealing with security and economic and social affairs respectively, instead of being a subsidiary of one of them. No doubt the churches will keep up the pressure for 'all human rights for all'.

Suzanne Long MBE is recently retired United Nations Association Policy Officer for Human Rights and Refugees and Migration Issues.