Over fifty years after the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the human rights of the vast majority of people in the world are completely unprotected. This situation has led some people to question the relevance of human rights. This book, first published in Swedish last year to mark the anniversary, is a collection of twenty-five essays written by human-rights workers and activists from various countries, discussing the future of human-rights work and seeking to demonstrate that it is as relevant today as it was in 1948. Contributors include such figures as the Dalai Lama and Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech republic. Some writers discuss theoretical issues; others describe their personal experiences in human-rights work.
Several writers point out that the declaration was intended to prevent the recurrence of any further ‘world war’. The idea of human rights originated, however, in European political and economic developments such as the nation-state and the market-economy. Businessmen feared the increasing centralisation of state-power would encroach on their interests, and developed the concept of rights that could be enforced legally. These rights were clearly biased in favour of the economically powerful, but gradually the notion of rights expanded to take in the poor, non-Christians, women, children, and coloured (i.e. non-white) people. Human rights became a major factor in the anti-colonial struggle, as a contributor from Kenya points out.
Contributors agree that the cause of human rights cannot be tied to any political agenda; human-rights organisations must denounce and oppose violations of human rights wherever they occur. One of the book’s essays gives a critique of America’s death-penalty legislation, while another describes the agony of the “moderate physical and psychological pressure” that Israeli law allows prison-interrogators to use.
Although the contributors admit that at present human rights are more often violated than not, they seem to believe that increasing acceptance of the concept of universal human rights will lead to actual protection of those rights. As one activist from Peru points out, situations that were regarded as unfortunate but unchangeable fifty years ago are now denounced as unacceptable. This, it is claimed, paves the way for real change. Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, believes that the situation will improve when all states ratify all UN conventions, draw up national human-rights plans, and cooperate fully with UN representatives.
All contributors agree that the rights outlined in the UN Declaration apply equally to all, regardless of religion. The Dalai Lama considers compliance with modern human-rights standards obligatory for Buddhists, because Buddhism teaches compassion and concern for others. Traditions not in accordance with the declaration should be abandoned, for “the universal principle of the equality of all human beings must take precedence” (p. 45). Havel considers modern human-rights standards to be “a modern application of Christian principles” (p. 89). However, as all religions call for humility, decency, solidarity, and responsibility, he believes that the declaration is a universally valid ideal. Abdullahi an-Na’im, a contributor originally from the Sudan, believes that, as the declaration is built on “the totality of human intellectual heritage and practical experience in pursuit of justice” (p. 18), and benefits everyone to some degree, unless detractors are able to implement something better, they must work to actualise the provisions of the declaration, instead of criticising it. The contributors regard those who question the validity of human rights as either unpopular autocrats who want to use claims of cultural difference to oppress their citizens, or confused individuals who need to give the issue more thought.
As Foucault observed, discourses are terrains in which power and authority are granted to some and denied to others. The human-rights discourse of the contributors to this book effectively trivialises belief in divine revelation, and trust in it. The declaration is described in quasi-scriptural terms as superseding all other “texts [which have] played fundamental roles in human history” because it alone is “universal” (Havel, p.86). Therefore the Shari’ah (and any other religious law) must conform to its provisions, or be deemed oppressive. The conflict that this sets up for believers, who are forced to choose man-made over revealed laws, in defiance of their consciences, is dismissed as insignificant.
Even Muslims who merely seek to practise social aspects of Islamic law find that the declaration can be, and often is, interpreted to deny them this right. Turkish women who wear hijab are being excluded from government jobs, other public sector jobs, parliament, universities and even schools. The ‘international community’ looks the other way, because hijab is believed to violate women’s rights.
The declaration assumes that religions should limit their teachings to theology and ethics, and leave other aspects of human existence to secular authorities. This ‘Christian’ (in reality post-Christian) belief is not universal and fails to protect the rights of believers who see religion as a complete way of life. The declaration is based on belief in the inherent dignity of every person; the idea comes from the Christian teaching that man is made in the image of God (p. 88). However, this concept has been emptied of all its religious and spiritual meaning, and is now taken to imply that dignity means freedom to act in any way that does not appear to cause offence or harm to others. So ignoring religious rules and guidelines is often more fitting for human dignity.
The question of what meaning human dignity and conscience can have in a secular system that regards belief in a Creator and Sustainer as optional is seldom asked. If humanity evolved by chance, why should any man or woman have any more dignity than an animal or plant? Dignity becomes a legal fiction that is maintained for precisely as long as it is convenient and no longer. In this viciously unequal world, convenience often wears thin; the plight of Iraqis under the UN’s sanctions, for instance, contrasts oddly with western eagerness to rebuild Serbia. Western geo-political interests apparently outweigh the equal right of all to the basic necessities of life.
Finally, the declaration still bears strong traces of its historical roots. What in reality benefits markets is considered a ‘human right’; religious laws, on the other hand, tend to limit free markets by their nature, partly because they aim to prevent total involvement in fulfilment of desires. The declaration attempts ostensibly to protect the family, religious belief and the community, while securing individuals’ rights to act in ways that are destructive of these (consuming alcohol and committing apostasy, for instance). An approach to rights that is based on free-market economics in the end fails to secure individual rights because, when families, religious beliefs and communities disintegrate (or are weakened), individual rights, especially of the young, the elderly, the handicapped and other weaker members of society, are left unprotected.
For the time being, Muslims are forced to seek the protection of human rights because they have allowed Islamic practices, priorities and principles to be trivialised, depoliticised, mocked and discarded. ‘Amr bil ma’ruf (enjoining, encouraging, enforcing good) has come to mean lecturing people about relatively minor shortcomings while ignoring flagrant injustices in the family, the workplace and the government; following the Sunnah (the example of Allah’s Noble Messenger) is understood to mean devotion to rituals, instead of securing others’ rights and fulfilling one’s own duties. In the face of unscrupulous autocrats who flaunt their indifference to human rights and Islamic law alike (such as Mahathir of Malaysia, for example), and of western governments who push ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ while allowing industries to produce and sell land-mines and instruments of torture, the Islamic movement must articulate a credible alternative to secular concepts of human rights, and revive the active concern of all Muslims for justice in every arena of human dealing.
This book, published by the Swedish government, which maintains a carefully cultivated image of being a champion of human rights (and other ‘liberal’, ‘democratic’ principles) in all parts of the world, is a good introduction to the human-rights movement, and its contributors raise many important issues which Muslims must address. But it is written entirely from a western perspective, and fails to raise many issues that Muslim intellectuals, activists and others must address from within an Islamic perspective.
Muslimedia: August 16-31, 1999