4 September, 2014
Excellencies, Ladies, and Gentlemen:
Thank you kindly to Cherif Bassiouni and the organizers at the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences for inviting me to speak to you today at this prestigious event.
How fitting is it that we are in Syracuse, Italy, which was once the home of the Ancient Greek thinker Archimedes.
Some of you here, I am sure, will recall the Archimedean Point as a tool or a point of view from which an observer can objectively view his or her subject of inquiry.
Many legal scholars have used the Archimedean Point to demonstrate how a rational being might arrive at a more objective formulation of justice by removing elements of personal bias. This includes the biases naturally created by our beliefs in our cultural and religious traditions.
And this is why we gather here today: to discuss universal notions of justice across cultural and religious traditions!
As this topic is vast—not to mention the additional issues Cherif asked me to address on the need to uphold Human Rights and advance International Criminal Justice in light of the challenges posed by Globalization, and the role of religious leaders—I shall divide my talk into two parts.
First, I will talk about the limits, possibilities, and dangers of universal notions of rights across cultures and civilizations. And then, I will specifically address the role of religious leaders.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
The Muslim Caliph Umar ibn Al Khattab once said, “Your freedom ends where the other’s freedom begins.”
I like to begin with that quote because in my many years of living in the West, I have noticed a tendency to see things through the lens of short term historical memory. The perspective of time is often ignored.
Much of what we now understand as Human Rights, and certainly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, emerged from the violence of the Second World War, and, I would argue, the Holocaust in particular.
Prior to this, of course, there were famous attempts—not least during the French and American revolutions—to define certain sets of rights for human beings as a part of natural law. These attempts then went on to inform systems of positive law.
From my perspective, stating our own history in the area of rights and observing the history of others, is an important point of departure because it helps remind us that people who don’t think as we do now are no less human or fallible than we are.
I find that, in the most basic sense, all conceptions of justice and rights are necessarily informed by culture. Culture here is defined as the totality of material symbols, stories, traditions, oral and written bodies of knowledge, belief systems, artifacts, and values distinctive to a people that are transmitted across generations.
Now, from my own experience, I can say that someone from a particular culture is not bound to that culture’s understanding of rights or even to the sources it uses to determine those rights. An individual may well dissent from such a view. In doing so, that person may use intellectual resources from their own culture—and likely the cultures of others as well—in articulating such a view.
Here, it is important to note that whether we say the best source to determine individual rights is the revealed will of God or we hold the notion that the secular operation of human reason is a more reliable method, we must recognize that, in a way, both methods equally draw on “cultural” notions and historical experiences.
When it comes to the project of asserting a universal set of rights, there are some who build a case from a supposed objective point of departure, and use liberal values to rationally determine what individuals would endorse as rights that are shared by all.
Then there are others who say that it is impossible to assert a universal set of values, beyond building a minimal consensus around the rejection of flagrant practices such as extraordinary physical cruelty and genocide. According to them, there is no true way to judge what is deemed as just in one culture against what may be deemed as just in another.
Going beyond the difficulty of considering rights across cultures, there is also the issue of balancing the respective interests of individuals as bearers of rights versus collectives as the bearer of rights.
Of course, we must first recognize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The identification of the individual as possessing rights is clearly articulated. So, too, does the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Interestingly, Article 27 of the Covenant explicitly articulates the right of a minority to enjoy its own culture. This right is further emphasized for individuals in Articles 13 through 15 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
At the same time, regional attempts at adapting the International Bill of Human Rights tend to put a stronger emphasis on group rights, including the Banjul Charter or the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and to some degree, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam as well.
For those of us in the business of building meaningful relationships across cultures, as we at the UN Alliance of Civilizations are, we have encountered the fact that not every culture sees the individual as the only locus of rights or responsibilities. Of course, from our perspective, this is as an opportunity to open a larger conversation on the issue. Our shared understanding of human rights is only enriched in doing so.
Put together, these challenges are not easy to deal with. Beginning to address them requires a number of careful steps.
Perhaps above all else, we need to learn to listen to where others are in their conception of rights. We need to accord them the space to make their own journey toward universal notions of justice and rights. We also need to acknowledge that while we conceive of rights as immutable and indivisible, our conversation around them, as a global community, will always be evolving.
What we can agree to, in the meantime, is the very minimum consensus around the kind of flagrant actions or violence that needs to be prevented. This is another ongoing conversation, especially since the advent and recent applications of the Responsibility to Protect.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
The Catholic theologian Hans Küng reminds us, “No peace among nations without peace among religions. And no peace among religions without dialogue.”
A 2000 study by the Church of Norway further states “the great world religions have both similarities and fundamental differences. And one of the most important similarities is actually a conviction that is part of the innermost essence of religion to be a source of peace and reconciliation.”
Religious leaders have a critical role to play in peacebuilding, and perhaps this role would be best focused on creating the conditions that help prevent the onset of violence. A large part of the prevention process, in my view, is assuring everyone that his or her rights are protected. In other words, religious leaders have a vital role to play in the prevention of conflicts. But it all starts with dialogue.
But this dialogue should not be a study in comparative religion. It should be a dialogue that acknowledges that doctrinal differences do exist, but that those differences should not prevent effective interfaith partnerships. In this regard, some theologians have effectively argued that interfaith dialogue should be geared around mobilizing different communities to address shared societal challenges.
Religious leaders can and should model respect for other human beings, as they are part of an engaged global citizenry. For religious leaders to be effective in this pursuit, they must be committed to their engagement with one another. They must pursue shared values. They must work on shared challenges the global community faces, such as eradicating poverty, HIV/AIDS, gender inequality, climate change, and other aspects of sustainable development.
Finally, to speak to the work of my own organization, the UN Alliance of Civilizations, much of what we do through our various programs and projects—capacity building, providing grants to youth-led peacebuilding activities, enabling journalists to do more culturally sensitive reporting, and engaging the private sector—is all geared toward mobilizing communities across identity lines to work together to resolve shared societal challenges.
In our work, we see religious leaders as potential champions of our approach, and as credible voices within communities on sensitive issues, ranging from addressing extremism to resolving conflicts.
As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated during the first-ever thematic discussion by Heads of State and Government on the Rule of Law at the the 67th UN General Assembly:
“The Rule of Law is like the law of gravity: it ensures the world remains grounded, so that order prevails over chaos. It unites societies around common values, anchoring us in the common good. But unlike gravity, the rule of law must be nourished by continued efforts by genuine leaders.”
Let us thus continue to support our religious and cultural leaders in this worthy cause.
I thank you for listening and I look forward to your comments.