Tag Archives: Human Rights

Bielefeldt et al, “Freedom of Religion or Belief”

In March, the Oxford University Press will release “Freedom of Religion or Belief: An International Law Commentary,” by Heiner Bielefeldt (United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief), Nazila Ghanea (University of Oxford), and Michael Wiener (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and University of Oxford).  The publisher’s description follows:

Violations of religious freedom and violence committed in the name of religion grab our attention on a daily basis. Freedom of Religion or Belief is a 9780198703983key human right, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, numerous conventions, declarations and soft law standards include specific provisions on freedom of religion or belief. The 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief has been interpreted since 1986 by the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Special Rapporteurs (for example those on racism, freedom of expression, minority issues and cultural rights) and Treaty Bodies (for example the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee on the Rights of the Child) have also elaborated on freedom of religion or belief in the context of their respective mandates.

Freedom of Religion or Belief: An International Law Commentary is the first commentary to look comprehensively at the international provisions for the protection of freedom of religion or belief, considering how they are interpreted by various United Nations Special Procedures and Treaty Bodies. Structured around the thematic categories of the United Nations Special Rapporteur’s framework for communications, the commentary analyses the limitations on the wearing of religious symbols and vulnerable situations, including those of women, detainees, refugees, children, minorities and migrants, through a combination of scholarly expertise and practical experience.

“Christianity and Freedom: Historical Perspectives” (Shah & Hertzke eds.)

In March, Cambridge University Press will release “Christianity and Freedom: Volume 1. Historical Perspectives” edited by Timothy Samuel Shah (Georgetown University) and Allen D. Hertzke (University of Oklahoma). The publisher’s description follows:

In Volume 1 of Christianity and Freedom, leading historians uncover the unappreciated role of Christianity in the development of basic human rights and freedoms from antiquity through today. These include radical notions of dignity and equality, religious freedom, liberty of conscience, limited government, consent of the governed, economic liberty, autonomous civil society, and church-state separation, as well as more recent advances in democracy, human rights, and human development. Acknowledging that the record is mixed, scholars document how the seeds of freedom in Christianity antedate and ultimately undermine later Christian justifications and practices of persecution. Drawing from history, political science, and sociology, this volume will become a standard reference work for historians, political scientists, theologians, students, journalists, business leaders, opinion shapers, and policy makers.

Annicchino on the Paradigm Shift in Human Rights

In the Italian journal, Il Foglio, our friend and sometime guest contributor Pasquale Annicchino (European University Institute) has a provocative essay, “Now America waters down religious freedom and prefers rainbow colors. Why is that?” Annicchino sees a paradigm shift in American human rights policy. Where the US once favored religious liberty, it now gives priority to personal autonomy, especially LGBT rights:

What seems to have permanently changed is the cornerstone of the American projection in its narrative on rights around the world. The White House lights up with rainbow colors in the day of the Supreme Court ruling that recognizes the right to gay marriage. There is a decline in action for religious freedom, a right that refers to groups and individuals, while a vision linked to individualism and the principle of personal autonomy is on the rise, and the rights of LGBTI people are probably the clearest example of that.

An interesting take. You can read Annicchino’s essay here.

Lehmann, “Religious NGOs in International Relations”

In February, Routledge will release Religious NGOs in International Relations: 9781138856356The Construction of “the Religious” and “the Secular”, by Karsten Lehmann (International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue – Vienna). The publisher’s description follows:

Over the last 30 years, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become increasingly present in international discourses and active in international decision-making. Among the estimated several million NGOs in existence today, an increasingly visible number of organizations are defining themselves in religious terms – referring to themselves as “religious”, “spiritual”, or “faith-based” NGOs. This book documents the initial encounters between the particularly international segment of those organizations and the UN while at the same time covering the Protestant and Catholic spectrum that dominated the early years of their activities in the UN-context.

This book focuses on the construction of the human rights discourse inside two religiously affiliated organizations: The Commissions of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) and Pax Romana (IMCS / ICMICA). These organizations have been formally accredited as NGOs by the UN, label themselves as religious, and look back upon a long and intense cooperation with the UN. Lehmann presents material from the archives of those two organizations that has so far rarely been used for academic analysis. In doing so, as well as documenting the encounters between those organizations and the UN, and looking at the Protestant and Catholic spectrum, the book provides new insights into the very construction of the notions of ‘the religious’ and the ‘secular’ inside those organizations.

This work will be of great interest to all students of religion and international relations, and will also be of interest to those studying related subjects such as global institutions, comparative politics and international politics.

Movsesian on Moyn on Christian Human Rights

For those who are interested, my review of Samuel Moyn’s new book, Christian Human Rights, is now available on the First Things website (subscription required). Here’s a sample:

Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Harvard University, makes a provocative claim: Human rights, the foundational principle of global, secular progressivism, originated as the project of Christian conservatives in the mid-twentieth century. During and immediately after World War II, these Christians—Moyn is concerned principally with European Catholics, but he also discusses American Protestants—appropriated the Enlightenment’s concept of human rights and transformed it into its opposite.

The Enlightenment had advanced the rights of man. The modern state was commissioned to secure these rights and break the power of a reactionary Church. In the postwar period, however, Christian thinkers and politicians such as Pope Pius XII, Jacques Maritain, Charles Malik, Robert Schuman, John Foster Dulles, and others captured the language of human rights, particularly the concept of human dignity. The post-Christian totalitarianisms of the twentieth century gained control of powerful nation states, trampling individual liberties and suffocating civil society. For Christian Democratic movements in Europe, human rights became the favored instrument for criticizing these ideologies and limiting the power of the modern secular state. It was a remarkable act of intellectual jujitsu.

Human Rights As a Religion

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Roger Scruton

Check out this superb essay on the Heritage website by philosopher Roger Scruton (left), “The Future of European Civilization: Lessons for America.” There’s much to ponder, but I’d like to focus on just one point. Scruton argues that “Human Rights” has replaced Christianity as the religion of Europe’s elites.

Human Rights purports to provide a grounding for morality and social order—what Christianity used to do. The problem, Scruton says, is that Human Rights is itself without foundation and therefore cannot play the role people wish to assign it:

“If you ask what religion commands or forbids, you usually get a clear answer in terms of God’s revealed law or the Magisterium of the church. If you ask what rights are human or natural or fundamental, you get a different answer depending on whom you ask, and nobody seems to agree with anyone else regarding the procedure for resolving conflicts.

“Consider the dispute over marriage. Is it a right or not? If so, what does it permit? Does it grant a right to marry a partner of the same sex? And if yes, does it therefore permit incestuous marriage too? The arguments are endless, and nobody knows how to settle them.…

“We are witnessing, in effect, the removal of the old religion that provided foundations to the moral and legal inheritance of Europe and its replacement with a quasi-religion that is inherently foundationless. Nobody knows how to settle the question whether this or that privilege, freedom, or claim is a “human right,” and the European Court of Human Rights is now overwhelmed by a backlog of cases in which just about every piece of legislation passed by national parliaments in recent times is at stake.”

It’s an important point, and Scruton makes it with his usual grace and insight. He’s correct that the left often talks about Human Rights as though it were a kind of religion and, in fact, an improvement on the old faith. For example, in his recent book, Christian Human Rights, which I review in the current issue of the magazine, First Things, Harvard scholar Samuel Moyn compares Human Rights with Christianity, and concludes that Human Rights has the potential to do a superior job in improving people and making the world a more moral place.

Scruton is right, too, that competing understandings of Human Rights exist, and that they lead to different practical results in some cases. For example, a Catholic understanding, based on an objective conception of human nature and human dignity, does not allow for same-sex marriage as a human right. By contrast, the dominant secular understanding, based on the value of subjective choice, does. In the contemporary West, the latter view dominates. In the global context, however, it’s not so clear. In addition to the Catholic understanding, there are also Islamic and Orthodox Christian conceptions of human rights that differ markedly from the secular, subjective version—as well from each other.

The drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) famously avoided these debates. Philosophical agreement would be unnecessary, they thought, as long as nations signed up for the basic idea of human rights. Besides, nations would always retain some discretion in applying the so-called “universal” rights in the context of their own cultures. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore debates about the grounding for human rights now, and aside from the power of office – “we control international human rights organizations and you don’t”– there doesn’t seem a clear way to resolve them.

Nonetheless, Scruton overstates his case a bit. It’s true that there is much disagreement about Human Rights at the global level. But within Europe? I wonder whether the absence of agreement on particular cases makes today’s commitment to Human Rights all that different, as a practical matter, from yesterday’s commitment to Christianity. It’s not like Christians have always agreed among themselves on what Christianity requires for law and politics, either. (See: The Protestant Reformation). May Christians divorce and remarry? May they use artificial contraception? Some Christian communions say yes, others no. Do these disagreements mean Christianity is useless as a means of ordering society? I wouldn’t think so. Besides, even if one disagrees with it, there is a consistent European Court jurisprudence on many human-rights questions.

I suppose the response would go something like this. Fundamentally, Human Rights – at least, the dominant secular version – denies the basis for any objective truth claims. So there’s no way to resolve any issue, other than deferring to individual subjectivity, which is no basis for a legal system. It’s not a matter of a few difficult cases here and there, but the whole run of possible cases. Without a commitment to some objective value, something other than individual choice, the whole system will ultimately collapse.

I’ll need to think about this more. Whatever your view, Scruton’s essay is, as always, profound, elegant, and thought provoking.

Venters, “No Jim Crow Church”

In October, the University Press of Florida released “No Jim Crow Church: The Origins of South Carolina’s Bahá’í Community,” by Louis Venters (Francis Marion University).  The publisher’s description follows:

In No Jim Crow Church, Louis Venters recounts the unlikely emergence of a cohesive interracial fellowship in South Carolina, tracing the history of the community from the end of the nineteenth century through the civil rights era. By joining the Bahá’í Faith, blacks and whites not only defied Jim Crow but also rejected their society’s religious and social restrictions.

The religion, which emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind, arrived in the United States from the Middle East via northern urban areas. As early as 1910, Bahá’í teachers began settling in South Carolina, where the Bahá’í Faith is currently the largest religious minority. Venters presents an organizational, social, and intellectual history of South Carolina’s early Bahá’í movement and relates developments within the community to changes in society at large, with particular attention to race relations and the civil rights struggle. He argues that the state’s Bahá’ís represent a significant, sustained, spiritually based challenge to the ideology and structures of white male Protestant supremacy. His research provides a fascinating study of an unlikely movement’s rise to prominence and the role of the South Carolina Bahá’í community in the cultural and structural evolution of a new world religion.

Su, “Exporting Freedom”

In January, the Harvard University Press will release “Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power,” by Anna Su (University of Toronto).  The publisher’s description follows:

Religious freedom is widely recognized today as a basic human right, guaranteed by nearly all national constitutions. Exporting Freedom charts the rise of religious freedom as an ideal firmly enshrined in international law and shows how America’s promotion of the cause of individuals worldwide to freely practice their faith advanced its ascent as a global power.

Anna Su traces America’s exportation of religious freedom in various laws and policies enacted over the course of the twentieth century, in diverse locations and under a variety of historical circumstances. Influenced by growing religious tolerance at home and inspired by a belief in the United States’ obligation to protect the persecuted beyond its borders, American officials drafted constitutions as part of military occupations—in the Philippines after the Spanish–American War, in Japan following World War II, and in Iraq after 2003. They also spearheaded efforts to reform the international legal order by pursuing Wilsonian principles in the League of Nations, drafting the United Nations Charter, and signing the Helsinki Accords during the Cold War. The fruits of these labors are evident in the religious freedom provisions in international legal instruments, regional human rights conventions, and national constitutions.

In examining the evolution of religious freedom from an expression of the civilizing impulse to the democratization of states and, finally, through the promotion of human rights, Su offers a new understanding of the significance of religion in international relations.

Moyn, Christian Human Rights

I want to call special notice to Professor Samuel Moyn’s very interesting and Moyn, Christian Human Rightselegantly executed new book, Christian Human Rights (2015), which traces the specifically 20th century Christian roots of contemporary (secular?) human rights. Moyn begins really in 1937 and devotes special attention to Pope Pius XII’s 1942 Christmas message, “The Internal Order of States and People,” in which Pius announced both the “dignity of the human person” and that man “should uphold respect for and the practical realization of…fundamental personal rights.”

I’ve just started to dig in to the book, but I wanted to highlight a few passages from the introduction to illustrate some of the accents and grace notes of the book. There is, for example, this line: “The trouble, after all, is not so much that Christianity accounts for nothing, as that it accounts for everything.” (6) Part of Moyn’s project is remedial with respect both to those “secular historians” who have “nervously bypassed” “the Christian incarnation of human rights, which interferes with their preferred understandings of today’s highest principles” and those other scholars, “overwhelmingly Christians themselves,” who go about defending the Christian tradition of human rights “in a highly abstract way” and by recourse to “long ago events” stretching to the very beginnings of Christianity.

There is also this, on the idea of tradition (admittedly, a subject of some interest to me):

No one could plausibly claim–and no one ever has–that the history of human rights is one of wholly discontinuous novelty….But radical departures nonetheless occurred very late in Christian history, even if they were unfailingly represented as consistent with what came before: this is how “the invention of tradition” most frequently works. (5)

The citation is to Hobsbawm’s essay (in his collected volume) on The Invention of Tradition (in which Hugh Trevor Roper’s typically and enjoyably acid essay on Scottish tartans is one of my very favorites in the ‘tradition-as-fraud’ genre). Yet I hope it is not too tart of me to wonder whether this might just as easily be called “the invention of novelty,” novelties being, of course, the stuff on which scholars make their living. Perhaps a little of both?

More seriously, perhaps what these lines in Moyn’s fine and insightful book really suggest is that what is really most needful is a true and clear-eyed account of the idea of tradition and its importance for law and legal institutions generally, one that is neither committed to its lionization nor demonization.

Price, “At the Cross”

In July, the Oxford University Press released “At the Cross: Race, Religion, and Citizenship in the Politics of the Death Penalty” by Melynda J. Price (University of Kentucky College of Law).  The publisher’s description follows:

Curing systemic inequalities in the criminal justice system is the unfinished business of the Civil Rights movement. No part of that system highlights this truth more than the current implementation of the death penalty. At the Cross tells a story of the relationship between the death penalty and race in American politics that complicates the common belief that individual African Americans, especially poor African Americans, are more subject to the death penalty in criminal cases. The current death penalty regime operates quite differently than it did in the past. The findings of this research demonstrate the the racial inequity in the meting out of death sentences has legal and political externalities that move beyond individual defendants to larger numbers of African Americans.

At the Cross looks at the meaning of the death penalty to and for African Americans by using various sites of analysis. Using various sites of analysis, Price shows the connection between criminal justice policies like the death penalty and the political and legal rights of African Americans who are tangentially connected to the criminal justice system through familial and social networks. Drawing on black politics, legal and political theory and narrative analysis, Price utilizes a mixed-method approach that incorporates analysis of media reports, capital jury selection and survey data, as well as original focus group data. As the rates of incarceration trend upward, Black politics scholars have focused on the impact of incarceration on the voting strength of the black community. Local, and even regional, narratives of African American politics and the death penalty expose the fractures in American democracy that foment perceptions of exclusion among blacks.