In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 1948) in most solemn form, the dignity of a person is acknowledged to all human beings; and as a consequence there is proclaimed, as a fundamental right, the right of free movement in search for truth and in the attainment of moral good and of justice, and also the right to a dignified life. — Pope John XXIII, 1881-1963 Pacem in Terris, 1963

eleanor-rooseveltcairo-1990-declaration

In essays published earlier on this blog the topic of religion in society, particularly the direction the Western world took in gradually establishing a clear separation of religion and state, relegating religion to the sphere of private conscience is discussed. The last remnants of Papal authority in temporal affairs ended with the signing of the Lateran Treaty between the Vatican and the Italian government in 1929. In the present, in the Western world, religious liberty is guaranteed in law and members of religious institutions are free to comment on moral and political issues just as anyone else. In the Islamic world, this distinction between religion and state never emerged, save for the Republic of Turkey which was founded as a secular state in 1923. The Ottoman Caliphate was abolished in 1924. The constitutional, civil and common law legal systems in effect across the Western world are rooted in the theory of natural rights, primarily as espoused by the men of the Enlightenment, such as John Locke and Thomas Paine. By contrast, across the Islamic world, the system of law, sharia, a religiously based moral and legal code applies. The differences in the legal systems and the place of religion in society between the Western world and the Islamic world are quite noticeable in comparing responses to the the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was enacted in 1948 in the aftermath of the horrors Western civilization unleashed in the Second World War which led to mass destruction in Europe, the death of what is estimated some 65 to 85 million people and leaving several million displaced persons. The United Nations was instituted when the Charter of the United Nations was signed on June 26, 1945 by by 50 of the 51 original member countries. The Charter was ratified later the same year when the five permanent members of the Security Council: the Republic of China, France, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (later replaced by the Russian Federation), the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus most of the additional original signatories voted on it. The stated aim in the foundation of the United Nations is to call for peace, international security and, crucially, respect for human rights. To this end, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights was given the task of drafting a universal declaration that specified the rights of individuals in accordance with the Charter’s provisions.

In 1946 a Canadian legal scholar, John Peters Humphrey, was appointed as the first Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, within the United Nations Secretariat. Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed as the first Chairwoman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights when it became a permanent institution within the United Nations in 1947. Under the direction of John Peters Humphrey and Eleanor Roosevelt, with representatives of the following countries serving: Australia, Belgium, Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, Chile, China, Egypt, France and India, the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written. The second draft was written in1948 by René Cassin, a noted French jurist, who, interestingly, was encouraged in his effort by then Papal Nuncio to Paris Angelo Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII, in drafting the document. Cassin noted that on “several occasions” he received “several discreet personal encouragements from Papal Nuncio Roncalli.” (as cited in Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations)  In addition, Traer notes the “Lutheran theologian O. Frederick Nolde, who represented the Federal Council of Churches and was the first director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), lobbied very effectively for inclusion of human rights in the UN Charter and for specific provisions in the Universal Declaration.” (Religious communities in the struggle for human rights) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

The immediate response to the adoption of the UDHR in Christendom was guarded to say the least. The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano criticized it for failing to recognize the sovereignty of God. Robert Traer notes also that “many Protestants were also concerned that the declaration did not refer directly to God as the creator of rights.” (Religious communities in the struggle for human rights) As late as 1986, Carl F. H. Henry, founding editor of Christianity Today “criticized the Universal Declaration for not acknowledging that rights are derived from duties to God and to one’s neighbor.” (Religious communities in the struggle for human rights) However, before long and after closer examination, Churches, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, found the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was consistent with Church teachings.

In 1968, General Frederick Coutts, speaking for the Salvation Army noted: “Salvationists are identified with the high ideals of social justice and acceptance of the unchallenged rights of every man as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (as cited in Religious communities in the struggle for human rights) Pope John XXIII endorsed the UDHR in his encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (1963), as the quote from which serves as the title of this essay demonstrates. More recently, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States, delivered an address to the High Level Segment of the 22nd Session of the Human Rights Council, Geneva, 26 February 2013 in which he concluded “the Holy See cooperates with all people of good will who work to ensure that the Charter and the principles of the United Nations are not only proclaimed, but also recognized in their genuine formulation, meaning and application.” (Vatican to UN: What makes human rights universal?)

The response to the UDHR from the Islamic world is quite different. In 1948, the Republic of Turkey (a secular state) ratified the  UDHR as did Pakistan (an Islamic Republic). Saudi Arabia, however, abstained from the ratification vote on the declaration, on the grounds that it violated Islamic Sharia law. In 1982, Said Rajaie-Khorassani, representing the Islamic Republic of Iran at the United Nations, asserted that the UDHR was “a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition”, which could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing the Islamic law. (as cited in Wikipedia) This antipathy toward the UDHR across the Islamic world led to the drafting of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) in 1990 by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, since renamed the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. On 30 June 2000, nations that are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation officially resolved to support the CDHRI.

The CDHRI, in keeping with the precepts of sharia law, essentially declares human rights are subject to the dictates of sharia. For example, with regard to religious freedom, Article 10 of the declaration states: “Islam is the religion of unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of compulsion on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to convert him to another religion or to atheism.” In addition, Article 22(a) of the Declaration states that “Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah.” 22(b) states that “Everyone shall have the right to advocate what is right, and propagate what is good, and warn against what is wrong and evil according to the norms of Islamic Shari’ah.” 22(c) states: “Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith.” Article 24 states: All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah. Article 25 states: The Islamic Shari’ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration. (CDHRI)

What we have here, then, is competing understandings of human rights and law, notably the separation of religion and state and of of religious liberty. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights represents the culmination of this separation of religion and state in Western societies and the right to freedom of conscience: you are free to practice any faith you choose or none at all. This separation between religion and state, aside from  Turkish society in the 20th century, has yet to emerge in the Islamic world. That and the proscription on conversion from Islam to another religion or to no faith detailed in Article 10 of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam puts the Western world and Islamic world at odds with one another over these issues. On that basis, is sharia compatible with Western civilization? In my opinion, no, it is most certainly not; just as the secular nation state and legal systems based on the theory of natural rights are not viewed as compatible across the Islamic world.

Where human rights are at stake there can be no compromise with sharia in Western societies. The struggle to achieve separation of religion and state and to agree on the universality of human rights in the Western world was not without a great deal of bloodshed and to allow sharia, the doctrine of one religion to eclipse the constitutional, civil and common law legal systems in effect across the Western world, that is, to allow a religious institution to have jurisdiction over temporal affairs, even if it is only those of Muslim populations in Western societies, is not right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to everyone without exception.

Posted by Geoffrey

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3 thoughts on “In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 1948) in most solemn form, the dignity of a person is acknowledged to all human beings; and as a consequence there is proclaimed, as a fundamental right, the right of free movement in search for truth and in the attainment of moral good and of justice, and also the right to a dignified life. — Pope John XXIII, 1881-1963 Pacem in Terris, 1963

  1. Bryan Dale

    Good post. The Charter of the UN was of course signed by the Republic of China, not the People’s Republic of China.

    Reply
  2. Gary Burlingame

    I was surprised that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam was adopted so recently, in 1990. It is incredibly short sighted. All they can see is “Allah”, which doesn’t even exist.

    There is not much to do but get to the children, educate them, and slowly, slowly, turn this huge mistake around.

    Reply

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