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Tensions Today

Many common issues continue to be defended together by secular human rights groups and religious groups. In Western Europe and in the United States, the resolute defence of the rights of asylum seekers and economic refugees by mainstream churches as well as their advocacy in favor of global justice continue to offer wide spaces for cooperation. In the global South, in actions complementing the work of secular NGOs, many religious organizations are moving to the forefront of social and economic rights by providing social services to the poor as a response to local government retrenchment and insufficient international development assistance.

However, on other issues at the crossroads of religious dogma and human rights ideology, of personal moral conviction and public health, the points of divergence are growing. The attention given by the secular human rights movement to issues linked to freedom of speech, gender, and sexuality and sexual orientation—always inherent in the human rights ideal, but of growing prominence today—increasingly clashes with the positions taken by many religious groups. Religious humanitarian organizations and secular human rights groups can, however, be on the same wave length when they denounce ethnic cleansing in Darfur and demonstrate together in front of Sudanese embassies.

The question of women’s reproductive rights is a case in point. As Georgina Ashworth has summed up the issue: “Religious fundamentalists, whether in the United States or the Islamic and Hindu worlds, now constitute enormous political forces ranged against women’s enjoyment of their human rights, especially their reproductive rights. Not only do they persecute and make outcasts of proponents of toleration, they also threaten the livelihoods and even the security of anyone courageous enough to stand up for women’s self determination.”33

Another case in point is the use of condoms in HIV/AIDS prevention. In the Philippines, the Catholic Church, which, as noted above, played an important role in ousting Marcos, has become increasingly hostile to the human rights movement when it advocates for sexual education and condom distribution in AIDS prevention campaigns. The Philippines government has relayed these positions by actively impeding measures that would prevent this deadly disease, chiefly by hampering access to condoms and to scientifically-based information on HIV/AIDS. The Bush administration, following the opinions of U.S.-based conservative religious congregations, has stopped funding the donation of condoms or other contraceptive supplies to the country, preferring instead programs emphasizing abstinence and marital fidelity.

These policies clash with international human rights standards. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), ratified by the Philippines, obliges state parties to take steps “necessary for... the prevention, treatment and control of epidemic... diseases,” including HIV/AIDS, which is deemed to include access to condoms and complete HIV/AIDS information. The ICCPR establishes the right to information and all major human rights treaties recognize the right to life, which is implicated by policies that interfere with access to life-saving technologies.34

The growing tensions between religious and rights communities also have led religious leaders at times to subdue their antagonisms and rivalries to defend common approaches on what they consider shared tenets of faith. The coalition between the Holy See and the International Islamic Conference, for example, has been evident in U.N. conferences on population issues35 and women’s rights.36 This new prominence of so-called “ethical issues” has created an at times impious convergence among representatives of some mainstream religions; states that are serious human rights abusers, like Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Sudan; and, in many cases, the Bush administration.

[33] Georgina Ashworth, “The Silencing of Women,” in Tim Dunne and Nicholas J. Wheeler, eds., Human Rights in Global Politics (Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 273.

[34] Human Rights Watch, “The Philippines: Unprotected, Sex, Condoms, and the Human Right to Health,” May 2004.

[35] Mark Herstgaard, “The Holy War against Birth Control,” Mother Jones, March/April 2003.

[36] G. Ashworth, “The Silencing of Women,” p. 268.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005