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The Challenge

“Fifty years after its proclamation,” writes Michael Ignatieff, “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become the sacred text of what Elie Wiesel has called a ‘worldwide secular religion.’”2 The growth of the human rights movement has given it the confidence to take on controversial issues and extend the promise of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) in areas that it had previously neglected.

This “new frontier,” however, is colliding with the “return of the religious” in many societies, with what French political scientist Gilles Kepel has called “God’s Revenge,”3 featuring the reassertion of more dogmatic or conservative forms of beliefs inside and outside of mainstream religious denominations.

While it would be inappropriate for the human rights community to advocate for or against any system of religious belief or ideology and wrong to judge or interpret the principles of any religion or faith, it would be equally mistaken for the human rights groups to turn away from human rights violations or appeals for discrimination made in the name of religious principle or law.

Defining how to engage with religious communities thus has become one of the major challenges for the human rights movement. To paraphrase Ignatieff, human rights cannot truly go global unless it goes deeply local, unless it addresses plural philosophies and beliefs that sometimes collide with or appear to resist its appeal to universal norms. If international human rights standards have a claim to universality their relevance must be demonstrated in all contexts, and especially where religion determines state behavior.

This essay argues that the human rights movement needs to be able to provide clearer answers to the hard questions presented by the demands of believers and by religious organizations seeking direct political influence.

On the one hand, rights activists should more aggressively stand up for religious freedom and the rights of believers in secular and religious societies alike; on the other, they should directly oppose pressures from religious groups that seek to dilute or eliminate rights protections—for women, sexual minorities, atheists, religious dissenters, and so on—that such religious groups view as inconsistent with fundamental religious teachings and deeply held beliefs. Human rights groups should oppose efforts in the name of religion to impose a moral view on others when there is no harm to third parties and the only “offense” is in the mind of the person who feels that the other is acting immorally.4

[2] Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 53.

[3] Gilles Kepel, La Revanche de Dieu. Chrétiens, juifs et musulmans à la reconquête du monde (Paris: Le Seuil, 1991).

[4] As emphasized in the next essay in this volume, defense of the same basic principle is essential to safeguarding the dignity and humanity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, whether efforts to restrict their rights are made in the name of religion or of tradition, culture, or societal values.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005