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In the 1970s and 1980s, religious and human rights groups shared many objectives, reflecting a common conviction of the universality of the human rights message and its grounding in the traditions of most religions, philosophies, and civilizations. Religion-based traditionalism seemed on the wane and “culturalism,” the black-boxing of cultures as exclusivist identity-referents,14 was not allowed to tyrannize human rights.

Conferences sponsored by UNESCO in the early 1990s on the theme of inter-religious dialogue15 and, to a great extent, the 1993 U.N.-sponsored World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna—its recognition of the universal character of human rights—were high points of this convergence between the human rights movement and mainstream religious communities. Most in the secular human rights movement agreed that there was indeed a faith-based commitment to human rights.

This convergence was also helped by the priorities imposed on the human rights movement by the brutality of government repression. In Latin America in particular, civil and political rights were an immediate question of life and death while issues more likely to separate rights and religious communities were confined to the sidelines: most opted for a “coexistence of differences” on flash points like sexuality or abortion. In Mexico, for instance, the bishop of the state of Chiapas, Mgr. Samuel Ruiz, could join with secular human rights activists on civil and political rights issues, and even on social justice concerns implicating rights to health and housing, while retaining his more traditionalist positions on issues like sexuality and reproductive rights.

[14] Ken Booth, “Three Tyrannies,” in Tim Dunne and Nicholas J. Heeler, eds., Human Rights in Global Politics (Cambridge (U.K.): Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 33.

[15] In particular the conference organized by UNESCO on the contribution of religions to the “culture of peace,” held in Barcelona in December 1994.

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