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Kirill (Gundyaev), patr. Human rights and intercultural dialogue (Speaking at a panel discussion ‘Human Rights and Intercultural Dialogue’ at the 7th session of the UN Human Rights Council, Geneva, March 18, 2008)
HUMAN RIGHTS AND
Speaking at a panel discussion on ‘Human rights and intercultural
dialogue’ at the 7th session of the UN Human Rights Council,
Geneva, March 18, 2008.
The Human Rights Council is a young structure within the galaxy of United Nations structures. It is, however, backed by the long experience of this authoritative organization in the interpretation and implementation of human rights. The Council has significant opportunities to bring new partners into the discussion on the issues which lie within its competence. Among these, religious organizations will, I hope, occupy a worthy place.
Certainly, human rights are an important institution of our contemporary social structure.The attractiveness of the concept is based on the simple and accessible idea that central to social life is a concern for the welfare of each individual. It is precisely this idea that Christianity brought to European culture. Christianity constantly proclaims the availability of salvation for every person, regardless of national or social origin, while at the same time emphasizing the uniqueness and value of each individual in God’s plan for the world.
Christians cannot remain uninvolved in the subsequent fate of this important message to humanity, even if expressed in the secular language of human rights. It is important that this institution continue to serve the good of every person and of society as a whole.
However, in the opinion of many Orthodox Christians, in the development and application of human rights certain trends are
today gaining momentum that can potentially jeopardize the attainment of this lofty goal.
First and foremost, the development of the institution of human rights is increasingly falling under the monopolistic influence of a limited range of propositions concerning human nature that are not shared by the majority of the inhabitants of our planet. Often, international organizations dealing with human rights issues base their conclusions on the views of a narrow circle of experts, officials, or loud, but well-organized minorities. Many nation-states are also strongly influenced by these players and in so doing lose the ability to translate the original values on which the lives of their own people are structured into their political activity and legislation.
Characteristically, of the most common and widely used concept in connection with the topic of human rights - human dignity - there is today no clear and commonly accepted understanding. It is used as a kind of axiom, even though discussion of its contents is long overdue. Key to this understanding is how we understand man, and thus his rights.
For Orthodox Christians, it is clear that human dignity is inconceivable without the religious and spiritual and moral dimension. At the same time the need to ensure the applicability of human rights for people of different ideologies is often used to vindicate distancing human rights from religion. As a result, religious belief is declared a private affair and is not considered as a source of modern law, including human rights. This happens despite the fact that, according to widespread estimates, approximately 80 per cent of the world’s population are religious people.
On the contrary, what we hear is the demand for the subordination of religious beliefs to norms born on the soil of non-religious ideas. This leads to the dominance of agnostic or even materialistic approaches to life that justly annoys believers. And in practice this leads to exclusion from the public sphere of religious rituals, symbols and ideas. Even a favourite Christian holiday - Christmas - has in many Western countries lost its name. Today the authorities congratulate the people at non-Christian seasonal festivals. Human
rights are also used to justify insult to, and distortion of, religious symbols and beliefs. Following the same approach people now seek to replace the teaching of the foundations of their own religion in schools with a general introductory course on the various religions.
In short, we are seeing a secular approach that leads people to abandon the expression of their faith in public life. This leads to the construction of non-religious society, which can not enjoy the support any truly religious person.
Furthermore, we observe the strong influence on language standards, guidelines and programmes in the field of human rights activities, of extreme feminist views and gay attitudes which are destructive to the institution of family and population reproduction. It is not for us to judge the lifestyle choices of different people, but why should their views should be forcibly imposed, through the legal system, on other people that do not share them? Recently it was announced that the UK was banning Roman Catholic adoption agencies that refuse to consider same-sex couples as potential candidates for adoptive parents.
We cannot accept approaches to the role of men and women, to male-female relationships, to relationships between parents and children, or the status of same-sex unions, which apparently take into account the opinion of believers.
The view of abortion as a woman’s right has led us to a situation in which international organizations are deaf and blind to the right to life of a conceived child. Today there are no references to ethics when experimentation takes place with human embryos. Even more surprising is proposal to amend the corpus of human rights law on euthanasia. Human rights, which begin with the fundamental right to life, may in the near future be on the side of death.
At the same time, serious questions arise when it comes to the application of human rights. One problem in this area relates to the interpretation of the concept of freedom.The body of human rights strengthens people’s opportunities to act in certain ways at their discretion. In other words, they protect the freedom of choice, but say nothing about human responsibility. As a result, man is free, but left
defenceless against evil. What do we mean here by freedom from evil? In our view, it is described in the language of moral norms. In his speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe last year, Patriarch Alexy II offered an understanding of morality as a positive liberty: ‘Morality is freedom in action. This freedom is realized as a result of responsible choice, placing limits on ourselves for our own good and that of society.’
I would like to recall that the UN standards, which are based, inter alia, on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, also place limits on the freedom of choice for the sake of ‘meeting the just requirements of morality’. Unfortunately, in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union this restrictive setting is omitted.
In many countries, under the pretext of freedom, we are seeing the active development of a commercial industry filling society with propaganda for an immoral lifestyle. We believe that people should have the right to be shielded from the preaching of violence, the consumption of drugs and alcohol, gambling and sexual promiscuity.
In our view, human rights must not conflict with moral norms that are recognized by most people as a desirable behaviour. If human rights become supportive of moral relativism in society, they become something alien to believers.
The subject of human rights also raises the issue of whether rights-protection systems can take different forms in different countries of the world. Yes, human rights have a universal application. However, it is perfectly feasible that they be embodied in a manner that reflects the cultural sensitivities of one or another nation. In some countries people are more religious than in others. Here religion can and should play a more prominent role in the formation and implementation of human rights. In addition, every nation has its own historical experience, cultural traditions and thought systems. One can not ignore these realities in constructing a national human rights system. In this respect certain countries act in a totally undemocratic fashion by considering their particular
system of implementation of human rights as universally applicable. Directly or indirectly they seek to impose their standards on other peoples or to set themselves up as the sole arbiters of human rights. I would suggest that in this case the only acceptable dialogue is one which excludes the ‘teacher - pupil’ situation. Finally, I cannot keep silent about the harmful effect of such double standards on the reputation of human rights activities. Not infrequently, human rights are used by some countries as a tool for their national interests.This is particularly evident in the conflict regions of the planet. The most recent example is the situation in Kosovo and Metochia. These cases stoke up anger in various parts of the world and sow prejudice against human rights.
Summarizing the above, I would say the following. Today everyone is talking about the clash of civilizations or cultures, but what we are really dealing with is a conflict of approaches, one based on a religious world view and the other on a secular one. For some reason, it is widely believed that a non-religious and morally neutral approach best expresses the universal aspirations of humanity and deals with various contradictions in the world. But to do so is to forget that the religious and moral dimension of human life is universal and apply to all peoples.
The religious approach, as I have tried to show, attaches great importance to the social role of religion, as well as to maintaining a unified moral system in society. It is precisely on this basis that both international law, including human rights, and national legislation should be structured. Otherwise, the alienation and opposition of a large part of humanity towards ongoing global processes will only increase. The non-confrontational way out of the current situation is to hold intensive dialogue.
The Russian Orthodox Church is currently in the process of structuring a comprehensive approach to human rights. This summer, if all goes to plan, a document on this subject will be adopted by our church’s highest governing body - the Council of Bishops. From the experience of inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogue, we know that other Christian denominations and world
religions have also developed approaches to the topic of human rights. It would be good to create opportunities for these views to be heard on the platform of the Human Rights Council and at the UN in general.
In 2006, Moscow hosted a summit of world religious leaders. The ensuing debate showed that, despite the differences that exist, religious figures acknowledged the important role of religion in society and noted the closeness of the fundamental ethical norms of major world religions. In my opinion, this could provide the necessary meeting point between different civilizations in the modern world.
The summit made a proposal to create a platform for religious dialogue in the UN. An appeal in this direction was addressed to the leaders of the Group of Eight. Russia, as is known, supported this idea. Last year, at the 62nd UN General Assembly, its foreign minister proposed that a consultative council of religions be set up with special UN status. I very much hope that other interested countries will be able to support this reasonable initiative by religious leaders, which would give new impetus to dialogue on human rights at the global level.
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