“Is there a schism between the human rights movement and religious communities?” That is the question posed by Jean-Paul Marthoz and Joseph Saunders, two staff members of Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org), in a recently released report entitled, Religion and the Human Rights Movement. They list many contentious issues, including reproductive rights, gay marriage, and blasphemy laws.
In discussions on issues such as the Muslim headscarf debate, some human rights activists have not always been willing to support “certain public expressions of religious conscience.” The two authors consider the issue of engaging with religious communities as one of the most urgent ones for the human rights movement.
They suggest that a balance has to be found between a more active involvement in protecting the rights of believers and an opposition to religious groups when they attempt to erode those rights seen as incompatible with their beliefs. The philosophy of human rights is seen by some as a product of the Enlightenment in the West, but the authors remark that religion has also played a key role in the development of human rights in several cases.
The 1970s and 1980s were mostly a time of convergence between religious and human rights activists (with exceptions here and there), but resurgent religion and its challenge to secularism has changed the situation. Moreover, different states have attempted to use religion in order to reinforce their power, while religious authorities have come out against free speech. It is true that secular human rights groups and religious communities continue to work side by side on a number of issues, but “on other issues at the crossroads of religious dogma and human rights ideology […] the points of divergence are growing.”
The report concludes that the human rights movement should not sacrifice its principles, but that there are many issues on which alliances can be made. Moreover, commitment to human rights also involves defending the rights of “fundamentalists,” as long as they do not physically attack non-believers or commit similar actions.
(The report (22 pages) can be downloaded as a PDF file from the website of Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/wr2k5/religion/religion.pdf)
— By Jean-François Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and Founder of Religioscope website (http://www.religioscope.com)