God and human rights (part 1): It’s complicated

Sunday morning, I mean Saturday night, Vancouver airport

I’m in the Maple Leaf Lounge with my colleague waiting for our connecting flight to Hong Kong. almost 4 in the morning Montreal time. After that 13 hour haul to HK, it’s another wait for a couple of hours before landing in Jakarta. A couple of white guys (that’s not saying much; in these lounges, it’s hard to spot anyone else) are talking about textile. How difficult it is, says one, to have a factory in India, it’s too hot, the roads are terrible, and besides, the labour is cheaper in China. The other guy is now bragging about his house in Greece. And now he’s telling the other guy that the best steak in the world is found in Hong Kong. It looks as though he’s sampled enough filet mignon.

Well I’m sure my house is smaller than his and my job is more interesting than both of theirs. One of the reasons I’m going to Indonesia is to help facilitate a workshop for the Ministry of Social Affairs. The focus of the workshop is to educate their staff on the integration of a rights-based approach to social work. In our workshop manual, the first reference sheet has a number of definitions of “human rights.” And it’s the first one which gave me pause. It’s from Indonesia’s Human Rights Act from 1999:  

Human rights mean a set of rights bestowed by God Almighty in the essence and being of humans as creations of God which must be respected, held in the highest esteem and protected by the state, law, Government, and all people in order to protect human dignity and worth.
So this is what doesn’t work for me: rights, in my opinion, are not bestowed by God. Rights are a human construct, as far as I know I see no evidence that a deity – from any religion – has bestowed rights to anyone anywhere. If you read through the United Nations definition we present right after, you’ll see a difference:

Human rights are commonly understood as being those rights which are inherent to the human being. The concept of human rights acknowledges that every single human being is entitled to enjoy his or her human rights without distinction as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or others opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
Human rights are legally guaranteed by human rights law, protecting individuals and groups against actions that interfere with the fundamental freedoms and human dignity.
At least both definitions agree that human rights are legally enforceable standards. The idea that some people believe that God bestows rights does not typically cause friction in my work (oh but it does sometimes). I’ve worked with human rights educators in dozens of countries and regardless of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), there is always some common ground that we can uncover, and it’s usually concerning values. Respect, acceptance, equality (well, sort of. Equality for some people can mean “women have this role, men have another role, and that’s it.”), and non-discrimination.

Let me cite one example where I don’t find it helpful to assume that God bestowed rights. I may be having a very candid and critical discussion with a man who believes, according to his upbringing (which is a combination of religion, culture, family, friends and so on), that women are inherently inferior to men. I may be making some headway in putting my argument forward that women and girls should be given equal opportunities compared to men and boys to realise their full potential as human beings and that historically this has not been the case. He may be on the verge of realizing that yes, women have been shafted for most of history in most societies, but then he’ll pull out the argument that God was the only one who gave us rights and we are not ones to contradict His will, so things should not change. Wall.

I am not in the business of changing people’s religious views. I am displeased enough as it is by Jehovah’s Witnesses ringing my doorbell every month and handing me a pamphlet informing me of who Jesus really was and how I can better manage my time. But what I feel I must do as an educator is to ensure that human rights – whatever their origin – are well understood by all. The last definition in that reference sheet I mentioned earlier is my favourite one of human rights because it specifies that a right implies four things: 1) there is a subject of that right (of a right-holder, like an individual or a group), 2) a duty-holder, like the Sate, which is legally obliged to fulfil that right, 3) the object of the right, in other words the content of the right is defined, and finally 4) the implementation of the right, indicating the measures taken to realize the right and how its realization will be monitored.

Engaging people in a critical discussion on human rights means challenging their beliefs (everyone’s beliefs, mine included). This is, at best, not easy at all. I have been cautious for the most part when addressing God and human rights, and the more I think of that stance, the more I question my own behaviour. I think (OK, I hope) it’s possible to engage others in a critical manner by having everyone challenge – in a constructive, open way – each others’ beliefs, including religious beliefs, which form a sizeable part of many peoples’ value systems. Why should religion be off-limits?

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