60 Years of the UNHDR (December 2008)

Round Table Events in Exeter and Plymouth to Mark the 60th Anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (8 & 10 Dec. respectively)

People of different faiths, and from various academic disciplines and professions, joined in discussion about the future of human rights in a religiously and otherwise plural world.

The partipants at both sessions came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some were Community Officers for organizations combatting racial discrimination and racial violence. Some were scholars of international law. Some were retired academics from other disciplines. Some worked for agencies supporting refugees and asylum seekers. Some were university teachers of international human rights law; others community leaders trying to influence local and national policy with respect to rights in the workplace and children's rights. One had been an Ecumenical Accompanier in Palestine. Others were scholars of the Qur'an who, whilst critical of the individualistic tenor of much recent Western rights talk, were exploring conceptual and practical issues relating to the interface between human rights and Islamic law.

Our various experiences of lobbying and campaigning, attempts to influence policy, research, work with the media, grass roots support, partnerships, etc., made us all too aware that, for many people, the UDHR remains an unfulfilled promise. Of interest to us colloquially was the role that religion in diverse modes of public life might play in advancing the work of human rights and jus cogens norms.

Three broad, general issues formed a backdrop for our discussions:

Firstly, we were aware of tendencies in modern public international law that make the international arena increasingly unreceptive to a satisfactory concept of human rights - in particular, the focus of public international law on states as the only legal players in the international community and the emphasis on consensus amongst states as the only source of legitimacy for international law.

Secondly, we were aware of tendencies in our (predominantly UK, European and American) domestic and regional contexts to delimit the work of human rights to the civil and political at the expense of the social and economic.

Thirdly, we were aware of challenges from various quarters that the universality of human rights is a myth that should have evaporated long ago ... or is disappearing as we speak, and of the immense practical difficulties in integrating universal human rights norms into diverse social contexts. Participants in Exeter expecially helped us to unpack why and how the massively complex tension between the cosmopolitan norms of human rights and the need for legal rights has been treated in some instances by courts around the world (e.g., cases dealing with access to legal abortion in Peru). We discussed also some issues surrounding Moslem teaching regarding the status of the individual before God and divergent views amongst Moslem thinkers regarding the modern nation state.

Our more specific discussions in the second of the two sessions centred around various Moslem declarations of human rights. Charlotte Alfred led our discussions on the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR) 1981 and Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam 1990, paying particular attention to status of minority rights in Islam. In Exeter, our discussion centred around the potential benefits and/or harm of specifically religious declarations. In Plymouth, we talked more about the positive obligations that the protection of minorities enjoin upon nation states.