An international, interfaith group of religous scholars has released a document they hope will begin a new chapter in global discussion of human rights.
On September 15, a group of scholars from several countries, led by Professor Arvind Sharma, professor of comparative religion at the School of Religious Studies at McGill University, unveiled a “Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World’s Religions.” The document, the product of 18 years of meetings and consultations, was released at the end of the 3rd Global Conference on World’s Religions After September 11, a daylong event held in Montreal.
Brian D. Lepard, professor of law at the University of Nebraska and a member of the latest drafting committee for the document, said earlier drafts and its preamble had been changed to make a stronger stand against terrorism, recognize evolution in thinking about rights, recognize the contribution religions have made to rights and emphasize that rights are everyone’s responsibility.
The preamble to the latest version states that “it is imperative that the world’s religions be included as a positive resource for human rights.” The world’s religions, it continues, “teach the fundamental truth of the oneness of the human family.”
The declaration is inspired by and seeks to complement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the United Nations, Sharma said. It seeks to balance what some regard as an undue emphasis on individualistic and Western values, he said, putting more emphasis on collective, as opposed to individual, rights. It also emphasizes duties as well as rights, and the responsibilities of people and organizations. Earlier drafts were presented at two predecessor conferences in Montreal in 2006 and 2011, as well as at several scholarly conferences in different countries starting in 1998.
More than 500 scholars and others attended to the conference, well below the totals of 2,025 in 2006 and over 3,000 in 2011, when the Dalai Lama was among the speakers. Speakers at this year’s conference included Karen Armstrong, the bestselling British historian of religions and author of the recent Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence; veteran ecumenist Gregory Baum, of Montreal; U.S. speaker and author on mind-body healing Deepak Chopra; U.S. theologian Harvey Cox; Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire; Amir Hussain, professor of theological studies, specializing in Islam, at Marymount University in Los Angeles; Indian guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar; Manjit Singh, Sikh chaplain at McGill; and Charles Taylor, professor emeritus at McGill and a prominent philosopher and activist.
Iranian civil rights advocate and Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, who presented a draft of the declaration at the 2006 Montreal conference, sent a videotaped message.
Several speakers, especially Armstrong and Hussain, insisted that the importance of Islam to the Islamic State and other terrorist groups is much less than it is often depicted.
People “never go to war for a single reason,” Armstrong said. “Terrorism is always, inescapably, a political act. It often seems to me that we make a scapegoat of religion. I’m not saying that religion is not involved at all, only that there is a cocktail of causes.” She said these range from political instability in the Middle East, a legacy of the colonial era, to “malaise and boredom” among young recruits, who often have a skimpy knowledge of Islam.
She said the world is in urgent need of compassion, but some trends in Western countries, including attitudes toward refugees in Europe, and the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S., fill her with dread.
“I fear that the West is losing its soul,” Armstrong said.
Hussain said monitoring mosques and imams is unlikely to be much help in finding would-be terrorists, who seldom have much to do with them but often radicalize themselves via the Internet.
Baum said elites in all religions, including those represented at the conference, often fail to get their message across to ordinary people.
In a message released just before the conference, Sharma, a Hindu, said recent conflict in the Middle East, terrorist attacks elsewhere, controversy in the U.S. presidential election campaign and other events served to underline the document’s importance.
“We did not anticipate this summer of fatal fanaticism when we decided to hold the Third Global Conference on World’s Religions after September 11 in Montreal this year,” he said. “Little did we know while we were planning the conference that its purpose and goal would become even more relevant today.”
The preamble also states that “the conscience of people of faith has been shaken by individuals and authorities within the world’s religions who have failed to defend human rights and have committed atrocities and violations of human rights in the name of religion, including acts of terrorism.”
Harvey Shepherd is a freelance reporter in Montreal.