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Human rights need religious freedom

The United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948 and the subsequent attention paid to it has without doubt improved the lot of ordinary citizens in a wide variety of ways.

The Catholic Church was able to easily subscribe to this declaration as it fitted in well with its natural law tradition, which tries to contain the explosive nature of rights as an instrument for promoting the growth of state control over the individual destinies of citizens.

However, the modern regime of rights tends to undermine any solid notion of national-state defined limits on tampering with human rights, as based on the natural order.

The presumption that underpins the declaration that these truths are held to be self-evident and can be respected and substantiated in any culture or by any religious expression has come under increasing fire, at least since the 1970s, as the discourse on world politics became increasingly rights-based in its rhetoric.

Even groups like the UN today have moved away from the theory of self evident and set themselves up more and more as definers and even imposers of human rights, especially in the areas of the right to abortion, euthanasia, scientific experimentation on human beings, homosexuality, war and peace.

This is quite contrary to the original charter of 1948, to the extent that it seems that it now holds no truths to be self evident, only self formulated.

In Catholic thought, this also challenges whether there is such a thing as human nature or not, as there are no givens and human dignity becomes the freedom for individuals to project on the world their own understanding of who they are—or demand how they must be treated.

This has also been taken to another level, where governments take it upon themselves to project on their subjects their understanding of their nature and purpose, leading to state security or collective advancement theories, which override what the universal declaration regards as self evident.

The recent release of the Annual Report on Religious Freedom by the Department of State in the United States of America received an angry reaction from Beijing over its criticism of China’s redefinition of normal religious practice.

The report notes that the Chinese constitution provides for the freedom of religious belief, but limits protection for religious practice to what it terms normal.

However, it goes on to point out that there is no definition or description of normal, which has led to a deterioration, even in the last 12 months, of religious freedom as it would be understood under what the report terms, “international human rights standards for freedom of religion.”

When what is considered normal is not clearly described, what is utilitarian to the controlling authority can be taken as normal, a recipe for repression and abuse of human rights.

Religious rights are essential to the development of human rights, as when they are ignored or suppressed the very understanding of what it is to be human is eroded and the dignity of the human person becomes at best individualist and at worst relativist.

In recent days we have seen the ASEAN hedging on human rights in terms of state security and Muslims refused the right to fast during Ramadan in Xinjiang, China.

These two happenings are not unrelated. JiM