Religious Perspectives on Human Rights

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Religious Perspectives on Human Rights

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

 Religious Perspectives on Human Rights


This on-line and soon-to-be paper publication began life as a one-day roundtable discussion on ‘Religious Perspectives on Human Rights’. It was held on Friday 25 October, kindly hosted at Catholic Theological College, East Melbourne, followed by a related book launch on Islam in Australia.

It was a small and convivial gathering of religious scholars from a number of different traditions, who came together to discuss the concept of human rights and how these might be understood from each tradition’s perspective. The Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Edward Santow opened the discussion on the day.

The idea was inspired in part by a project conducted by the philosopher Jacques Maritain around the time of the 1948 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, in which thinkers from a range of religious and philosophical perspectives contributed papers on how the newly-emerging modern human rights movement fitted within their tradition’s ethical and spiritual perspectives.

We hope this will be a valuable resource for religious communities and human rights organisations alike at a time when the religious liberty discussion is taking all the attention without a wider, balancing framework and focus in relation to human rights of all sorts, from religion to refugees. It is as if we have to redraw the wheel regularly in Australia due the lack of this framework in Australia.

The partnership and cooperation over the past two years between Daniel Nellor, Advisor to the Human Rights Commissioner - Freedom of Religion, Australian Human Rights Commission and myself as Director of the Centre, now Network for Religion and Social Policy (RASP) at the University of Divinity, has been a very positive one. We also thank Ethos Centre for Christianity and Society, who is publishing the material as hopefully a harbinger of hope for more fruitful cooperation on these issues in the future. We thank each of the contributors for playing their part in a fruitful exploration of the issues.

Daniel Nellor and Gordon Preece


Edward Santow

It’s a pleasure to introduce this collection of papers from the 2019 Religious Perspectives on Human Rights roundtable hosted by the Centre for Religion and Social Policy at the University of Divinity (now the Religion and Social Policy Network).

Conversations about the relationship between religion and human rights are important for at least three reasons: first, because the human rights community needs to engage with the great religious traditions; second, because religious traditions need to engage with human rights discourse; and third, because the world is currently facing serious challenges to human rights, human wellbeing, and to the very idea that dignity should sit at the heart of all that we strive for.

These are challenges that people of faith and human rights advocates share. To rise to them, we must act together.

Human rights needs religion

The history of modern human rights discourse shows its indebtedness to religious thought. In 1948, the world was reeling from the horror of two world wars. The international community came together to find a new way to interact: one based on our shared humanity.

This meant identifying the rights that needed protection in order recognise each person’s individual dignity. For example, the right to life, liberty, education and equality before the law—as well as the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The result has come to be known as the international bill of rights, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at its centre. This is the basis of modern human rights laws, and it is the standard against which governments are held to account—not perfectly, and not always consistently, but certainly persistently—by the human rights community in Australia and around the world.

There was strong support for the Universal Declaration from many religious leaders and religious communities in 1948, in part because it affirmed something that religious traditions had been insisting on for centuries: that, in the words of the preamble, ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace’.

It is undeniable that there is an over-representation of people of faith among movements that aim to promote human rights. Take, for instance, the Quaker Eric Baker, who was one of the founders of Amnesty International; Abdol Hossein Sardari, known as the Oscar Schindler of Iran; and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Canon John Collins in the struggle against Apartheid.

The term ‘human rights’ is a Western one. While the ideas behind this term are universal, we need to work hard to understand how Eastern and other non-Abrahamic traditions might engage with this language. Human rights advocates — myself included — are yet to address this need adequately. This is all the more important as Asia, particularly China, returns to a position of global predominance.

Another reason human rights discourse needs religion is to help it connect with people at the deepest level. From a religious perspective, former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has said: ‘Rights have to be more than pure assertion or, as some would now have it, necessary fictions to secure a maximal degree of social harmony’.

From a secular perspective, the political philosopher Amartya Sen wrote that: ‘The central idea of human rights as something that people have, and have even without any specific legislation, is seen by many as foundationally dubious and lacking in cogency. A recurrent question is, where do these rights come from?’ Sen goes on to insist that ‘the conceptual doubts must be satisfactorily addressed, if the idea of human rights is to command reasoned loyalty and to establish a secure intellectual standing. It is critically important to see the relationship between the force and appeal of human rights, on the one hand, and their reasoned justification and scrutinised use, on the other’.

These thinkers and many others like them agree that rights cannot be just a matter of what is written in international or domestic law. If they are no more than this, then when respecting rights becomes difficult — say, if there are financial or security or other reasons to put human rights aside — then governments and citizens will easily do so. Human rights need to ‘go deep’ — to be understood as naming something real about human beings. Of course, religious and spiritual traditions are not the only things that lie at the deepest places in people’s consciousness, but they are one of the things.

Human rights advocates should also consider how religious thought helps to support the universalising impulse that has existed in human rights discourse from the beginning. Axiomatically, human rights are universal, inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. Rowan Williams has argued that: ‘The language of the Universal Declaration is unthinkable without the kind of moral universalism that religious ethics safeguards’. He did not say that only religion can safeguard universal rights—but religion certainly has an important role to play.

Religion needs human rights

Human rights needs religion. But the reverse is also true. The great religious traditions, I believe, should engage with human rights discourse. Religious and cultural pluralism is a part of modern life, and a multicultural Australia is also a multifaith Australia. At the same time, the number of people who do not see themselves as belonging to any religious tradition is growing. Given this multiplicity of viewpoints and background assumptions, we need more than ever to find a language in which we can talk to one another about what it means to treat one another with respect. Human rights may not be the only way to do this; but it is probably the dominant way at this point in history and it is, I believe, a good way.

Another reason religion should engage with human rights is that it is one way of prosecuting the concerns that the great religious traditions have for human wellbeing. As Human Rights Commissioner, I have repeatedly found common cause with religious communities — for example in my work on refugees and detention, and my work on modern slavery.

Religious traditions, like all traditions and intellectual systems, also need to be constructively challenged from time to time, and human rights discourse can play a role here. In fact, we all need this. The human rights community has itself recently been challenged on what some regard as a weak commitment to tackling climate change. I believe that the human rights history and framework—the principles that have been developed in international law over the past 70 years or so—can help traditions, including religious traditions, think in fresh ways about how they are living up to their own rhetoric about human value and dignity. Some of the work done by human rights organisations in the lead up to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse might be a case in point.

Shared challenges

The third and perhaps most important reason why human rights and theological discourses should engage with one another is that given the challenges the world faces today, everyone who believes in human value and human dignity needs more than ever to work together. Around the world and also in Australia, we see a growing willingness to suspend or deny basic rights. The ‘end of history’ thesis has been thoroughly debunked. It is no longer assumed that democratic values, and respect for human rights, will win the day.

There are also new challenges. I am currently involved in studying the human rights implications of recent rapid advances in digital technology. We will need the best of ancient wisdom — including religious wisdom — if we are to engage with technology in a healthy, life-giving way. Then there is the challenge of climate change. This is a human rights issue, and it is also a theological issue. If ever there was an opportunity for common cause between the human rights and religious communities, it is this one.

There is, at times, tension between contemporary, secular human rights discourse and the great religious traditions. While this shouldn’t defeat us, nor should we wish it away. Dialectic among people of good faith is important in working through different worldviews. I am convinced that conversations like the ones represented in these papers can be important sources of mutual enrichment and growing solidarity.

Edward Santow has been Human Rights Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission since August 2016. Ed leads the Commission’s work on technology and human rights; refugees and migration; human rights issues affecting LGBTI people; counter-terrorism and national security; freedom of expression; freedom of religion; and implementing the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT). Ed’s areas of expertise include human rights, public law and discrimination law. He is a Visiting Professorial Fellow at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Human Rights and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and serves on a number of boards and committees.


A Custodial Ethic: an Aboriginal way of wholeness and reciprocity

Rev. Glenn Loughrey

Concepts of Human Rights and Equality: the Hindu perspective

Dr Jayant Bhalchandra Bapat

Human Rights, Buddhism and the Crisis of Australia's Detention Centres

Dr Di Cousens

Islamic perspectives on human rights: a brief socio-historical overview

Dr Dzavid Haveric

‘Created In the image of God’: A Jewish Approach to Human Rights

Rabbi Fred Morgan AM

Religions and Human Rights: a Reformed and Anglican Christian approach
Rev. Gordon Preece

Human Rights and Guilt By Association: Said Nursi’s renewal approach

Associate Professor Salih Yucel

The call to ‘radical solidarity’: Emmanuel Levinas and John Paul II on religion and human rights

Nigel Zimmermann

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