top of page

Defending the universality of human rights against its detractors

By Stephen Evans

Stephen is Chief Executive of the National Secular Society, which was founded in 1866 by Charles Bradlaugh MP

2023 will mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). One of the responses to the horrors of the Second World War, the Declaration is widely regarded as one of humanity's greatest achievements. Its articulation of a common vision of respectful and peaceful coexistence has underpinned human rights treaties across the globe and inspired many individuals and policymakers to work toward a better world.

Eleanor Roosevelt holding the UDHR

One of the key principles of human rights is universality – the idea that human beings are endowed with equal rights simply by virtue of being human, wherever they live and whoever they are, regardless of their status or any particular characteristics. Critics of the notion of universality often dismiss such rights as 'western values' emanating from a European, Judeo-Christian, and/or Enlightenment heritage. The concept of universality is receiving increasing pushback, particularly from religious groups who want to redraw the boundaries of human rights in line with ‘cultural and intellectual traditions’. But as French President Emmanuel Macron has masterfully articulated, claims that human rights are a western concept fail to recognise the major influence of non-western states in the drafting of the UDHR, and fall flat when looking back at historical global support for human rights.

Yet one thing is certain: human rights are not universally applied today. One of the biggest barriers to the flourishing of rights is religion, particularly where it enjoys proximity to political power. It’s no coincidence that the world’s theocracies ­ – Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – are amongst the world’s worst human rights violators. Freedom of expression has been a particular bugbear of majority Muslim nations. Between 1999 and 2010, a coalition of 57 Islamic nations known as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) launched a concerted effort to limit free speech around religion globally. The OIC pushed ‘defamation of religion’ resolutions at the United Nations. Proponents argued that Muslims were facing growing intolerance and discrimination, which they described as ‘Islamophobia’. But their attempts to curtail speech were more about protecting religion than individuals.

The campaign by Islamic nations faced opposition from western democracies, which argued that ‘defamation of religion’ resolutions would violate the right to freedom of speech, thought, conscience and religion. Eventually the defamation approach was abandoned, but attempts to conflate criticism of religion with hatred of Muslims continues through the contested concept of ‘Islamophobia’.

The right to freedom of expression is far from the only human right that vexes religious fundamentalists. Since Afghanistan fell back into a theocratic government, the Taliban have imposed their strict and brutal interpretation of Islam, flagrantly flouting numerous human rights principles with total disregard for international law. According to Human Rights Watch, since taking power the Taliban have imposed rules that comprehensively prevent women and girls from exercising their most fundamental rights to expression, movement, and education, and affect their other basic rights to life, livelihood, health care, food and water. They have prohibited women from travelling abroad or going to their workplace without a male family member accompanying them – and barred them from many jobs. Almost all girls are denied access to secondary school.

In Iran, where Islamic clerics also impose their religion on the population, women are leading a tidal wave of protests demanding that the repressive and suffocating Islamic regime is replaced with a free, open, secular and modern country. It’s a rude awakening for the mullahs who claim so called 'western' values aren’t universal. They’re finding out that liberal values of separation of religion and state, free expression, equality and freedom of and from religion are more universal than they thought. The regime’s response has been public executions, mass arrests, and cutting off Iranians’ internet access. At the time of writing, the group Iran Human Rights, based in Oslo, reports that at least 458 people, including 63 children and 29 women, have been killed in the protests.

Those living under theocracies understand the need for secularism better than most. The concept of universality resonates most strongly with those who are marginalised or experience discrimination. Children, LGBT people, religious minorities, and women bear the brunt whenever religious fundamentalists are able to impose their will on societies.

Last year’s US Supreme Court ruling in Roe v Wade was a wake-up call to the global threat conservative religious views pose to women’s reproductive rights. Closer to home an ascendant religious right is eroding reproductive freedoms in Italy and Poland. LGBT people’s human rights are being restricted by religiously motivated policies, laws and practices that discriminate or fuel prejudice against them. Children’s education is impeded by attempts to indoctrinate. The Convention on the Rights of the Child declares that children’s right to education should be directed to the 'preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society'. Yet hard-line Taliban leaders push for a complete ban on girls’ education, and religious groups in the UK run unregistered schools where children are denied a secular education and indoctrinated only with religion.

Persistent attempts by religious fundamentalists to impose their interpretation of religious doctrine on others demonstrates the necessity of secularism. Organisations like the National Secular Society campaign to curb religious power-seeking and ensure human rights aren’t overridden on the grounds of religion, tradition or culture. Believers and nonbelievers alike who want to protect and promote human rights should embrace secularist principles to fend off religious challenges that would fatally and fundamentally undermine them. And we need, more than ever, to protect the fundamental principle that all rights are universal. Let’s make sure the 75th anniversary of the UDHR sees renewed efforts to give effect to human rights on the ground for everyone, everywhere.

143 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 comentario

18 feb 2023

In the UK, the flawed definition of Islamophobia is drawn from the equally flawed IHRA definition of Judeophobia or antisemitism. The concept has recently been further extended to an equally flawed definition of Hinduphobia. I believe - in the USA - an attempt is being made to create an artificial definition of Christophobia. Religious ideologies learn from one another, particularly where a tool to stifle any and all forms of criticism of their particular brand of religious ideology is concerned.

Me gusta
bottom of page