For The Muslim Times by Dr. Abdul Alim:
On December 8, 2015 King Abdullah of Jordan spoke to Charlie Rose about the possibility of a Third World War. On December 10, 2015, when the world was celebrating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, BBC Magazine ran an article titled “America’s iconic War machine” singing praises of the B52 Bomber that can carry a huge payload of nuclear cruise missiles and can virtually reach anywhere in the world without the need to land. It was also December 10, 2015 when the year long culmination of the celebration of the two other international treaties namely the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1966 came to a conclusion.
Will these celebrations pave the way for world peace? Given the rise in global political tensions, conflicts such as the rise of IS, climate change and rising inequality among countries, it is very difficult to be hopeful or positive about world peace. Given these developments it would certainly make sense to reflect if the UDHR and other human right treaties will be able to save us from a Third World War among other catastrophic developments or will they fail despite the broad agreement and consensus forged among nations when they were adopted.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and is considered one of the most comprehensive, universally accepted and ratified Rights Treaty globally. It was a rare feat in which 58 nations voted 1400 times on each and every clause of the treaty before it was presented and passed by the General Assembly. Since then the treaty has been used to defend human rights across the globe and serves as the legal basis for equality of humans by almost all nations’ across the world. It of universal peace and security. It spans over social, political and economic spheres and has been an inspiration giving rise to over sixty human rights instruments over the last seventy years of the UN’s existence.
In summary UDHR consists of the following:
“The Universal Declaration covers the range of human rights in 30 clear and concise articles. The first two articles lay the universal foundation of human rights: human beings are equal because of their shared essence of human dignity; human rights are universal, not because of any State or international organization, but because they belong to all of humanity. The two articles assure that human rights are the birthright of everyone, not privileges of a select few, nor privileges to be granted or denied. Article 1 declares that “all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Article 2 recognizes the universal dignity of a life free from discrimination. “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
The first cluster of articles, 3 to 21, sets forth civil and political rights to which everyone is entitled. The right to life, liberty and personal security, recognized in Article 3 sets the base for all following political rights and civil liberties, including freedom from slavery, torture and arbitrary arrest, as well as the rights to a fair trial, free speech and free movement and privacy.
The second cluster of articles, 22 to 27, sets forth the economic, social and cultural rights to which all human beings are entitled. The cornerstone of these rights is Article 22, acknowledging that, as a member of society, everyone has the right to social security and is therefore entitled to the realization of the economic, social and cultural rights “indispensable” for his or her dignity and free and full personal development. Five articles elaborate the rights necessary for the enjoyment of the fundamental right to social security, including economic rights related to work, fair remuneration and leisure, social rights concerning an adequate standard of living for health, well-being and education, and the right to participate in the cultural life of the community.
The third and final cluster of articles, 28 to 30, provides a larger protective framework in which all human rights are to be universally enjoyed. Article 28 recognizes the right to a social and international order that enables the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Article 29 acknowledges that, along with rights, human beings also have obligations to the community which also enable them to develop their individual potential freely and fully. Article 30, finally, protects the interpretation of the articles of the Declaration from any outside interference contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. It explicitly states that no State, group or person can claim to have the right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration”. See here for Reference:
Unfortunately even with such powerful consensus, adoption of national legal instruments based on UDHR and awareness of human rights, the world seems to be heading in a disastrous direction. Is UDHR missing some crucial elements that prevent it from addressing the real crisis that humanity faces today? The answer is Yes, and there are four main reasons why that is so. Let me explain.
Muslims believe that Qur’an is the final divinely revealed message to humanity and offers guidance on all matters related to human life. It stands unique among revealed books as being completely preserved in its original form as it was compiled, memorized and collected under the guidance of the Holy Prophet of Islam while he was alive.
A detailed comparison of Quranic teachings with the articles in the UDHR is out of the scope of this article. For readers who are interested in such a comparison to understand how Quran sanctifies human rights one of the best books written is “Islam and Human Rights” by Sir Zafarullah Khan, an eminent jurist and President of the International Court of Justice, a scholar on Islam in his own right.
Despite its vast appeal and having served as a major international treaty instrument, there are four reasons where Quranic teachings excel over the UDHR and could be used to strengthen it. Here they are;
- Temporal Nature of Human Consensus vs. Permanence of Divine Sanction: The fundamental premise that Islam starts with is the primacy of Oneness of God who is the creator of universe and all living beings. This provides the basis for equality of all human beings and lays the foundation of human rights. This includes the equality of men and women in all spheres, a unique feature of Islam. This principle of relating the equality of human race as emanating from the One Creator is far more powerful than the origin of UDHR whose strength lies in being a consensus among nations without a reference to inherent equality of all human beings. The other aspect is that the Quran imparts the sacredness necessary to preserve and respect human dignity and concomitant rights. A human consensus, due to its temporal nature, is always subject to change or can be broken if and when required by geo-politics or dominance of society or a country. Even while UDHR was being formulated there were questions of it being more reflective of western imperialism. Others refer to cultural relativism and still debate if these apply to their particular situation. More recently the UDHR has been challenged by regional organizations like ASEAN. “Human rights have never been central to ASEAN. In fact, the organization has traditionally viewed them as foreign, culturally relevant and best dealt with at the national level”.
- Balancing Rights vs. Obligations: UDHR places an overwhelming weight on rights over responsibilities. Given the fact that it was formalized in the backdrop of end of Second World War, there was, and rightfully so, a huge concern for human life and rights more than the obligations. Only Article 29 in the UDHR gives some elaboration of duties and obligations of all human beings towards society and each other. The Quran is remarkable in this sense that for every right it emphasizes the concomitant duty or obligation (see below). In fact Quran emphasizes the duty or obligations more than the rights and stresses that accountability is key to not only spiritual refinement but must also serve as the key pillar in relation to other human beings. In this sense Quran holds those with power and wealth more responsible and admonishes them by letting them know that whatever material wealth they enjoy is a trust and a blessing which must be shared. This sharing is not just an act of compassion but discharging a duty.
- Rights of Those Who can Claim vs. Those Who Cannot: While the rights to Life, Freedom of Speech, Choice, Conscience, Political and Social Association and several fundamental rights in UDHR are quite clearly mentioned in the Quran and elaborated in other related verses, there is one right that stands out for its uniqueness in the fact that it is not mentioned in the UDHR and the importance of which grows as every day passes especially in the wake of economic crisis and growing inequality within and among countries across the world.
The Quran states;
“The alms are meant only for the poor and the needy and those who are in charge thereof, those whose hearts are to be reconciled; and to free those in bondage, and to help those burdened with debt, and for expenditure in the way of Allah and for the wayfarer. This is an obligation from Allah. Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise”. (9:60)
“And those in whose wealth there is a recognized right – For one who asks for help and for one who does not”. (70:25-26)
Two points are important to make here. One, as explained in point three, here is a demonstration of an obligation and a concomitant right that go hand in hand. A state of perfect balance that is the hallmark of the Quran. Two, the mentioning of the “recognized right” for those who ask for help and for one who does not” is a revolutionary phrase that does not exist in any other sacred religious book or tradition or in any of the Human Rights Treaties that have been adopted so far by the United Nations. It is unprecedented in two concepts- in the sense that it speaks of “Rights of the Poor” of two categories. First, one category is of those who are poor but can articulate their needs and two, of those who feel embarrassed to do so or those who have no ability to articulate their needs such as children and animals. The second concept here is of “recognized right”. In other words, charity for the above categories of beings is not merely an expression of compassion but actually an obligation on those who have reasonable wealth and a portion of their wealth is actually “owed” to those mentioned in the verse. Had the architects of UDHR paid attention to this right the world could have been a different place today.
- Honouring Human Rights; Sacred Obligation vs. Secular Commitment: It has been almost seventy years since UDHR was universally agreed and adopted by a global consensus. Although the world has not fought a war of the scale of the first and second world wars, lack of fulfilment of rights and obligations and the inability to create a more just world order has brought humanity again to the brink of another global war. Despite agreeing to UDHR there is widespread violation of rights. Nations trample upon rights of other nations when their political and economic interest dictate the need to do so. Inequality among nations threatens the very basis of all consensus and decent values that have been cultivated with great effort. Without a belief in accountability to an all-powerful and omnipresent Being or the belief in the afterlife, the secular commitment to human rights has all but been shattered. If human rights are to be respected because it is a treaty among all human beings, it obviously is not working. The Quran speaks of human rights and obligations in the context of belief in the accountability to One God, the Creator and the Sustainer of all life. Belief in others having rights because they are fellow beings, created equal, whose life must be held sacred is far more compelling in generating a deeper commitment than any secular agreement. A sacred obligation has to be defended with one’s life because it leads to spiritual fulfilment and a deeper sense of universal realization of human rights and dignity.
I believe it is now important to address these fundamental issues related to UDHR. We must put our heads together to find ways to deepen the respect for rights of each other. This is only possible through getting religions to provide and support the divine basis on which rights are based. Among religions Islam stands out to take lead in moving in that direction.