Lindkvist, “Religious Freedom and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”

In June, Cambridge University Press will release “Religious Freedom and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” by Linde Lindkvist (Uppsala Universitet).  The publisher’s description follows:

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is widely considered to be the most influential statement on religious freedom in human history. Religious 9781107159419Freedom and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides a groundbreaking account of its origins and developments, examining the background, key players, and outcomes of Article 18, and setting it within the broader discourse around international religious freedom in the 1940s. Taking issue with standard accounts that see the text of the Universal Declaration as humanity’s joint response to the atrocities of World War II, it shows instead how central features of Article 18 were intimately connected to the political projects and visions of particular actors involved in the start-up of the UN Human Rights program. This will be essential reading for anyone grappling with the historical and contemporary meaning of human rights and religious freedom.

“Religion, NGOs, and the United Nations” (Carrette & Miall, eds.)

This month, Bloomsbury Publishing released Religion, NGOs, and the United Nations: Visible and Invisible Actors in Power edited by Jeremy Carrette (University of Kent) and Hugh Miall (University of Kent). The publisher’s description follows:

Religion NGosHow do religious groups, operating as NGOs, engage in the most important global institution for world peace? What processes do they adopt? Is there a “spiritual” UN today? This book is the first interdisciplinary study to present extensive fieldwork results from an examination of the activity of religious groups at the United Nations in New York and Geneva. Based on a three and half-year study of activities in the United Nations system, it seeks to show how “religion” operates in both visible and invisible ways.

Jeremy Carrette, Hugh Miall, Verena Beittinger-Lee, Evelyn Bush and Sophie-Hélène Trigeaud, explore the way “religion” becomes a “chameleon” idea, appearing and disappearing, according to the diplomatic aims and ambitions. Part 1 documents the challenges of examining religion inside the UN, Part 2 explores the processes and actions of religious NGOs – from diplomacy to prayer – and the specific platforms of intervention – from committees to networks – and Part 3 provides a series of case studies of religious NGOs, including discussion of Islam, Catholicism and Hindu and Buddhist NGOs. The study concludes by examining the place of diplomats and their views of religious NGOs and reflects on the place of “religion” in the UN today. The study shows the complexity of “religion” inside one of the most fascinating global institutions of the world today.

“Religion, State and the United Nations” (Stensvold, ed.)

In August, Routledge will release “Religion, State and the United Nations: Value Politics,” edited by Anne Stensvold (University of Oslo).  The publisher’s description follows:

This volume approaches the UN as a laboratory of religio-political value politics. Over the last two decades religion has acquired increasing influence in international 9781138938656politics, and religious violence and terrorism has attracted much scholarly attention. But there is another parallel development which has gone largely unnoticed, namely the increasing political impact of peaceful religious actors.

With several religious actors in one place and interacting under the same conditions, the UN is as a multi-religious society writ small. The contributors to this book analyse the most influential religious actors at the UN (including The Roman Catholic Church; The Organisation of Islamic Countries; the Russian Orthodox Church). Mapping the peaceful political engagements of religious actors; who they are and how they collaborate with each other – whether on an ad hoc basis or by forming more permanent networks – throwing light at the modus operandi of religious actors at the UN; their strategies and motivations. The chapters are closely interrelated through the shared focus on the UN and common theoretical perspectives, and pursue two intertwined aspects of religious value politics, namely the whys and hows of cross-religious cooperation on the one hand, and the interaction between religious actors and states on the other.

Drawing together a broad range of experts on religious actors, this work will be of great interest to students and scholars of Religion and Politics, International Relations and the UN.

Bielefeldt et al, “Freedom of Religion or Belief”

In March, the Oxford University Press will release “Freedom of Religion or Belief: An International Law Commentary,” by Heiner Bielefeldt (United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief), Nazila Ghanea (University of Oxford), and Michael Wiener (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and University of Oxford).  The publisher’s description follows:

Violations of religious freedom and violence committed in the name of religion grab our attention on a daily basis. Freedom of Religion or Belief is a 9780198703983key human right, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, numerous conventions, declarations and soft law standards include specific provisions on freedom of religion or belief. The 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief has been interpreted since 1986 by the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Special Rapporteurs (for example those on racism, freedom of expression, minority issues and cultural rights) and Treaty Bodies (for example the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee on the Rights of the Child) have also elaborated on freedom of religion or belief in the context of their respective mandates.

Freedom of Religion or Belief: An International Law Commentary is the first commentary to look comprehensively at the international provisions for the protection of freedom of religion or belief, considering how they are interpreted by various United Nations Special Procedures and Treaty Bodies. Structured around the thematic categories of the United Nations Special Rapporteur’s framework for communications, the commentary analyses the limitations on the wearing of religious symbols and vulnerable situations, including those of women, detainees, refugees, children, minorities and migrants, through a combination of scholarly expertise and practical experience.

The UN, Children, and the Vatican

Here is the latest evidence of the clash between contemporary human rights norms and traditional religions. Last week, the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child reported on the Vatican’s compliance with an international treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention, which virtually every UN member, including the Holy See, has ratified (though not the US), lists universal rights of children, including the right to be protected from discrimination; the right to be free from violence, including sexual abuse; the right to health and welfare; and so on.

The committee had blunt words for the Vatican. With respect to the sexual abuse crisis, it complained, “the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.” The committee had several suggestions for how the Vatican could do better job, including the immediate removal of “all known and suspected child sexual abusers” and referral of cases “to the relevant law enforcement authorities.”

Critics complain that the that the committee did not sufficiently acknowledge the steps the Vatican has taken to address the crisis. I’ll leave that question to others. Whether or not the Vatican’s response has been adequate, everyone agrees that sexual abuse is a violation of children’s rights. But the committee also addressed subjects on which everyone does not agree. It suggested that the Vatican alter its positions on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality in order to meet its obligations under the Convention.

For example, the committee stated that the prohibition of abortion “places obvious risks on the life and health of pregnant girls”and urged the Vatican to amend canon law to “identify circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.” It expressed “serious concern” about the Vatican’s policy of “denying adolescents access to contraception.” The Vatican must put “adolescents’ best interests” ahead of other concerns, the committee said. And the committee expressed concern that the Holy See’s disapproval of homosexuality may lead to discrimination against LGBT children and the children of LGBT parents. It recommended that the Holy See amend canon law to recognize diverse family arrangements. 

As my former colleague Julian Ku explains, these recommendations don’t follow clearly from the text of the Convention, which lacks “specific language about LGBTQ rights, the appropriate circumstances for abortions, or birth-control education.” On the contrary, Ku says, the report is based upon an “aggressive” reading of the treaty. And the recommendations obviously conflict with fundamental teachings of one of the world’s great religions. Given these facts, shouldn’t the committee have dialed it back a bit? Why push an aggressive, contestable interpretation of a treaty that purports to be universal, notwithstanding the inevitable conflict with the Catholic Church and other traditional religions?

There are probably two explanations. First, to the committee, these recommendations seem morally incontrovertible. Who could doubt that children’s best interests call for liberalized abortion, unrestricted access to contraceptives, and the recognition of same-sex marriages? From the secular human rights perspective, these propositions are frustratingly obvious. The idea that one might in good faith define “best interests” differently–that many world religions in fact do define “best interests” differently–doesn’t make sense. The committee simply cannot credit the other point of view.

Second, the secular human rights regime believes it is at the brink of final victory in these matters. (It has believed so for about 50 years now.) The forces of obscurity are in retreat and religion no longer dictates people’s lives, at least in the civilized West. The Catholic Church, in particular, is on the ropes, a victim of its own sins and intransigence. Why not put an end to its obstructionism once and for all? This would help the cause of progress, and actually be a good thing for the Church, too.

The committee no doubt expected the negative reaction of the Vatican to last week’s report. But it may have been surprised that so many in the elite media objected too. The Economist criticized the report for being sloppy and taking positions on issues where consensus is lacking. The Atlantic‘s  Emma Green complained that the report inappropriately critiqued deeply-held religious beliefs. And the Boston Globe‘s John Allen argued that the report would only confirm the opinion of skeptics that the UN is motivated by politics and secular ideology. Perhaps the final victory is still a ways off.

Not to Mention Universities and the News Media

Here’s an odd story, from The Independent:

Christianity dominates the United Nations and a more inclusive system must be introduced at the world peace-making organisation, according to a new study.

The report Religious NGOs and The United Nations found that Christian NGOs are overrepresented at the UN in comparison to other religious groups.

Overall, more than 70 per cent of religious NGOs at the UN are Christian, where the Vatican enjoys a special observer status, as a state and religion, according to research undertaken by Professor Jeremy Carrette from the University of Kent’s Department of Religious Studies.

The study questions claims by the Christian right that cults are running the UN given the scale of Christian NGOs, and calls for greater awareness, transparency and equality, while putting a strong emphasis on religious tolerance.

See, we told you the secularization theory was wrong. Just so you know, according to the article, religious NGOs make up only 7.3% of the total number of NGOs at the UN. So it’s hard to see how Christian NGOs, which amount to even a smaller percentage, could really “dominate” the organization. And the UN doesn’t appear to promote particularly Christian worldviews in its programs. Anyway, maybe there’s more to the study than the Independent suggests. You can follow the links in the article to read more.

Repairs Begin on Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity

Here’s some good news, for a change, about Christianity in the Middle East. This fall, workers began much-needed repairs to the roof Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional site of the birth of Christ.

The roof of the church has been in a terrible state for some time. Experts warn it could collapse at any moment. Getting agreement on repairs has been exceptionally difficult, however. There were geopolitical issues. To qualify for UN restoration funds, the building had to be added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. This proved controversial–the US and Israel worried about the implications naming the site would have for Palestinian statehood–but the church was ultimately added to the list last year. (The church has long been a flashpoint for world intrigue. In the nineteenth century, someone stole the star that marks the place of Christ’s birth; the theft led to the Crimean War.)

The most significant hurdle, though, has been getting the agreement of the Christian communions that share the church–Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic. The three share the church under the “Status Quo,” a set of rules and customs that date back centuries to Ottoman times, and which also govern other Christian sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. According to custom, repairing part of the church, or even paying for repairs, is an assertion of ownership. As a result, each communion carefully guards against the possibility that another will undertake repairs in common areas, like the roof, and thereby gain rights by a sort of adverse possession. Fistfights among the monks are not uncommon.

How did the three communions reach agreement on the repairs this time? No one’s saying much, but the AP reports:

A senior church official said the three denominations would never have been able to reach an agreement on their own. But once the Palestinian Authority stepped in, all three churches accepted the decision. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss the matter with the media.

Well, anyway, the point is they did agree and the church will be preserved. And that is wonderful news for Christians and people of good will generally. Congratulations to everyone concerned. And Merry Christmas!

Lecture on Anti-Semitism in Europe (Nov. 25)

The UN NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief will sponsor a lecture in New York on November 25, “The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism in Europe.” The speaker will be US Special Envoy Ira Forman. Details are here.

Raphael Lemkin Was a Remarkable Man

When he died, roughly 50 years ago at the age of 59, Raphael Lemkin was impoverished and embittered, an unnoticed man. Only 7 people attended his funeral. Yet he was one of the most influential international human rights lawyers of the twentieth century. Lemkin, whom Jay Winter describes in a recent piece as a “one-man NGO,” coined the word “genocide” for the destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, and was the driving force behind adoption of the UN Genocide Convention of 1948.

He came up with the term “genocide” in reflecting on the massacres of Armenian Christians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I–events we now know as the Armenian Genocide–but he had an example closer to home as well. A Polish Jew, he lost about 50 relatives in the Holocaust, and himself escaped the Nazis only after taking a bullet in the hip. He made his way to America, where he joined the law faculty at Duke, wrote his most important book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, and worked, successfully, for adoption of the UN Convention.

What explains his bitterness and isolation at the end? Lemkin was a loner and a difficult man; that was part of it, no doubt. And he could surely see, as Winter writes, that naming a crime, even legislating against a crime, does not necessarily reduce its frequency. It’s hard to argue that the Genocide Convention has been a great success. Still, Lemkin’s career had a public impact which most of us, especially in the legal academy, would be proud to claim.

I reflect on all this because, this month, Yale University Press releases Lemkin’s unfinished autobiography, Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin, edited by historian Donna-Lee Frieze. It looks very interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Among the greatest intellectual heroes of modern times, Raphael Lemkin lived an extraordinary life of struggle and hardship, yet altered international law and redefined the world’s understanding of group rights. He invented the concept and word “genocide” and propelled the idea into international legal status. An uncommonly creative pioneer in ethical thought, he twice was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Although Lemkin died alone and in poverty, he left behind a model for a life of activism, a legacy of major contributions to international law, and—not least—an unpublished autobiography. Presented here for the first time is his own account of his life, from his boyhood on a small farm in Poland with his Jewish parents, to his perilous escape from Nazi Europe, through his arrival in the United States and rise to influence as an academic, thinker, and revered lawyer of international criminal law.

Vatican to UN: More Than 100,000 Christians Killed for Their Faith Each Year

For reasons I’ve discussed before, elite opinion in the West is uncomfortable with the idea of Christians as a persecuted minority. At least since the Enlightenment, Western intellectuals, as a class, have seen traditional Christians as adversaries to be resisted, not victims to be rescued. The idea that in some circumstances Christians might actually be victims complicates the narrative in unpleasant ways.

To be fair, traditional Christians in the West sometimes overstate their difficulties. There are worrisome signals, to be sure. In ways that one would not have imagined even 20 years ago, governments seem willing to require traditional Christians to give up their religious convictions as the price for entering the marketplace, or even doing charitable work. But that’s not persecution, exactly. No one is forcing Christians to the catacombs.

Persecution of Christians in other parts of the world is a fact, however, and one that needs repeating. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s Permanent Representative, thus deserves credit for raising the topic at a meeting of the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva yesterday. Tomasi deplored the fact that, according to credible estimates, more than 100,000 Christians around the world are killed each year because of their faith. Many others are subjected to rape, displacement, destruction of their places of worship, and the abduction of their leaders. As to that last item, the whereabouts of the two Orthodox bishops whom elements of the Syrian opposition kidnapped last month remain unknown.

It’s certainly true that other religious minorities suffer too; human rights advocates often give this as a reason for not singling out Christians in particular. But what sense does that make? One hears a great deal about the persecution of other religious minorities by name, and rightly so. It’s time the global human rights community spoke of the persecution of Christians, as Christians, as well.

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