Is there Common Ground?
Political actors often cite the complexity of the human and religious rights relationship as a partisan bridge to common ground. Attempts to satisfy both human and religious rights; however well-meaning, often fail in the false relationship presented by the happenstance alignment of human and religious rights in generally widespread values concerning life such as genocide, slavery, or human trafficking. In the more voluminous issues impacting many people globally, these rights often overlap in conflict. The conflict between these rights generally arises when religious belief is applied in a universal manner which supersedes human rights. This is not to say that human rights never supplant religious rights as this occurs frequently. In a global context, conflict between human and religious rights has severe ramifications for billions of people, leaving both human and religious rights activists in a state of constant conflict. The failure to build a common foundation on which human and religious rights activists can build partisanship forms in the uncertainty of which rights take precedent over other rights, forming the current utilitarian solutions that fail to satisfy many human and religious rights activists. Analyzing just three current global issues including women’s reproductive healthcare, intersex people, and access to healthcare reveals the paradox of these rights and opposition to common ground, questioning if a common ground, if any, is attainable.
Women’s Reproductive Healthcare
The United Nations recognizes women’s reproductive healthcare as a human rights issue because across the globe women are routinely denied access to treatment, subjected to invasive, unnecessary procedures, and denied the right to informed consent because of underlying religious convictions. People erroneously believe these practices are isolated to the poverty-stricken countries of the developing world but any place where religion has influences social policy (which is almost universal) these problems occur. Ireland is a majority Catholic state and the prevailing prolife stance of Catholicism is abundant in policy concerning women’s reproductive rights with the most obvious example of abortion criminalization, which remained in effect until 2019 (Bloomer, 2020). This long ban on abortion forced women into hospitalization, caused deaths, disfigurement, and many unnecessary medical procedures such as symphysiotomy, breaking of the pelvis cartilage to promote vaginal delivery. Women also experience forced sterilizations (United Nations, 2019). Yet despite abortion decriminalization, stigmatization by healthcare workers continues to be a large problem that revealed during COVID-19 in which the Health Minister refused to implement telemedicine abortion services in violation of World Health Organization best practices (Bloomer, 2020).
Other violations of women’s reproductive healthcare rights once thought confined to Africa and Asia, now present in many western countries due to the opening of borders (Human Rights Council , 2015). Female genital mutilation, the removal of a woman’s external genitalia, is a custom rooted in religious practice despite the fact that no religion demands this procedure be performed (Office on Women’s Health, 2021). This practice is often caused by perceived religious duty, marriage requirements, and to ensure virginity for marriage, all religiously motivated (Office on Women’s Health, 2021). As of 2015, one-hundred-thirty-million women were subjected to this procedure which increased other human rights violations such as domestic violence, marital rape, forced marriage, and used to control women (Human Rights Council, 2015).
In the United States, women face an ever-increasing threat to their reproductive rights from companies, healthcare providers, and insurance companies attempting to refuse services such as ectopic pregnancies or pharmacists refusing to dispense the morning after pill, all based on religious belief (National Women’s Law Center, 2021). Conservative Christians have time and time again placed barriers to abortion and other procedures using legal maneuvers and often pressuring politicians to withhold funding of Medicaid or Medicare, effectively ending women’s reproductive rights in these areas (National Women’s Law Center, 2021).
While many religious organizations do not require the practice of genital mutilation, clearly religious leaders are divided over the practice and adherents believe it is a religious cultural demand (Human Rights Council , 2015). In the US, Christian and other prolife groups have made their intentions clear that they do not see many of women’s reproductive rights as valid.
The United Nations defines intersex as individuals born with “physical sex characteristics (such as sexual anatomy, reproductive organs, hormonal patterns and/or chromosomal patterns) that do not fit typical definitions for male or female bodies” (United Nations, 2019). Much like LGBT communities across the globe, intersex individuals are marginalized and subject to human rights violations including medically unnecessary surgeries, hormone therapies, castration, and other mutilations performed to “normalize” individuals (United Nations, 2019). Normalization is the attempt of parents and medical professionals to make intersex individuals conform to societal expectations which is deeply entrenched in religious views which pressure individuals and families to have procedures performed that are unnecessary (United Nations, 2019).
Laws in many countries contain clauses that allow for medically necessary interventions which are then used to guise the normalization of children (United Nations, 2019). The undermining of human rights in this manner occurs because medical professionals are subject to the same religious biases as other members of society and this often overrides medical best practices even where the results of normalization are unclear and have little scientific support (United Nations, 2019).
The Paradox of Values
There is a clear philosophic divide between human rights and religious rights. The United Nations struggles with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which promises to protect religious rights which are often in conflict with other human rights. This paradox of purpose stems from the right to believe and practice religion as stated in Article two of the UDHR (United Nations, 2021). Within this framework, religious people are entitled to their beliefs and practices which often directly violate other human rights such as Article four which holds that no one should be held in slavery or servitude (United Nations, 2021). Yet, religions that practice genital mutilation are often committed to these practices in an effort to force marriages and control women’s behavior which violates Article five which condemns subjugation to torture or inhuman treatment (United Nations, 2021). There are larger more complex questions contained in this ideological issue such as the right to choose a religion, which in many Islamic cultures is not a choice to decide without risking imprisonment or death (Howland, 1997). The mandating of human rights to protect religious freedom provides argument against other human rights as seen in the prior example but more importantly invites animosity with religion.
The United Nations has long had an adversarial relationship with religious fundamentalism but this animosity is not confined to religious terrorist regimes but extends to many religious organizations that dominate geopolitics (Howland, 1997). Religion, by design, requires faith and this does not provide fertile ground for critical thinking to distinguish religious freedom from human rights violations. In the United States, many Christian groups view the United Nations as a secular organization dictating morality in violation of freedom of religion, which has been a persistent view for decades (Reid, 1959). The persistence of this view is counterintuitive to the democratic basis of the United Nations and its operations which consist of more than seventy percent of Christian Nongovernment Organizations (Petersen, 2010).
Professor Mohaghegh Damad, of Jurisprudence and Law at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, Iran discusses this problem in relation to women and UDHR, which Islamic law clashes with because the Quran clearly states women are inferior to men. Damad discusses this problem in terms of interpretation that highlights a shift away from violating women’s rights towards sexual equality, but also creates more divisions within religious communities (UVA Lawyer, 2005). Interpretations of the Quran leads to more human rights issues of the freedom of religious practice as shown in Damad’s claim that apostasy is interpretable as “voluntary” (which is not what most Islamic law dictates, he goes on to say, “what does constitute a crime and must be punished is practical apostasy, i.e., proved actions to refute a religious belief that leads to destabilizing a social order” (UVA Lawyer, 2005).
Is There a Common Ground?
To find common ground with religious groups, the United Nations created the “Faith for Rights” framework which is cross-disciplinary reflection thinktank that seeks to gain value and information from religious bodies to help with policymaking and to promote interpretations of religious doctrine that align with UDHR (United Nations, 2021). The faith for rights framework led to the development of the Beirut Declaration which asks that all religious and nonreligious actors work towards the common goal of human rights (United Nations, 2021). Whether the Beirut Declaration and faith for rights framework have been successful in their goal to create common ground between the United Nations and religions is a debatable matter.
The Beirut Declaration and faith for rights framework are another effort to bring awareness and change to human rights violations. This goal is not new with the Unite Nations and seeking common ground through awareness has been criticized for a long time as being ineffective. In a panel convened to discuss the effectiveness of the United Nations, Felice D. Gaer an expert from the Jacob Blaustein Institute, argued that the high commissioner seat which addresses human rights violations often had success raising awareness but little success protecting human rights practically. Another panelist, Michael O’Flaherty from Irish Center for Human Rights, discusses the inherent weakness of the United Nations system caused by inefficiencies and lack of vision for opportunities. There is a much interpretation of whether the United Nations is effective in finding common ground in religion but ultimately if the system cannot protect human rights this may negate awareness strategies such as the Beirut Declaration and faith for rights framework.
Overall, the United Nations has been effective in developing awareness and providing a framework for disputes. The system has shown great success in producing and enhancing diplomatic relations as well as preventing global conflicts between member nations (D.Pauls & Cranmer, 2017). The complex nature of religion in relation to global politics make interventions difficult and costly to an already resource limited organization. President Obama attributed the lack of resources as well as lack of a “collective will” to solve many issues such as the Sri Lanka ethnic cleansing involving Sinhalese Buddhist and Tamils Hindus (Obama, 2020 ).
The more effective solutions for bridging the divide of religions and human rights may rest in the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has shown remarkable success at effecting change at grass roots levels. In Swaziland long held religious and cultural beliefs permeated the state with women suffering domestic violence (Veer & Dezentje, 2018). Legal remedies of going to the police proved counter-productive since men held jobs and supported the family. An alternative strategy of using celebratory and solemn occasions which women traditionally sing together, now became podiums for singing about domestic violence in a public confrontation (Veer & Dezentje, 2018). This strategy proved a more effective means of change than formal justice. In India, the establishment of women’s courts, which have women arbitrators to alleviate male dominated justice system that favored men, has proved a more effective and sustainable approach than converting an entire system of law (Veer & Dezentje, 2018).
UNESCO’s practices have begun overcoming some of the large issues blocking the bridge of human and religious rights by taking into account many variations in thinking and values from societies that do not share democratic western ideologies (Delmas-Marty, 2018). Since the inception of the United Nations, many African and Asian cultures have resisted the adoption of the UDHR because of the inherent differences in thinking (Delmas-Marty, 2018). This problem began at the inception of the United Nations and has continued today but the evolution of values towards a more diverse understanding of culture presents more effective means of bridging the gap between human and religious rights, especially in states that view religious rights over human rights or see human rights in far different spectrum of understanding (Delmas-Marty, 2018). This has been the challenge of creating universal system of rights over a pluralist model.
One of the major failings of the United Nations when finding common ground between religion and human rights has been the effort to create a plural model of rights in which human rights are agreed upon while states maintain their religious and other rights. This model was burdened with issues from the beginning and has continued to plague the United Nations but UNESCO’s restructuring to create a universal set of human rights that supersedes pluralism is a more practical means to bridging human and religious rights, albeit religious rights must at times be supplanted by human rights. Clearly, religion and human rights have philosophic differences but perhaps the awareness and grass roots initiatives brought by the United Nations will provide the catalyst for change as it has with other issues and make support of rights less paradoxical and conflicting.
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