Religion & Rights

By Keith Best

Speech to the Council for Christian Muslim Relations, Buckinghamshire New University High Wycombe, 11 May 2022

The way in which religions have shaped consciousness of individual against collective rights and the current divide between Asian and Western models as a cause of conflict.

It has been asserted frequently that there is a global divide in the concept of human rights and this is what I wish to examine in greater detail. 

The argument is that Judaeo-Christian tradition focuses on individual rather than collective rights. It is maintained that the Asian or Eastern tradition (such as Confucianism) focuses more on collective rights and responsibilities. The way in which this is portrayed could be the clash for the future which we are already seeing played out. Yet this is far too simplistic.

In an interesting paper in 2002 Randall Nadeau of Trinity University in Intercultural Communication Studies argues that this debate has assumed a series of associations: Asian, Confucian, communitarian, authoritarian, and statist, on the one hand while, on the other, Western, Christian, individualist, and liberal-democratic. He sets out that these are false associations, focusing on the Asian side of the equation, and that Asian, and specifically Confucian, values are a powerful, universal resource for a profound affirmation of human freedom expressed in both individual and communitarian terms. Far from asserting the hegemony of the state, community, or family over and against individuals, Confucianism supports human liberation for individuals-in-community. Western liberal democracy is not the only model for universal human rights: that Confucianism can and should be a universal ethic of human liberation. The goal of personal freedom is not uniquely Western, and it is not anti-Confucian. Self-determination is as much a Confucian value as it is a Western value and the West has a great deal to learn from the East about self-cultivation in the context of family and community life.

First, I want to sketch out a brief modern history of some of what I believe to be the milestones in human rights development and then to look at the global situation.

Henri Dunant is well known for the creation of the Red Cross having witnessed the slaughter of the aftermath of the battle of Solferino in 1859 but perhaps less well known for the establishment of an independent organization to care for wounded soldiers which was enshrined in the First Geneva Convention of 1864.

It took the second great conflagration in the first half of the 20th Century to bring about a more sustainable development of human rights and led to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions, which now almost all nations apply, after the horrendous treatment of civilians and reprisals by the Nazis and behaviour towards prisoners of war by the Japanese. The first Geneva Convention protects wounded and sick soldiers on land during war, the second protects wounded, sick and shipwrecked military personnel at sea during war, the third applies to prisoners of war and the fourth Geneva Convention affords protection to civilians, including in occupied territory.

These were milestones and a far cry from Brennus’ victorious cry after his defeat of Rome when measuring out the tribute to be paid,as the Romans complained of weighted scales. Throwing his heavy sword on to the scales he cried “vae victis” (“woe to the vanquished”).  A sort of “Take that!” It is this winner takes all rather than magnanimity in victory that has dominated succeeding centuries with whole defeated populations taken into slavery.The origins of new conflict can often be found in the treaties that concluded the last. The now recognised unfairness of the Versailles Treaty was a major factor in the rise of Hitler in Germany. Churchill understood this. In the frontispiece of his History of the Second World Warhe wrote “In War, Resolution; In Defeat, Defiance; In Victory, Magnanimity; and in Peace, Good Will.” The Marshall Plan and rebuilding of Germany followed WWII because of this realisation even though the Axis powers had to pay war reparations and Germany ceded a quarter of its territory as defined by its 1937 borders to Poland and the Soviet Union.

We now have a panoply of agreements on women’s, children’s and victims’ rights, many of which are enshrined not just in international treaty (with varying degrees of enforceability) but also in domestic criminal law so that real sanctions can be taken against perpetrators. Many legislatures have also made justiciable in their courts the most egregious crimes even those these are committed outside their territory and by non-nationals, involving narcotics, terrorism and others such as murder. This has moved away from the traditional Anglo-Saxon model of crimes having to be committed in the territory of the state to one of personal responsibility for such crimes wherever committed.

There have been specific treaties on particular crimes such as The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (commonly known as the United Nations Convention against Torture or UNCAT) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1984. By June 2021 the Convention had 171 states parties. There are others such as the prohibition on the use of landmines and chemical weapons. There is a now a wide spectrum of what come under the umbrella description of human rights as well as many instruments such as the European Charter on Fundamental Rights and domestic legislation such as in the UK the Human Rights Act.

The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials not only saw the creation by Lauterpacht and Lemkin of crimes against humanity and genocide respectively but were also the precursor of the Special Tribunals for Rwanda and Former Yugoslavia set up in the 1990s. The idea of a permanent International Criminal Court was first proposed during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 following the First World War and again at a conference held in Geneva under the auspices of the League of Nations in 1937 but did not progress. It was reignited by Trinidad & Tobago in the 1990s with the assistance of the civil society Coalition for the International Criminal Court organised by the international NGO the World Federalist Movement which I was privileged to chair at the time. Indeed, it is acknowledged by many academics that without the coalition we still today would not have an ICC. The Rome Statute of the ICC was signed in 1998 and the Court came into being in 2002. Perhaps we are too close to its foundation but in due course it will be seen as the greatest example of creating universal personal responsibility for the international crimes of genocidecrimes against humanitywar crimes and, now only recently, the crime of aggression. Hitherto, apart from the ad hoc tribunals to which I have referred, international justiciability had been between states and not individuals. Many states, in order to be able to ratify the ICC treaty, had to change their domestic legislation to remove impunity from a sitting head of state. This is enforceable world law and every signatory state has the responsibility to detain and render up an indicted individual. It has its limitations as to jurisdiction but we have recently seen an inventive way of circumventing that in the case of Myanmar and the Rohingya and additional action taken by The Gambia in the International Court of Justice and by Argentina claiming universal jurisdiction on the basis that genocide is now a crime in customary law.

Then, in 2005 Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, introduced the concept of Responsibility to Protect which is now regarded as a universal and well-established international norm over the past two decades. It was a doctrine unanimously adopted by all members of the United Nations General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit. Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In addition, the international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This was another ground-breaking development in human rights law.

Hitherto, under the old Westphalian System reinforced at the conclusion of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, the principle had been established of non-interference in a state’s internal affairs. Moreover, the obligations were always in respect of the citizen to the state – ultimately, beyond paying taxes and obeying domestic laws, through giving up one’s life in a state’s decision to go to war with which the citizen may have disagreed. It had emanated from the feudal nature of fealty to the sovereign power. Now, for the first time in international concept, the tables had been turned and the focus was on the state’s responsibility to the citizen.

After the Holocaust, which we commemorate every year, it was said “never again” yet, despite all the myriad of human rights obligations genocide has continued with Rwanda in 1994 in which more than have a million Tutsis were killed in 100 days making the machete the foremost weapon of mass destruction and, a year later, in Europe itself, with more than 8,000 murdered at Srebrenica. We are seeing it happen again against the Rohingya in Myanmar and probably with the Uighur in Xinjiang province. Never has it been so true that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.  We may have the instruments in place but we still lack common enforceability.

So, what of the current global situation?Surely, this is the right breeding ground for common enforceable rights? The global economy is now more integrated and interdependent than at any time in history with goods, services and energy supplies travelling large distances with sometimes lengthy supply lines in which delivery is scheduled for just-in-time obviating the need for the cost and inconvenience large stockpiling and warehousing.  That, of course, has been shaken not just principally by the pandemic which has caused massive disruption but also by economic sabre-rattling by China, Russia and other suppliers and, in the UK’s case, disruption of passage of goods due to Brexit. Companies now are looking at shortening their supply lines, sourcing goods, sometimes much more expensively, from more local suppliers, stockpiling is taking off and countries are consciously seeking to be more self-reliant on energy supplies where possible. That is sad for those of us who believe in trade, preferably free, being a beneficial part of globalisation, bringing people and cultures closer together and keeping prices down. The alternative is punitive tariffs, higher prices and shortages in the shops.

Since the pandemic and disruption to world trade we have witnesseda withdrawal into narrow nationalism in terms of energy and main supply routes and, of course, the conflict in Ukraine has exacerbated it.  We are now seeing a retreat from globalisation, increase in nationalism and an inevitable increase in defence budgets particularly in Europe. Putin is behaving like a 19th Century politician who believes on the von Clausewitz doctrine that war is an extension of foreign policy by other means. He has built up currency reserves, managed a balanced budget, a rapprochement with China (at the Beijing Olympics) as source of gas/oil demand andhas provided military equipment to the Chinese knowing that it will be copied.

What can stop him?  Frankly, nothing short of the Russian people who, sooner or later, will appreciate that he has engineered not only the humiliation of the Russian military but also bankrupted the nation, subjected his people to not just poverty but pariah status for at least a generation and, counter-intuitively, strengthened NATO and European solidarity. We understand that this month both Finland and Sweden will apply to join NATO. When the war is over Ukraine will want to accelerate its application to join the EU. The sense of encirclement, of threat from the West, exploited by Putin in his 9 May parade speech, and of a beleaguered nation will not only feed Russian paranoia but will become self-fulfilling. Moreover, we should not underestimate among the Russian population the intense, visceral sense of patriotism and belief in the motherland – even without the disinformation and propaganda it is possible that Putin, seen as a strong leader, would command the approval in the Russian opinion polls that he currently enjoys – a people without a history of democratic evolution but of revolution and one that is more interested generally in family and personal life than in politics.

How does this look from a Russian perspective?The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, glasnost, perestroika, a flirtation of becoming more accommodating to the West. A belief in assurances that former Warsaw Pact countries would not join NATO but also the growth in the European Union. In 2004 the Baltic States, Czech Republic, Slovakia (which had always looked East), Poland, Slovenia joined the EU and Bulgaria & Romania in 2007 – giving the Russians a sense of increasing isolation as well as loss of influence. Within two years of the fall of the Berlin Wall the former territories of the Soviet Union, the five central Asian countries, the so-called Stans (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) had declared independence and become part of the Commonwealth of Independent States – they are now semi-autonomous (although Belarus, always close to Russia, and Kazakstan can still have Russian troops to suppress unrest). Yet Uzbekistan, for example, now hosts a major American airbase.

It is clear that Putin, either genuinely or conveniently for public consumption, sees the growth of NATO membership as a threat (he made the point in the 9 May rally): in 1999, PolandHungaryand the CzechRepublic joinedNATO,followedbyBulgaria, EstoniaLatviaLithuaniaRomaniaSlovakiaand Slovenia in 2004 andthen Albania and Croatia in 2009.  I had been to Potsdam in East Germany (theDDR) during the Cold War and seen both East German and Soviet troops there.Yet, despite some misgivings in Europe and opposition from the Soviet Union, in 1990 the two Germanies were united and the DDR automatically became a member of NATO. US Secretary of State James Baker stated on 9 February 1990: “We consider that the consultations and discussions in the framework of the 2+4 mechanism should give a guarantee that the reunification of Germany will not lead to the enlargement of NATO’s military organisation to the East” and the following day, Helmut Kohl the German Chancellor said: “We consider that NATO should not enlarge its sphere of activity”. It is true that in 1991-1992 NATO had no intention of enlarging and its statements to that effect to the Russians were accurate but the pressure from applicant countries proved to be too great.

From Moscow this looks like encirclement and deceit giving rise to not trusting the West’s intentions. Yet a paranoid state with nuclear weapons is not only dangerous but unpredictable. Although it now seems immediately an unlikely way forward at some stage the West will somehow have to accommodate Russia without bringing it total humiliation. The old adage attributed to the 15th century Emperor Sigismund remains true: when he was reproached for rewarding instead of destroying his enemies, as by that means he gave them an opportunity to injure him, he declared. “Do I not destroy my enemies by making them my friends.” Ultimately, the peace and security of Europe will depend on the magnanimity and willingness of both Europe and the USA to bring Russia into a sphere of common influence, mutual observation of military exercises and even joint operations.

Putin has put most of his eggs into the Chinese basket – but he has more to fear from China than does the West. The relationship between China and Russia is an uneasy an unusual amity which, historically, has been characterised by frequent border disputes. China is ten times more powerful economically, may become less reliant on Russian energy, has links with Ukraine and may yet play on Putin, determined to become the global superpower but will spit out Russia when its purpose is done. It may seem currently favourable to both China and Russia to have unity between two main global autocratic states as a real threat to West but how durable is it?

We are faced with the same dilemma as was Europe with the rise of Hitler. What are Putin’s real intentions. It started with the annexation of Crimea (for which sanctions by the West are still in place). His original objective in this war was to occupy Kyiv and probably most of Eastern Ukraine up to the Dnieper river with all its rich oil and gas reserves and wheatlands (a major part of the current Ukrainian economy). Should we look to history to see how Hitler occupied the Rhineland in 1936, annexed Austria in the anschluss in 1938, then the Czech Sudentenland in order to “protect” the German speaking population there (the same argument that can be made in respect of Russian speakers in Donetsk and Luhansk where a war with Russian insurgents has been going on for years and has already cost 14,000 Ukrainian lives). Urged repeatedly by President Zelensky the West has woken up to the fact that it may be Ukraine today but tomorrow it will be the Baltic States, Finland, Moldova in the same creeping aggrandisement.

Would Russian tanks roll into central square Tallinn, capital of Estonia, in order to “protect” the large Russian speaking population in that country – probably about one third of the total? When speaking a while back with an MP from that capital I put that scenario to her and, somewhat to my horror, she replied that this is precisely the basis for Estonia’s security planning. The problem with such a course of action, of course, is that Estonia is a member of NATO and the consequence is if NATO were to apply its most basic tenet of Article 5, we have World War III. If it does not it will be the end of NATO and Putin will have humiliated the West as a toothless tiger. We are living in a more dangerous time than I can ever remember and far more so than during the Cold War where we lived under the cheerless threat of Mutually Assured Destruction.

China (Xi JinPing) alsois in a hurry – this is very un-Chinese who, traditionally, have played the long game – they still refer to the century of humiliation which started with the Opium Wars in the mid-19th Century. Deng Xiaoping had been so different. Yes, he was a strong communist but was prepared to accommodate the West, allow inward investment and growth of semi-capitalist Chinese economy – as a result China boomed. He abandoned Mao’s support for a global anti-capitalist revolution and resolved the maritime disputes with China’s neighbours. He began a process of gradually integrating China into more of the international order. Consequent on this “reform and opening” and greater engagement with the international community, China went on to have a remarkable and unprecedented period of economic and social development.

Now there is a total reversal back to Maoist policies of interference in business at all levels, repression, curtailment of freedom of speech (including athletes!), abuse of human rights (Uiyghurs), total surveillance of the population, damaging massive lockdown for the population – it is 1984 Big Brother, the state knows best. The current measures against Chinese industry, carelessness as to Hong Kong as a financial centre and depression of the Chinese stock market, bellicosity in South China Seas, on the Paracel and Spratly Islands – atolls with runways and military camps – these are now the hallmarks of the new China under Xi JinPing. He sees the South China Seas as China’s own sphere of influence – there is increasing concern by the old adversary Japan. Taiwan wonders if Putin’s adventurism may be replicated against them.  This, incidentally, is another reason why Putin must fail. Yet we cannot look to the current Chinese leadership for a robust defence of human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rightsor UDHR was signed originally on 10 December 1948 by 48 nations with none against and 8 abstentions (including Belarus and the Soviet Union); today there are 192 member states of the UN, all of which, including theocratic states, have signed on in agreement with the Declaration – so, as far as states are concerned, it has universal acceptance.

Yet there is no doubt that the values it enshrines are very much in the Judaeo-Christian ethic, was drafted principally by a Canadian and, of course, was strongly advocated by Eleanor Roosevelt. Drafting, however, was under the aegis of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights which established a drafting committee of representatives of eight states selected with regard to geographical distribution. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the UDHR drafting committee. With her were René Cassin of France, who composed the first draft of the Declaration, the Committee Rapporteur Charles Malik of Lebanon, Vice-Chairman Peng Chung Chang of China (that is, of course, now Taiwan and not mainland China which supplanted it) and John Humphrey of Canada, Director of the UN’s Human Rights Division, who prepared the Declaration’s blueprint. Eleanor Roosevelt was recognized as the driving force for the Declaration’s adoption and the Commission met for the first time in 1947.  It is interesting that future fissures in the true universality of the Declaration, however, emerged early on. In her memoirs, Eleanor Roosevelt recalled: “Dr. Chang was a pluralist and held forth in charming fashion on the proposition that there is more than one kind of ultimate reality.  The Declaration, he said, should reflect more than simply Western ideas and Dr. Humphrey would have to be eclectic in his approach.  His remark, though addressed to Dr. Humphrey, was really directed at Dr. Malik, from whom it drew a prompt retort as he expounded at some length the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.  Dr. Humphrey joined enthusiastically in the discussion, and I remember that at one point Dr. Chang suggested that the Secretariat might well spend a few months studying the fundamentals of Confucianism!”The Declaration’s pro-family phrases allegedly derived from Cassin and Malik, who were influenced by the Christian Democracy movement; Mallik was a Christian theologian and known for appealing across religious lines, as well as to different Christian sects. Chang urged removing all references to religion to make the document more universal and used aspects of Confucianism to settle stalemates in negotiations.

The fractures were already apparent. Most Muslim-majority countries that were then members of the UN signed the Declaration in 1948, including Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Syria; Turkey, which had an overwhelmingly Muslim population but an officially secular government, also voted in favour. Saudi Arabia was the sole abstainer on the Declaration among Muslim nations, claiming that it violated Sharia lawPakistan, officially an Islamic state, signed the declaration and was critical of the Saudi position, strongly arguing in favour of including freedom of religion, but it has to be remembered that this was a very young state having only thrown off the shackles of its colonial power a year earlier and was still living through the consequences of partition of Greater India and the death of its founder Jinnah two months earlier.

So, we come to the enduring controversy. It was Malaysia’s Prime Minister who went on to challenge the notion that human rights are universal and stated his belief that the UDHR’s emphasis on an individual’s rights rather than responsibilities to the community make it unsuited to Asia.

On the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights in 1998, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in his first period in office as the Prime Minister of Malaysia, proposed a review of the declaration claiming that human rights were culturally relative. He argued that the declaration was a Western imposition on Asian societies, which ignored Asian values and therefore hampered development. The leading promoters of so-called Asian values, Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s Senior Minister, described the primary Asian value as the belief that obligations to society and the rights of the wider community are more important than the rights of the individual.

Critics of the Asian values concept, however, refute the idea that a common set of distinctively Asian principles exists, given Asia’s immense cultural, religious and political diversity. Former President of Singapore Devan Nair stated ‘Human rights and values are universal by any standard and their violation anywhere is a grievous offence to men and women everywhere’.

Asians such as Aung San Suu Kyi the Burmese pro-democracy campaigner, Kim Dae Jung President of South Korea and Wei Jingsheng, a political dissident expelled from China, also argued that human rights and freedoms are universal.They suggested that the debate is not so much about cultural values but about political power and Asian values quickly become an excuse for authoritarianism, as it is generally the state that decides an individual’s obligations to the community.  This is not dissimilar from what used to be described with adulation as the Asian tiger economies (typically Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan) but now recognised as having a significant authoritarian input. There is now a deeper understanding that plural democracy (subjected to Churchill’s quip “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”) sits uneasily with unpopular and rapid draconian economic reforms which can harm significant parts of the population – that although it can sometimes end up as beneficial to all it is often a lottery and there are the massive failures such as Stalin’s agricultural reforms and Mao’s Great Leap Forward which condemned millions to starvation let alone Nyere’s and Mugabe’s equally destructive rural policies in their own countries.

In signing the Declaration states also sign up to its Article 30 (“Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein”) which reinforces the indivisibility or equal importance of all the rights set out in the UDHR.

So far, despite siren voices that UDHR cannot be applied equally across all cultures and religions there are also powerful arguments and history to show that UDHR is generally regarded as universally applicable. We need to examine the veracity or otherwise of this difference between individual and collective rights and to see if they are not, in fact, two sides of the same coin.

Let us take first Dr Chang’s exhortation to examine Confucianism. It is highly presumptuous of me to even venture into this subject when a whole book has been devoted to it, to which I cannot do justice in this short address: “Confucianism and Human Rights” (1998 Columbia University Press) asks what is the place of human rights in a society shaped by Confucian principles and can Confucianism offer useful perspectives on the Western conception of human rights? It has contributions from eighteen leading Western and Chinese authorities on Confucian tradition, modern China, and modern human rights which address these questions. They provide a balanced forum that seeks common ground, providing needed perspective at a time when the Chinese government, after years of denouncing Confucianism as an artifact of a feudal past, has made an abrupt reversal to endorse it as a belief system compatible with communist ideology. In using Confucianism as a lens for which to evaluate the strengths and limitations of the principles of human rights the book makes a significant contribution to understanding the complicated issues surrounding the “values” debate between China, some Asian regimes, and the West. I commend it.

Likewise, Lo Chung-Shu Professor of Philosophy at the West-China University, Chengdu, Sichuan, wrote in his response titled “Human Rights in the Chinese Tradition” to UNESCO’s survey on the philosophical foundations of human rights, sent on 1 June 1947, the following:“The basic ethical concept of Chinese social political relations is the fulfilment of the duty to one’s neighbour, rather than the claiming of rights. The idea of mutual obligations is regarded as the fundamental teaching of Confucianism.”  He points out thatthe problem of human rights was seldom discussed by Chinese thinkers of the past, at least not in the same way as it was in the West. There was no open declaration of human rights in China, either by individual thinkers or by political constitutions, until this concept was introduced from the West. In fact, the early translators of Western political philosophy found it difficult to arrive at a Chinese equivalent for the term “rights”. The term Chinese use to translate “rights” now is two words “Chuan Li”, which literally means “power and interest” and which, he believed, was first coined by a Japanese writer on Western Public Law in 1868, and later adopted by Chinese writers.

This of course does not mean that the Chinese never claimed human rights or enjoyed the basic rights of man. In fact, the idea of human rights developed very early in China, and the right of the people to revolt against oppressive rulers was very early established.“Revolution” is not regarded as a dangerous word to use but as a word to which high ideals are attached and it was constantly used to indicate a justifiable claim by the people to overthrow bad rulers; the Will of the People is even considered to be the Will of Heaven. In the Book of History, an old Chinese classic, it is stated: “Heaven sees as our people see; Heaven hears as our people hear. Heaven is compassionate towards the people. What the people desire, Heaven will be found to bring about”.A ruler has a duty to Heaven to take care of the interests of his people. In loving his people, the ruler follows the Will of Heaven. So, it says in the same book: “Heaven loves the people; and the Sovereign must obey Heaven”.When the ruler no longer rules for the welfare of the people, it is the right of the people to revolt against him and dethrone him.

The right to revolt was repeatedly expressed in Chinese history, which consisted of a sequence of setting up and overthrowing dynasties. A great Confucianist, Mencius (372–289 B.C.), strongly maintained that a government should work for the Will of the people. He said: “People are of primary importance. The state is of less importance. The sovereign is of least importance”.

The basic ethical concept of Chinese social political relations is the fulfilment of the duty to one’s neighbour, rather than the claiming of rights. The idea of mutual obligations is regarded as the fundamental teaching of Confucianism.

Instead of claiming rights, Chinese ethical teaching emphasized the sympathetic attitude of regarding all one’s fellow men as having the same desires, and therefore the same rights, as one would like to enjoy oneself. By the fulfilment of mutual obligations, the infringement of the rights of the individual should be prevented. So far as the relation between the individual and state is concerned, the moral code is stated thus: “The people are the root of the country. When the root is firm, the country will be at peace.”

In the old days, only the ruling class, or people, who would be expected to become part of the ruling class, got the classical education; the mass of the people were not taught to claim their rights. It was the ruling class or would-be ruling class who were constantly taught to look upon the interest of the people as the primary responsibility of the government. The sovereign as well as the officials were taught to regard themselves as the parents or guardians of the people, and to protect their people as they would their own children. If it was not always the practice of actual politics, it was at least the basic principle of Chinese political thought. The weakness of this doctrine is that the welfare of the people depends so much on the goodwill of the ruling class, who are much inclined to fail in their duties and to exploit the people. This explains the constant revolutions in Chinese history.

We have examined Confucianism but what of Islam? The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the Islamic Council of Europe on 19 September 1981 states “Islam gave to mankind an ideal code of human rights fourteen centuries ago. These rights aim at conferring honour and dignity on mankind and eliminating exploitation, oppression and injustice. Human rights in Islam are firmly rooted in the belief that God, and God alone, is the Law Giver and the Source of all human rights. Due to their Divine origin, no ruler, government, assembly or authority can curtail or violate in any way the human rights conferred by God, nor can they be surrendered.”  It then sets out 23 rights which are entirely compatible with those in UDHR. they include the right to life, freedom, equality, justice, fair trial, protection against abuse of power and torture, honour and reputation, asylum, freedom of belief, thought and speech, freedom of religion and association, a right to social security – the list continues too long to identify here. It is true that, sadly, these principles are lacking in some countries which purport to live in observance of Islam but in the Foreword to the Declaration is stated that “The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights is based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah and has been compiled by eminent Muslim scholars, jurists and representatives of Islamic movements and thought. May God reward them all for their efforts and guide us along the right path.”


It is hard, in the light of all this evidence, therefore, to believe other than that the rights set out in these various instruments, especially UDHR are truly universal and that attempts to distinguish them on grounds of geography, religion, culture or other factor are misplaced and should be regarded with suspicion. We should take comfort from that and pay proper tribute to those who managed to find the words and sentiments that can still bind us all together over seventy years later.