Human Rights Day 2015

Today is Human Rights Day, commemorating the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. The theme this year is “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always.”… not as good as last year’s, but not bad.

Official United Nations logo for Human Rights Day 2015, consisting of a stylized representation of 3 people of different colours reaching out to each other and forming a circle. To the side are three groups of words: Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always.

Human Rights Day 2015 logo

This coming year is going to be a pretty big year for international human rights. 2016 will mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Both were adopted 16 December 1966; the ICESCR came into effect 3 January 1976, and the ICCPR came into effect 23 March 1976. The UDHR may be the pretty face in international human rights, but it’s the ICESCR and the ICCPR that are the muscle – the UDHR is a mere declaration of what would be desirable, while the ICESCR and ICCPR are formal treaties. Together the UDHR, the ICESCR, the ICCPR, and the two Optional Protocols to the ICCPR make up the International Bill of Human Rights. Canada has signed all of these (though we only signed on to the second Optional Protocol, about the death penalty, in 2005).

Much ado is going to be made of the “Four Freedoms” that the International Bill of Rights is based on:

  1. freedom of speech
  2. freedom of belief
  3. freedom from want
  4. freedom from fear

The one atheists, humanists, and freethinkers are going to want to keep a close eye on is the second one in that list. I have worded it as “freedom of belief”, but if you look around, you’ll see it is often described with other words:

  1. freedom of religion
  2. freedom of worship

“Freedom of religion” is the most common way this freedom is described. Hence the well known nonbeliever rebuttal: “freedom from religion”, and its longer form “freedom of religion must include freedom from religion”. “Freedom of worship” is less commonly used these days, but I imagine you’re going to be hearing it a lot in the coming year. That’s because when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt first enumerated the four freedoms in his 1941 State of the Union Address, he used that term:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour – anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.

Today, with 75 years’ hindsight, Roosevelt’s wording of that second freedom seems a little clumsy – if not outright ignorant and exclusionary. But you have to keep in mind that Roosevelt was making this speech in the middle of World War ⅠⅠ (although it was January 1941 at the time he made it, and the US was studiously keeping out the war – they wouldn’t get seriously involved until the Pearl Harbour attack in December). Given how quickly modern leaders are willing to throw away people’s basic human rights at the mere possibility of a single ISIS militant, Roosevelt’s stand in the face of the growing threat of Hitler, Hirohito, and even Stalin is frankly humbling.

Luckily in the 25 years following his speech, human rights experts realized he’d fumbled the ball on that one. By the time the UDHR was written, this was what Article 18 looked like:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

And Article 18 of the ICCPR:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

Atheist, humanist, and secular groups have done an enormous amount of work in the years since to clarify that the fundamental freedom Roosevelt was describing – and that Article 18 of the ICCPR enshrines – is not “freedom of worship”, or even “freedom of religion”, but rather “freedom of belief“. In other words, non-religious thought and conscience as just as much fundamental rights as religious beliefs, and deserve just as much respect and protection in the law.

It was not an easy job. It wasn’t until 1993 that the UN human rights committee declared officially that Article 18 did indeed cover nonreligious thought, conscience, and belief.

So we have to make sure that we take a stand and make our voices heard in the 50th anniversary talk. We have to remind that parroting Roosevelt’s archaic turn of phrase may seem cute, and it may seem like a good way to connect contemporary human rights work with history… but it’s wrong. Right now, nonbelief is – by far – the most dangerous category of religious belief to hold in the entire world. It is perhaps now more important than ever to make sure that it is not forgotten that “freedom of belief” includes “freedom from belief”.

Incidentally, as they do every year on Human Rights Day, the International Humanist and Ethical Union released their Freedom of Thought report, which catalogues systemic discrimination against nonbelievers. I’d love to tell you what’s in it, but I haven’t been able to download the report myself, due to technical glitches (which appear to be the IHEU’s fault, not mine). However, I can tell you that Canada still scores “Systemic Discrimination” – pretty much the same as always. When I can finally get my hands on the report, I’ll give you more details.

13 thoughts on “Human Rights Day 2015

  1. Thank you for this.

    Re: “So we have to make sure that we take a stand and make our voices heard in the 50th anniversary talk. . . . It is perhaps now more important than ever to make sure that it is not forgotten that “freedom of belief” includes ‘freedom from belief’”.

    What do you suggest we do?

    • Well, I could suggest a couple things.

      I’d suggest that whenever we talk about human rights… and with the issues we talk about on this blog, it *WILL* come up… we make it clear that freedom *from* religion is part of the package. It’s tragic (though hardly a surprise) that the people who formulated our modern human rights instruments failed to take freedom of *NON*-belief into account. But the *real* tragedy is that people still do that today. We can’t let that happen. Whenever someone starts talking about “freedom of religion” (or, Dog forbid, “freedom of worship”), we need to step and say: “Excuse me… I think you mean freedom of *belief*. This is the motherfucking twenty-first century; join us here.” (Obviously not in those exact words, but you get the drift.)

      So, suggestion #1: Don’t let anyone talk about “freedom of religion” or “freedom of worship” without correcting them to include freedom of nonbelief.

      I’d also suggest remembering that the fundamental freedoms can’t work piecemeal – they only work when we have *ALL* of the freedoms they promise. If you only adopt *some* of them – and especially only the ones that are comfortable for the majority or power class, while the ones you ignore primarily target minorities and under classes… well, you’re basically Saudi Arabia. Or South Africa during apartheid. Because that’s precisely how those kinds of regimes work: they gleefully tubthump about how much they’re into human rights while pointing at the rights they *do* acknowledge… all the while pretending the ones they *don’t* aren’t a problem. If we’re serious about human rights, we can’t cherry pick. For example, we can’t say (as Sam Harris does, or as any of the current US Republican presidential candidates do) that it’s okay to target “Muslim-looking people”, either for enhanced scrutiny or extra legal restrictions… that’s a straight-up violation of Article 26 of the ICCPR.

      So, suggestion #2: Stand up for *ALL* fundamental human rights, for *EVERYONE*, not just the ones that benefit ourselves.

      Naturally, in order for suggestion 2 to be meaningful, you have to know what the fundamental human rights *are*. And – shockingly and horrifyingly – *very* few people do. Most people not only don’t know the fundamental human rights, even worse, far too many don’t even *BELIEVE* that there are fundamental human rights. They think what rights we have are just a wink-wink-nudge-nudge handshake agreement between people and their governments, or between states. They think that the only reason we have certain rights is because the lobby for those rights is powerful… a concept that is so self-evidently balmy it’s unbelievable that so many otherwise smart people believe it. So if we’re going to be serious about human rights, we should first understand them. That means reading up on what human rights are, where they “come from”, why they are important, and which rights are fundamental. At the very least, I’d think we should encourage everyone to read the UDHR, and perhaps also Part 1 and Part 3 of the ICCPR (most of the rest of the ICCPR is about how states have to implement it – it’s an honest-to-goodness treaty after all, so much of it is details to make it real and workable).

      So, suggestion #3: Learn about human rights, and spread the knowledge.

      Those are fairly broad suggestions, but that’s because I think most of what need to do is reactive, rather than proactive. I suspect that in the coming year there’s going to be a lot of noise made about how “freedom of religion” is a fundamental right. We will need to be active and aggressive – especially at the grassroots level – about correcting that to “freedom of belief”, and reminding that *our* beliefs are covered, too.

      Perhaps I should put these suggestions in a post of their own. Ah, I’m just creating more work for myself, aren’t I? ^_^; I finally got hold of the FoT 2015 report, too – I have to do a write-up about that. Spoiler alert: Canada is more-or-less the same as last year, though we got a little worse because they finally noticed our blasphemy law.

      • …even worse, far too many don’t even *BELIEVE* that there are fundamental human rights.

        *raises hand*

        Or at least, I don’t believe that human rights exist in any objective sense, such that one can arrive at them by pure reason as opposed to a combination of reason and what could be called preference (however fervent it might be).

        They think what rights we have are just a wink-wink-nudge-nudge handshake agreement between people and their governments, or between states. They think that the only reason we have certain rights is because the lobby for those rights is powerful… a concept that is so self-evidently balmy it’s unbelievable that so many otherwise smart people believe it.

        I wouldn’t put it quite like that, but I do think that rights are “enshrined” by politicians who are either sincerely persuaded by arguments rooted in moral philosophy (or even in theology) or, yeah, throwing bones to some lobby for reasons of political expediency. Bone-throwing is obviously pragmatic rather than principled, and moral philosophy is a slippery thing. When another philosopher comes along with equally cogent arguments rooted in different premises, there’s really no way to settle the matter apart from pistols at dawn. Rights certainly don’t exist in the absence of some authority prepared to uphold them. I wouldn’t say might makes right, but might certainly makes rights. And yes, I do find that viewpoint “balmy” (mild and agreeable).

        At the very least, I’d think we should encourage everyone to read the UDHR, and perhaps also Part 1 and Part 3 of the ICCPR (most of the rest of the ICCPR is about how states have to implement it – it’s an honest-to-goodness treaty after all, so much of it is details to make it real and workable).

        UDHR? ICCPR? Jeez. But okay, I’ll plunge into the alphabet soup and let you know if I’m persuaded. Now I’m making more work for myself.

      • Freedom of belief. Absolutely. One should never miss an opportunity to blaspheme. The religion obsessed should be provided with psychological help, as a right. Believing fairy tales is a sure sign of mental instability.

        There should be a government project that goes beyond plain old vanilla secularism. Why should a person suffer all their days because of misguided parents or demented ethnic educators?

        A new “right” that should be enshrined in our constitution, should be the right to be told the truth. Even if the right to con people with superstition still lingers on and festers on. Actually, I’m in favor of repealing the right of adults to proclaim the existence of magic. Children do deserve some level of protection from crazy adults.

        Can you imagine the turmoil such ‘human rights’ would have if the United Nations proclaimed it?

  2. The persecution of nonbelievers and apostates is fundamental to religion. This is shown in the us vs them attitude of the
    religious, the religious rhetoric always uses war (war on christmas) as a metaphor and except for secular nations it is accurate.

    The only defence against religious persecution including religion vs religion is a secular society. The UN is not
    going to get anywhere with a declaration, it takes hard work to change every individual society and sometimes blood.

    • > The persecution of nonbelievers and apostates is fundamental to religion.

      You are using an amphiboly to make a false point. Religions are hostile to nonbelievers, yes… but to a religion, a “nonbeliever” is simply anyone who doesn’t believe the religion. Hindus are nonbelievers as far as Christians are concerned. Atheists and secularists are not particularly “special” in their eyes; we’re just another type of nonbeliever to them. The “War on Christmas” for example, is not actually specifically about atheists and secularists – the people who believe in this “war” are antagonistic to *any* sign of belief or nonbelief other than their own. They’d flip out just as much if Starbucks made Kwanzaa cups instead of Christmas cups.

      The only reason that religions can pull of “interfaith” friendship and (somewhat) unified opposition to atheists and secularists today is simply because we’re the biggest threat they face.

      > The UN is not going to get anywhere with a declaration…

      Hence the two international treaties to enforce the Declaration.

      > … it takes hard work to change every individual society…

      Hence their effort – and mine – to bring attention to the issue of human rights, and educate people about them.

      You seem to think that just because you bluster and do nothing, that means that’s what everyone else is doing.

      > … and sometimes blood.

      No.

      Blood should *NEVER* be spilled for human rights. That’s simply a contradiction in terms, like fucking to obtain virginity. The only time blood should be spilled is in self-defence (and even then, only as a last resort).

  3. The one atheists, humanists, and freethinkers are going to want to keep a close eye on is the second one in that list.

    Whereas sceptics might just be at least equally concerned with the first.

    Given how quickly modern leaders are willing to throw away people’s basic human rights at the mere possibility of a single ISIS militant, Roosevelt’s stand in the face of the growing threat of Hitler, Hirohito, and even Stalin is frankly humbling.

    That’s a fatuous comparison. Neither Hitler, Hirohito nor Stalin was sending religious fanatics to infiltrate and attack Roosevelt’s America. In 1941 Stalin wasn’t a “growing threat” to America in any case.

    …human rights experts…

    Ah. The sophisticated theologians of humanism.

    • > That’s a fatuous comparison. Neither Hitler, Hirohito nor Stalin was sending religious fanatics to infiltrate and attack Roosevelt’s America.

      No, they weren’t… but at the time the general public *THOUGHT* they were. Hence the internment camps. Remember those?

      • Well, I don’t literally remember them because I wasn’t around. They existed, of course, but they had little or nothing to do with religion. The perceived problem with the (ethnic) Japanese wasn’t that they might be Buddhists and/or Shintoists, it was that they were (ethnically) Japanese. And Roosevelt ultimately presided over the American version of internment, so if you’re feeling “humbled” by his supposed principled resistance to such measures then you’re probably misjudging the man.

        • I never said nor implied this had anything to do with religion – that was your bugbear. Fear is fear, it doesn’t really matter whether your enemies are religious fanatics or political or nationalist fanatics. I also never held up Roosevelt as a model of humanity (quite the opposite, I pointed out that he didn’t quite get human rights).

          You seem to have missed the point entirely, to the point where it almost seems deliberate. The point I was making was that Roosevelt made a stand for human rights in a time where there was widespread fear of “hostile aliens”… *MUCH* more so then than there is now. The threat today is basically one piddly little guerrilla group in the Middle East and the kooks they inspire… the threat back then was *enormous*; entire empires were a menace, and there were several of them. ISIS could be wiped out in an afternoon if we had anything near the same level of viciousness those in Roosevelt’s time had, what with dropping nukes on civilians and all (and that’s just what they *DID*… what they *planned* to do but never got around to is truly horrifying – also something Roosevelt presided over, I’m aware, but then *I* never said that everything the man did was praiseworthy; just his stand for human rights).

          Roosevelt stood between two world wars, with the threat of getting entangled second one looming very close, in a nation that was surrounded by threats that had the power to literally physically destroy it several times over, and he made a speech about the importance of fundamental human rights. And not just a speech, he and his wife were *instrumental* in making it actually happen. Whatever else his flaws may have been, *THAT* should be recognized as courageous… far more courageous than the behaviour of our contemporary politicians.

          • I never said nor implied this had anything to do with religion…

            Well, you did put Roosevelt’s “second freedom” in bold text when you quoted it, and then you drew attention to it again in the text below the quote. You went on to criticise the willingness of “modern leaders” to throw rights under the bus in response to the threat of ISIS. ISIS militants consider themselves involved in a holy war, and the people whose rights are being most acutely and obviously traduced in response are Muslims. So yes, you rather implied that you were talking about religion. Or at least, I’d defend that as a highly plausible reading of your post.

            Of course, you know what you meant and I don’t. If you were making a more general point about the distinction between politicians who stand up for human rights and those who don’t, however, it’s worth noting that Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” didn’t touch on nationality or ethnicity. In other words, there was nothing in his concept of human rights that would conflict with selectively interning people of Japanese descent. On the other hand, our notions (and Roosevelt’s) of religious freedom do conflict with the idea of interning or expelling Muslims, or even subjecting them to special scrutiny. Rooseveltian human rights didn’t pose any obstacle to his eventual treatment of ethnic Japanese, whereas modern human rights definitely pose an obstacle to the way some politicians would like to treat Muslims. That’s why you had no business feeling humbled by the comparison between Roosevelt’s behaviour and that of politicians today – he wasn’t facing the same kind of dilemma. The specific human rights he was standing up for actually didn’t get in the way of coming down hard on either the “hostile aliens” he was confronting or the American citizens (of Japanese descent) he thought might be inclined to support the hostile aliens.

            And no, ISIS couldn’t be wiped out in an afternoon. Nuking Raqqa and Mosul wouldn’t do it, fun as that might be.

  4. “It is perhaps now more important than ever to make sure that it is not forgotten that “freedom of belief” includes “freedom from belief””

    I agree with this, unfortunately some want to twist the freedom to not believe into the freedom to exclude those who do…

    • I have to agree with the freedom of nonbelief. Face it, nonbelief is a much more basic position. Getting you to believe anything implies persuasion by evidence or, in former times, by submission under torcher and threats.

      I do not agree with the freedom to spread superstitious belief. I don’t know how we can put an end to it, if we want to maintain freedom of belief. It still irks me that malevolent, money-grubbing hucksters will continue with their fraudulent industries: in most cases with the enthusiastic collaboration of elected officials.

      We need a puritanical, atheist, international force: like the Internet is from time to time. The freedom to spread bullshit for profit should be stopped. However, not much can be done about it: even to protect our most vulnerable. We can’t even effectively address this problem, by way of public education, in our own high schools. This is the insidious nature of money-driven faith-ism.

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