This post is a response to Kate from Wronging Rights' post entitled: 'Trying to Think about Human Rights and Religion'
At the beginning of my studies, the first thing we discussed was the philosophy and history of human rights. In our lecture, our professor repeatedly said that as human rights activists, we need to be able to convince others that human rights exist and why they should believe in and uphold the rights themselves (which now, come to think of it, sounds exactly like proselytism).
I am also an aid worker, so throughout all of this, I was interested in being able to communicate the importance of human rights in emergency responses. But going to someone in Haiti or Kenya or Afghanistan and telling them, well, John Locke said this, and Rousseau said this, so logically you see, there is a natural law surrounding human rights, nd this is why you should believe in them and this is what you should do to uphold them, and what your government is responsible for as a duty-bearer just sounds difficult. How do you thrust the thoughts and opinions of Europeans and Americans onto those who are not, and convince them that this is what they should believe. Yes, this is where the neo-colonialism aspect comes in.
In her article, Kate referenced the story about the success of the Tostan campaign against FGM in Senegal, which is a UN-led campaign that "seeks to build consensus, African-style, on the dangers of the practice, while being careful not to denounce it as barbaric as Western activists have been prone to do." They link with local women and men to train on health and human rights issues in the locally-approved way. The main starting point, though, included - interestingly enough - meeting with the village chiefs and imams to convince them that in Islam there was no religious requirement for cutting. The practice, in fact, pre-dates Islam by centuries!This process worked. By having the support of the religious leaders in the community, they were able to move to a community-based, human rights-based campaign and training programme to end FGM.
This example shows that by using 'localisation' tactics, as coined by Kate, there is actually a better opportunity to work with the local culture and context to bring different cultures, communities, and governments to an agreement around supporting human rights. Where is much of this work needed? The developing world. And, as noted by many, the most religious people in the world can also be found in the places where some of the most atrocious human rights abuses exist.
The Tostan campaign is just an example of how human rights and religion should work together to actually change in a locally-based, community-owned way.
Now, I am not saying that I have all the answers to linking human rights with religion (especially when you throw into it the ideologies of all the varieties religion can take - fundamentalist to liberal), but while I was a student and we were looking for the philosophical base behind human rights in order to convince those who's rights have been abused or those who have the duty to uphold rights, I never felt satisfied with the answer. One of the principles I commit my work to, is to always consider the local context, to refer to local staff and customs and of course to collaborate with communities. Human rights should not be discluded from this. Neither should ignoring the religious viewpoints of those we are trying to help.
Perhaps religion actually is the answer, the logic, behind human rights. We need to not be so scared to explore what religion can bring to human rights because we in the Euro/Aus/American world are so afraid of church and politics. It might just be the winning argument to change.
*I am sure I will develop more thoughts on this topic as time passes. This is just my preliminary dump.