Ladies and Gentlemen!
Thank you for this opportunity to speak at such a representative forum of people professionally engaged in human rights.
The Human Rights Council is a young structure within the United Nation’s system. But behind it is a long experience of reflection and action accumulated by this authoritative organization in the field of human rights. The Council commands substantial resources for involving new partners in discussion within its terms of reference and I hope religious organizations will occupy a worthy place among them.
Certainly, human rights constitute an important institution in modern social order. Its appeal lies in a simple and popular idea that puts concern for the welfare of each individual in the focus of social life. It was this idea that Christianity brought into European culture. It has always proclaimed that salvation is available for every individual regardless of his or her ethnic and social background and emphasized the unique nature and value of each individual in God’s design for the world.
Christians cannot be indifferent to the further fate of this important message to humanity, even if it is expressed in the secular language of human rights. It is important that this institution should continue serving the welfare of each individual and society as a whole.
However, many Orthodox Christians believe that in the development and implementation of human rights today there are some growing tendencies which threaten the progress towards this lofty goal.
First of all, the development of the human rights institution has been increasingly affected in a monopolistic way by a limited range of ideas concerning the human nature, which are not shared by most people in the world. More often than not, international organizations involved in human rights tend to draw their conclusions from the opinions of a narrow circle of experts, functionaries or noisy but well- organized minorities. Many national states appear to have fallen under the influence of these fellows, too, thus losing their ability to communicate the authentic attitude to values characteristic of their own nations.
Characteristically, the most common notion used in relation to human rights, namely, human dignity, lacks a clear common understanding today. It is used as a certain axiom but its content has long stood in the need of clarification. This notion gives a clue to our understanding of the human being and hence to human rights.
It is clear to Orthodox Christians that human dignity is inconceivable without a religious-spiritual and ethical dimension. At the same time, in order to make the human rights concept acceptable to people of different worldviews, persistent attempts have often been made to separate it from religion. As a result, religious views are declared a private affair and denied validity as a source of modern law including human rights law. And that in spite of the fact that nearly 80 percent of the world population are religious people according to wide-spread evaluations.
Quite to the contrary, demands have been voiced to subject religious views to legal norms grounded in non-religious ideas. As a result, the agnostic and even materialistic attitude to life tends to become dominant to draw religious rites, symbols and ideas away from the public sphere. Even the favourite Christian feast of Christmas has lost its name in many Western countries. Instead, the authorities would bring the greetings of the season now. The human rights approach has been also used to justify the outrage against and distortion of religious symbols and teachings. The same approach is used today to impose a certain course of introduction to various religions in schools instead of teaching the basics of their own religion.
In short, the secular approach has forced people to avoid expressing their faith in public life. This leads to the building of a non-religious society, which cannot be supported by any real believer.
In addition, there is a strong influence of extreme feministic views and homosexual attitudes to the formulation of rules, recommendations and programs in human rights advocacy, which are destructive for the institution of family and reproduction of population. We cannot judge what way of life should be chosen to particular people, but why their views should be imposed through legal system on other people who do not share them? It has been recently reported that in Great Britain some Catholic adoption agencies were banned for refusal to consider homosexual couples as candidates for adoptive parenthood.
We cannot accept the legal approaches to the roles of man and woman, to relationships between man and woman and parents and children and to the status of homosexual unions, which are developed without taking into account the opinions of believers.
The view of abortion as a right of woman has led international organization to become deaf and blind to the right to life for a conceived child. Today those who carry out experiments on human embryos do not want even to hear about violations of the ethics. Even more amazing are proposals to include the right to euthanasia in the code of human rights. Human rights, which begin with the fundamental right to life, may soon turn out to be on the side of death.
On the other hand, there are serious concerns for the way in which human rights are implemented. One of the problems in this area is associated with the interpretation of the notion of freedom. Human rights include in their package certain opportunities an individual can use at his or her own discretion. In other words, they only protect the freedom of choice stating nothing about the responsibility of a person. As a result, the freedom from evil remains unprotected. What is this freedom from evil? In our view, it is described in the language of moral norms. In his address to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly last year, Patriarch Alexy II offered an understanding of morality as a positive freedom, saying, “Morality is freedom in action. It is a freedom already realized in a responsible choice that restricts itself for the benefit of the individual and society as a whole”.
I would like to remind you that the UN standards based among other things on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights presuppose a limited freedom of choice for “meeting the just requirements of morality”. Unfortunately, the European Union Charter of Human Rights omits this limitation clause.
In many countries, freedom is used as a pretext for developing a commercial industry filling society with propaganda of amoral way of life. We believe an individual must have a right to be safeguarded against the propagation of violence, use of drugs and alcohol, gambling, sexual laxity.
In our view, human rights should not run contrary to the moral norms accepted by most people as a desirable form of behavior. If human rights are used to support moral relativism in society they will become alien to believers.
The implementation of human rights also involves the question of the identity of human rights legal systems in various countries of the world. True, human rights have universal provisions. But various countries can implement them taking into account the cultural distinctive features of a particular people. In some countries the population is more religious than in others and religion therefore can and must play a more prominent role in the formation and implementation of human rights. Besides, every nation has its own historical experience, cultural traditions and its own system of meanings. These realities should not be ignored in building a national human rights system. In this connection, a quite undemocratic behavior has been exhibited by some countries who consider their own system of human rights implementation to be universal. Directly or indirectly they seek to impose their own standards on other nations or become the only judge in the matter of human rights. I believe dialogue excluding a “teacher-pupil” situation is the only way acceptable in this case.
Finally, I cannot help pointing to the damage that the practice of double standards does to the reputation of human rights work. Human rights have been often used by some countries as a tool for pursuing their own national interests. It is especially evident in the conflict regions in the world. The most recent example is the situation in Kosovo and Metohija. Such cases tend to heat the situation in the world and to sow prejudice towards human rights.
Summing up the above, I would like to state this. There is much talk today about a conflict of civilizations and cultures, but actually what we are dealing with is a conflict of approaches, one based on the religious worldview while the other on the non-religious worldview. For some reason there is an established opinion that it is the non-religious and morally neutral approach that can express all the human aspirations in the most universal way and smooth out various contradictions existing in the world. It has been often forgotten though that it is the religious and moral dimension of human life that is universal and characteristic of all nations. The religious approach, as I have tried to show, gives a great importance to the social role of religion and advocates the preservation of a single moral system in society. These provisions should be taken into account in developing international law including human rights law as well as national legislations. Otherwise the alienation and opposition of a considerable part of humanity to the global processes will only grow. A peaceful way out of this situation lies in conducting an intensive dialogue.
The Russian Orthodox Church is developing today a comprehensive approach to human rights. A relevant document is planned to be adopted this summer by the Bishops’ Council as the supreme church authority. We know from our experience of inter-Christian and interreligious dialogue that other Christian confessions and world religions have well-developed approaches to human rights. It would be appropriate to make these views heard in the Human Rights Council and in the UN as a whole.
A summit of world religious leaders was held in 2006 in Moscow. The discussions launched at that forum showed that despite the existing differences, religious leaders acknowledged the important role that religion plays in society and stated that major world religions share the fundamental moral norms. In my view, this is the basis to become a docking point between various civilizations in today’s world.
The participants in the summit proposed that a forum for dialogue between religions be established in the UN. This appeal was addressed to the G8 leaders. Russia, as is known, has supported this idea. Her Foreign Minister, speaking at the 62nd Session of the UN General Assembly, proposed to set up an Advisory Council of Religions with a particular status in the UN. I hope that other countries concerned could also support this reasonable initiative of the religious leaders. In this way we would give a new impetus to the dialogue on human rights on global level.
Thank you for your attention.
March 18, 2008