Does respecting universal human rights mean that everyone must accept and adopt unified sociocultural values and practices? Clearly the answer is no. Yet at international level we see regular efforts to malign specific countries or societies based on their religious and cultural backgrounds. Despite a general agreement among scholars that present-day human rights are the common heritage of all civilisations, we continue to witness policies and actions in some quarters that tend to reject diversity and impose one set of rules and ideas on the rest of the world.
These actions are more pronounced at multilateral forums, where certain countries and groups lobby for specific actions that may or may not be in conformity with the socio-cultural or religious values of other countries. In many cases, proponents of these rights also use their economic and political muscle to muzzle any opposition to their views or proposals. Such actions stand in stark contrast to the ideals of multiculturalism.
As believers, Muslims are convinced that if God wanted to create a universe that exists in one way, in one colour, in one religion or in one race, it would not have been difficult. But He wanted us to be different and the reasons for this diversity are given in His holy messages. Islam, therefore, embraces and cherishes diversity. History also shows in great detail the success and achievements of those civilisations that embraced diversity and promoted peaceful coexistence. We must, therefore, learn to cherish the essential differences between human beings and between their cultures.
The horrors of the two World Wars compelled countries to codify these ideals in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirmed the importance of equal rights and dignity for all. The 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action added further layers of clarity and detail. That seminal document recognises that human rights are not only universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, but must also be treated in a fair and equal manner globally, while giving due consideration to the significance of national and regional particularities, as well as bearing in mind various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds.
The key point here is that there is no incompatibility between respecting human dignity and ensuring the promotion and protection of human rights on the one hand, and respecting national, regional, religious and cultural diversity on the other. The two are not only compatible they are mutually-reinforcing – a point recognised by all the world’s major religions.
Human rights do not belong to one race, religion or civilisation. Indeed, today’s globalised world is a melting pot of different cultures, religions and traditions. Yet we are all united in a commitment to certain core values such as justice, peace, human solidarity and human rights. These values form part of our common heritage. The key then is to interpret and apply universal human rights in a manner that respects different cultures and belief systems – i.e., diversity within universality. From this perspective, respect for and strict observance of cultural diversity is an important facet of universality, and has the potential to contribute significantly to the world peace and security.
Over the last seven decades, the development of the universal human rights system has helped millions of people have their rights recognised, promoted and protected by their home States. Over time, that system has also become more representative of the diversity of the entire human family. Unfortunately, there has been a gradual decline in States’ commitment to multilateralism since the fall of the bipolar world. Concomitantly, cultural and political imperialism is rising in different shapes, leading to unmatched horrors and suffering. Coercive measures, including unilateral sanctions and the use of force, are applied to subdue diversity or divergent views and policies.
Proponents of this approach often argue that such actions are taken to ensure universal protection of human rights. But the hollowness of this argument is exposed when we see that the overt focus is on ‘defending’ civil and political rights alone. There is no parallel push to promote and protect equality or socio-economic rights, including the right to development. Worst still, we see a gradual increase in the use of coercive measures to secure economic interests, and an unwillingness to share the benefits of technological advances with the developing world, even on humanitarian grounds.
The two World Wars act as a lasting reminder that, in order to live in peace and harmony, diversity within global society must not only be acknowledged but also respected and celebrated. Differences of views, ideas and systems can only be addressed through dialogue. Sustained efforts must be made to enhance dialogue among religions, cultures and civilisations, thereby reducing confrontation, suppressing xenophobia and promoting respect for diversity based on justice, fraternity and equality.
The development of international human rights law must also be promoted through a consensual, cooperative and constructive approach, which helps secure acceptability and boost implementation. Selectivity or coercion-based models do not last long and tend to lead to confrontation and chaos. Promoting respect for cultural diversity contributes to a culture of tolerance, mutual understanding and accommodation. It also helps with the peaceful settlement of disputes, which is a key objective of the UN system.
International organisations such as the UN, European Union and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation should develop strategies and devise mechanisms to promote respect for cultural diversity, as a key tool to forge a better world. Civil society, NGOs, religious leaders and the media must also be involved in this collective effort. It is time to reject prejudice and teach future generations that beauty and strength lie in diversity.
Mr. Marghoob Saleem Butt is Executive Director of the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
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