Your Excellencies, Distinguished guests, Ambassadors for Peace, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am very happy to be here in Geneva with you all today and want to warmly welcome you all to this European Leadership Conference focused on the vital areas of Human Rights and Human Dignity.
Thank you so much for making the effort to come here today from all over Europe to participate in this important conference being held both here at the World Council of Churches and at the United Nations.
I am particularly grateful that so large and distinguished a body of people as yourselves with a track record of protecting Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms has been able to gather here at such short notice under the banner of UPF and related organizations. The advancement of Human Rights of all peoples is part of the core mission of UPF and we sincerely and deeply appreciate those who champion the fundamental rights of others. Especially in the last couple of years, I have been truly humbled and moved by the depth of the commitment of many of you in this area and the personal sacrifices you regularly make for the protection and promotion of the human rights of others. In this, if I may say so, you seem to demonstrate a remarkable depth and unconditional quality of love for your fellow human beings which I truly and deeply respect!
We meet against the backdrop of unfolding events in the Arab world that demonstrate in unprecedented ways a growing awareness of our shared humanity and of our destiny to become one global family in which the Human Rights of all, regardless of race, religion, nationality or ethnicity are respected. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that there must be what it calls a “common standard of achievement for all people”. Even as we gather here today we can witness this principle coming to fruition in Egypt and Libya. In Egypt a spontaneous uprising against tyranny has cast off the gross violations of human rights of the passed 30 years and opened up the real possibility of democracy and greatly increased freedoms of all kinds for the masses there. Movingly, Christian and Moslem have joined together to protect each others rights and freedoms. In Libya, the military might of NATO is being used with the approval of most of the Arab world to protect the lives and freedoms of innocent civilians threatened by a brutal dictator who is a fellow Arab. In this, the human family represented by the UN can be seen to be standing together as one against unacceptable standards of behavior by rogue members of that family.
Universal Peace Federation is deeply committed to advancing the cause of both Human Rights and Human Responsibilities. The passed 60 years or so have seen great advances in the quest to secure the rights of all human beings and Europe can feel justifiably proud of the seminal role that it has played in this process and which has seen it take the leadership role in implementing Human Rights around the world. But there can be absolutely no room for complacency or foot dragging. We recognize that there remains an enormous amount of work to be done if we are to build a world of lasting peace wherein all people live together in mutual respect, harmony, cooperation and co-prosperity.
With this great objective in mind I want to invite you to consider for a moment certain key principles that need to be fully considered and, I believe implemented, if Human Rights are to become things that we routinely respect and uphold rather than things that are routinely violated.
It is perhaps fitting that this event here in Geneva focused on Human Rights and Dignity should be taking place at the World Headquarters of The Protestant Tradition with its long commitment to the ideals of God-centered peace and reconciliation. And this is also perhaps a fitting place for us to reflect upon the immense contribution that religion as a whole (be it Islam, Judaism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity or any other) has played in fostering human rights and human dignity down the ages. The sacred texts of all these great religions are full of injunctions to us to treat our fellow human beings well. Truly understood, all these faiths have done so much to educate their adherents in the idea that they owe it to no lesser being than their own creator, God, to treat their fellow human beings with love, dignity and respect. Christianity introduced for the first time the notion of God as the parent of all humanity, thus bequeathing us all the sacred relationship of brothers and sisters. There can surely be no more simple, yet telling definition of both Human Rights and Human Responsibilities than the biblical command to “Love one’s neighbor as oneself”.
So first, as already mentioned, I think that we should give deep consideration to the profound relevance and significance of religion to the effort to secure human rights. Religions, after all, provide a deep moral and spiritual framework that sensitizes us to the way we treat each other and demands that we aim to be selfless in our dealings with others. They teach that we share a common origin, the source of our sacred (and potentially even divine!) value. Religions teach of the value of each human being and of the need to serve and love others.
Violations of human rights, therefore, can be seen as rooted in moral failures and moral ignorance related to spiritual poverty. Increasing spiritual awareness gives rise to a greater collective will to ensure the well being of all people. UPF therefore believes we should advance the values of all the world’s great religions, highlighting their emphasis on universal values. For this reason, we believe that The UN Human Rights Council should establish an inter-religious advisory committee on human rights and human responsibilities which would have as its aim to bring the wisdom and deepest heart of the world’s religions to bear on human rights and human responsibility issues. In the same vein, but on an altogether larger level, we have since the year 2000 advocated that an Inter-religious Council should be established as part of The structure of the UN and of similar authority within that structure to The UN Security Council.
Second, I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important the family is (or should be) in establishing norms of good behavior by one human being towards another. It is (or at least has the potential to be) the primary “school of ethics” in human society and should serve as the “school of love” wherein we learn to love, respect and serve others and find our true value through so doing. By strengthening the institutions of marriage and family, we can educate our children to respect all people, thereby establishing a culture of respect for human rights rooted in the family. By the same token, all violations of human rights and failures of human responsibility can be seen to stem from breakdown in the family. For example, we have seen time and again how despots and tyrants and those who exploit or abuse others emerge from troubled and disturbed family backgrounds.
Third, the curricula in our schools and other educational institutions should teach about both human rights and human responsibilities. This can be done through a character education or moral education curriculum. Men and women who are taught to fulfill their moral obligations and responsibilities in their families, among friends and associates, will naturally respect and live for the greater good and fulfillment of others.
Finally, I want to emphasize that human rights can be secured not merely through laws, backed by the power of criminal or civil sanctions, but by an ever growing consciousness that we are part of one human family – that we are brothers and sisters who share a common spiritual and moral heritage, that we are, in effect, “one family under God”.
I believe that our conference theme “Human Rights and Dignity: A New Paradigm for an Intercultural World” is a challenge to us to consider what are the critical first steps in bringing change: vision, strategy and hope.
Later today our focus will shift toward some of the issues being addressed by the 16th session of the Human Rights Council, at the United Nations, which is concluding its main annual 4 week session today. There we will be looking at various outstanding specific human rights violations and injustices in the session on, “Interreligious Cooperation and the Prevention of Incitement to National, Racial and Religious Hatred”. In the spirit of UPF’s approach and work ethic, we have asked presenters to speak not only about the gravity of violations, but most emphatically, about what has and can be done in order that similar injustices may be prevented in the future. With these, we will be noting recommendations to be provided to the UN and other international bodies and possibly setting out the first tasks for our new European Peace Council to attend to.
In recent years UPF has increasingly been invited by governments around the world to present programmes of human rights education to legislators, civil servants and members of the executive. Based upon the success of such UPF programmes - such as in Liberia, Jamaica, Nepal or Sri Lanka and others, we are committing ourselves to action and continued partnership with International, European and local institutions during this year of 2011.
You may not think that I look typically European, but in my heart, I feel that I am indeed a European. As you all have surely experienced in your years of fighting for peace and justice, when you invest and fight for a cause over time, it becomes your own. My family and I have gone through much during the nearly 8 years we have been working in Europe and we really feel that in this time we have become European and we are proud of that fact. But I have also been on extended missions in Africa, in the south Pacific and elsewhere. So again, as many of you have already experienced, eventually it really seems that the whole world is without any borders. For me, that is also connected with my conviction that God is our loving parent and we are meant to live as one interconnected family.
I look forward very much to meeting you all during the course of this conference and to getting to know those of you who are here for the first time. I trust that you will find your experience here deeply meaningful and enriching and once again I want to thank you all for making the effort to come and for all that you are contributing by your presence here! Thank you very much!