Cherie speaks on human rights at KTIF launch

Following is the full text of the speech by Cherie Booth at the inauguration of the Khaleej Times International Forum in Dubai on Sunday.

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Published: Tue 20 Sep 2005, 11:01 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 9:20 PM

IT IS A real honour to be here tonight in Dubai and to deliver this lecture. I would like to thank Mr Mohammed Galadari for kindly inviting me to deliver this lecture this evening and to everyone I have met in Dubai today for your great warmth and kindness to me. I am most grateful to all of you for attending tonight and for your own warm welcome to me and I am particularly delighted to see our Ambassador Richard Make peace here with us too.

This is my first real visit to Dubai although, like hundreds of thousands others, I have changed aircraft here so have marvelled before at the ease, efficiency and marvellous facilities of your airport. So I already knew that Dubai was making the most of its wonderful geographical position at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

But nothing can prepare you for your first sight of the city from the ground. This is truly an astonishing, breath-taking place. Like most first time visitors, I suspect, I already I have a crick in my neck from looking upwards the whole time. Those of you who live here must constantly run the risk of bumping into visitors who are not looking where they are going but looking at the sky.

It's hard to credit that this extraordinary, dynamic city has grown up in little more than a generation. It's also very clear that Dubai is continuing to develop, diversify and adapt.

It shows what can be achieved by vision, boldness and determination. And it provides not just a model for other cities and states in the area but also an inspiration by showing just what ambition and drive can achieve.

And I know too that the UK has an excellent trade relationship with UAE, our largest trading partner in the Middle East. But our friendship goes far wider than just exports and imports, the relationship is also personal: 100,000 UK nationals live and work in the UAE and our Defence Cooperation Agreement represents our largest defence commitment outside NATO. But we do not come here just to work: it is estimated that by 2015 there will be more UK holiday makers coming to Dubai than there will be in Spain. You only have to look at your hotels and resorts and experience the warmth of the hospitality to see why.

So as Dubai is so effectively building bridges between the continents, it is fitting that I have been invited to speak to you today about the contribution that Human Rights can make to building bridges of understanding between different faith groups, both within nations and between nations.

I hope to show both how the great faiths of our world have been, and continue to be a positive influence on the development of human rights law. I will address the emergence of the modern Human Rights framework, challenging the thesis that attempts to portray Human Rights as a Western invention or that tries to claim cultural exceptionalism to fundamental human rights — that is those who say culture has a veto over fundamental human rights. I will also show how Human Rights have to be understood alongside duties and responsibilities and how failure to appreciate that balance can be detrimental to society. I will look at how this appreciation of human rights is an essential component of an inclusive democracy. Finally, I will suggest that a better foundation for the dialogue of our great faiths — one that avoids relativism can be found in the concept of human rights.

The interface between religion, law and human rights, is one of the most fascinating issues which a lawyer can be asked to address. Why? Because religion is the principal source of moral inspiration in most cultures and legal systems — domestic and international. Consequently, when we are looking at religion we are looking at one of the, if not the, principal fertilizing sources of domestic law, international law and human rights.

It is also, of course, because of the common and enduring values shared by our great faiths that the moral basis for law throughout our world is so similar. For what is extraordinary, of course, is not what divides societies and religions, but the fundamental values they have in common. They converge in their acceptance of the fundamentals on which all legal systems are based — human dignity i.e. the irreducible worth of each human being, the peaceful resolution of disputes, concern for one's neighbour, performance of one's duty, integrity and fairness in business transactions and the law, equality, equity, protection of the environment, the unity of the human family.

One of those fundamentals, of course, is the sanctity of life and an abhorrence of murder. It is something, which, as Muslim friends remind me, is as fundamental to their faith as to mine — and, in a world in which terrorism affects every region; this moral certainty is something which cannot be emphasised enough.

So our great faiths provide a common reservoir of fundamental sources and we neglect this inspirational body of wisdom at our peril. It is also why it is surely nonsense to talk confidently about a Muslim or Western world. I would argue that such divisions are entirely superficial, indeed artificial because they ignore the historical interconnectedness of our philosophies and the confluence of our values at a deeper level.

Here in Dubai and in neighbouring states, there are tens of thousands of people from outside this region, of all faiths and none, who have made their home here and who have contributed enormously to your success. And the same holds true, of course, in the UK and other European countries.

In Britain, we are hugely proud of our genuine multi-cultural, tolerant society. There are, for example, well over one and a half million Muslims and five hundred thousand Hindus living in the UK.

For an increasing number, it is the country of their birth. They make a huge contribution to every aspect of our national life — in science, in the arts, in the professions, in business and in sport. Our society is immeasurably richer because of them. In turn, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and others have complete freedom to practice their religion. Indeed, the Muslims living, working and peacefully coexisting in the UK and the rest of the West are just one answer to those who suggest there is somehow an impregnable wall between the West and Islam.

So the world's great faiths supply us with the foundations on which the integrity of our legal systems and the strength of our societies are based.

Fortunately, these fundamentals are already recognised not just in national legal systems across the world, but specifically in a plethora of international legal instruments — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Charter, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to name a few.

These fundamentals are a common grammar underpinning all our civilizations. It puts human rights (and democracy) at its centre. It gives meaningful protection and effect to the dignity of all God's people. It gives us a template to tackle the problems we face in the world today.

Sixty years ago, when the delegates gathered in San Francisco to establish the United Nations, one of their first acts was to set up a commission to draw up what became the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. From its very beginning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out to be as universal and inclusive as possible. Its drafting was entrusted to the 18 members of the original Human Rights Commission, under the chairmanship of the inimitable Eleanor Roosevelt — wife of President FDR (incidentally also criticised for not knowing her place!). Among the most influential and active members of the Commission were a Chinese Confucian scholar, P. C. Chang; a Lebanese scholar, Charles Malik; and a Chilean social democrat, Hernan Santa Cruz.

Aside from their contributions, the Declaration was strengthened by the involvement of all 58 founder nations of the UN, which then included 6 Asian countries, 3 countries with large Buddhist populations, 10 countries where Islamic culture was strong, and 20 Latin American countries. Men and women from all these different countries, faiths and cultures came together and agreed the basic and fundamental rights owed to each and every human being. But because of the diversity of beliefs in the newly formed United Nations, faith could not be the foundation of this new higher form of law. When the drafting committee first met, such were the philosophical and metaphysical differences, and so great were the constraints of time, that there had to be an agreement to disagree and to accept the Rights as mere givens.

But the framers agreed on the existence of such rights as commonly held despite the fact that the rights themselves were underpinned with different philosophical and metaphysical traditions. From this common language emerged a common grammar. This underlines why, as sometimes happens, it's very hard to dismiss the Declaration as simply Western. Its aim was, and remains, to reflect universal values. As Rosalyn Higgins, the British Law professor who became the first female judge on the International Court of Justice put it in 1995 in her book Problems and Process: International Law and How We Use It.

'It is sometimes suggested that there can be no fully universal concept of human rights, for it is necessary to take into account the diverse cultures and political systems of the world. In my view this is a point advanced mostly by states, and by liberal scholars anxious not to impose the Western view of things on others. It is rarely advanced by the oppressed, who are only too anxious to benefit from perceived universal standards. The non-universal, relativist view of human rights is in fact a very state-centred view and loses sight of the fact that human rights are ‘human’ rights and not dependent on the fact that states, or groupings of states, may behave differently from each other so far as their politics, economic policy and culture are concerned.'

So what are these fundamental human rights contained in the Universal Declaration? They extend from the right to life to the right to marry; from the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment to the right to a fair trial; from the right to free speech to the right of privacy; and the right to liberty and security of the person.

In essence, they are the rights, which guarantee the basic dignity of every human person. They are universal. They are rights held simply by virtue of being a human person. And they are rights, not concessions. They cannot be withdrawn or undermined or watered down. Nor do rights depend on our status as citizens. They extend also to the non-citizen because they too are humans. And in fact it is the non-citizen who needs them most; for human rights if they mean anything have to be for the marginalised, the poor, the disregarded. And while certain basic human rights are fundamental to human nature, they are not static. They are evolving. The ongoing progress of human nature and society allows for the development of future rights. Historically we no longer accept slavery; nor do we accept children working in mines. More recently, the Vienna Declaration (1993) established a permanent link between extreme poverty and the absence of the full and effective exercise of human rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976) and numerous ILO conventions which recognise among other rights, the right to decent housing, to a decent wage, the right to basic health care, and the right to decent education irrespective of wealth. In the 21st century, emerging rights include right to clean environment, rights of future generations and the innumerable debates around the right to peace.

But it is important as well to stress that human rights are not a one-way street as those who seek to undermine their importance can sometimes suggest. With human rights come also duties or responsibilities. In today's world we commonly hear when an individual is being denied their rights, but less so when it comes to discharging their duties. Society can only function because most of us understand that basic bargain.

The drafters of the UDHR grasped this point well. Those who criticise human rights as irredeemably individualistic and selfish fail to appreciate the way that human rights thinking has evolved from the concentration on individual freedom from tyrannical states through to the post-war period where international human rights treaties introduced the concept of legitimate limitations on rights for the sake of the common good. After much debate the drafters of the UDHR decided to include, in Article 29, the declaration that 'everyone has duties to the community which alone the free and full development of personality is possible.' In explaining his support for this proposal, Dr P.C. Chang, the delegate from China, raised the eyes of the delegates beyond narrow self interest towards a further horizon the grandeur of the goal and described the enterprise many of the delegates felt themselves to be engaged in: 'the aim of the United Nations was not to ensure the selfish gains of the individual but to try and increase man's moral stature. It was [therefore] a necessity to proclaim the duties of the individual, for it was a consciousness of his duties which enabled man to reach a high moral standard.'

Indeed, it is crucial that in our discourse on human rights we do not forget our human duties and responsibilities. It is incumbent upon us to respect each other as we seek to be respected. And this is particularly true for people of faith. The great religions show how these rights stem from our common human dignity — and ultimately in the central insight of these faiths: that humans are fashioned by God. They demand that we respect others and their rights, not merely as some sort of utilitarian trade off but because it is the just thing to do. Indeed it is the Godly thing to do. That is a tough challenge, but it is one demanded of a people of faith.

Just as the world's great religions have played an immense role in the formation of our legal systems and in the acceptance and promotion of universal human rights, law now plays a huge role in protecting human rights. In Europe, from bitter recent experience, we have learnt that human rights are best served through a clear and unwavering commitment to an expanded vision of democracy and the rule of law.

Modern day Europe is ineradicably marked and changed by the experience of the perversion of democracy and law that characterised Nazi rule in Germany and occupied Europe. The horror of the Nazi system, democratically elected into power, is that it purported to maintain the forms of law and legality, while permitting tyranny and injustice to reign. In the words of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal the Nazi legal system was one in which 'the dagger of the assassin was concealed beneath the robe of the jurist'.

A real democracy, of course remains committed to respecting the dignity of all who come under its control. As Ronald Dworkin, one of America's most prominent jurists and legal philosophers, has explained a democracy can become the 'tyranny of the majority' if it denies the equality of all citizens and along with it that concern of the world's great religions — the sacredness of all human beings.

True or egalitarian democracy as he calls it, by contrast, recognises the equality of all citizens, and therefore entrenches their rights in a constitution or code to protect them from violation by majorities. It is why the existence of strong, decent values underpinning society are so important.

As Pope John Paul noted in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus “a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly-disguised totalitarianism”. I think we all accept that electoral democracy is not a complete answer to the world's problems. But not for nothing did Winston Churchill define democracy as “the worst system of government except for all others”. We have also seen, in all parts of the world, that where people are given the chance to take control of their own lives, they jump at it, no matter what other problems and challenges they face. What is needed is a system where democracy goes hand in hand with human rights and the rule of law. Those of us who practice in the field of human rights know that electoral democracy does not, in and of itself, do away with social marginalisation of the weak, the oppressed, the different, and the unwanted. The lessons of good governance and of substantive, or 'inclusive' democracy are, moreover, lessons that remain true for all states. Similarly, we know that universal suffrage does not put an end to inequalities in the capacity of citizens to exercise and influence state power and to achieve dignified lives, because that capacity is affected by economic disparities in society. Democratic governance has to be based on a vision of democracy which commits the nation to the value of inclusion and the toleration of difference and which treats civil and political and socioeconomic rights as an indivisible package.

There has been real progress in the recognition, protection and promotion of human rights across the world since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was first agreed. I welcome in particular the progress that has been made here in the Middle East in relation to women's political rights. Women in the UK have experienced this struggle. Although women first got the vote in 1918 and the first woman was elected to Parliament in that year thereafter progress was painfully slow. In the last 80 years, just 240 of the 4,500 MPs have been women. And although difficult to believe, until 1979, there were more MPs named John than there were women in Parliament. Indeed, it was only in 1997, after Labour's landslide victory, that the number of women hit three figures — moving from 60 elected in 1992, to 120 — of which 101 were Labour. Today women still make up only 18% of our representatives in the House of Commons but I am proud to say that women are well represented in my husband's government making up a third of the Cabinet, and almost a third of all Ministers across Government, the highest ever achieved in British political history.

Here in the Gulf I am confident you will not have to wait so long for women to make a difference to political life. Already women have achieved the right to vote in Qatar in 1999, in Oman and Bahrain in 2000 and in Kuwait in 2005. No women have yet been elected in Bahrain and Kuwait, but in April 2003 Qatar saw its first female elected official, Shaikha Yusuf Al Juffairi was elected unopposed in the municipal elections. At a ministerial level too we have seen progress with the appointment of women not least here in the UAE, when on November 1, 2004, the late Shaikh Zayed made history by appointing the first ever woman minister Shaikha Lubna Al-Qasimi as minister of economy and trade. This reflected a similar trend in other parts of the Gulf. In Qatar, Shaikha bint Ahmed Al Mahmud, formerly undersecretary of education was appointed to the Cabinet as Minister of Education in April 2003. Then in mid 2004 Dr Nada Haffaz was appointed as Minister of Health and in January 2005 she was joined by Dr Fatema Al Blushi who was appointed Minister of Social Affairs. In Oman too, in March 2004, Rawya bint Saud Al Bousaidi was appointed as Minister for Higher Education, making her the first female minister in Oman's history. In Kuwait, following closely on the right to vote, on 20th June 2005 Massouma Al Mubarak took the oath in Parliament and became the Minister for planning and administrative development and Kuwait's first ever female cabinet member. She said as she took office 'This honour is not bestowed on my person but on every woman who fought to prove that Kuwaiti women are capable'.

In Saudi Arabia, in the summer of 2000, Princess Al Jawhara Fahad bin Mohammed bin Abdel Rahman Al Saud was appointed assistant undersecretary for Education Affairs the highest position ever held by a woman in the Saudi government.

But there are sadly still many parts of the world where even basic human rights are denied. Millions of people still live in fear of persecution. Millions more are denied basic healthcare, nourishment and schooling. And if we are in danger of complacency or self congratulation, we must remind ourselves of the conflicts on our planet, some of which are daily in the world's eye, others, every bit as tragic and violent, which remain all but hidden.

This is why I strongly believe that education and understanding of religions and cultures are essential to combat prejudice and the bigotry of difference. Often we make decisions about our 'strangers' based on ignorance, by stereotyping and other forms of bias.

Lack of knowledge is the biggest stumbling block in the way of tolerance and respect for difference as well as a lack of effort to learn about other cultures and religions. However, enhancing our understanding allows us the freedom to be more tolerant.

We are immensely proud in the UK of our multi-cultural, multi-faith society. Even within my lifetime — and I was brought up in Liverpool which knows a little about religious divisions between Christian Protestants and Catholics — the progress we have seen has been remarkable. It is a tribute to our country and to its wonderfully diverse people that there is such a tolerance, understanding and appreciation of different cultures and different faiths within our society.

But despite this progress, prejudice, of course, remains. Some of it, sadly, is conscious. But much of this prejudice in the UK and elsewhere is, I believe, unconscious and among people who would be appalled to be considered intolerant — and this group includes all of us.

And this unconscious prejudice stems largely from the inevitable practice of stereotyping. Without stereotyping, of course, modern life would be very difficult. Using categories or stereotype, of course, allow us to function in the complicated world in which we live. They help us to make sense of things by enabling us to process large amounts of information on a daily basis, and in so doing fulfil the psychological need to simplify the world. But the danger is we become lazy and assess people solely on the strength of preconceived (and often false) notions about the group to which they belong.

Stereotyping can become a problem if it allows us to treat individuals as group members who possess a given set of traits, rather than as individuals to be judged on their own merits. And the real problem of bias and bigotry rears its ugly head when our stereotypes take the form of unfair personality attributions — the tendency of the casual mind to pick out a sample which supports its negative assumptions and then make it representative of an entire class whether it is to see all older people as dependent or all asylum seekers as work-shy.

The problem is that by our tendency to categorise in this way — whether along racial, religious, ethnic, gender or other lines — we create 'in groups' and 'out-groups'. We heighten the perception of similarities within categories and sharpen the perception of differences between categories, with predictable results.

We should not be afraid to acknowledge that our experiences have shaped us into the distinctive people that we are. There are only so many life experiences each of us has had, and only so many exposures to ways of thinking and being that are truly divergent from our own. Even when our gaze is open and sympathetic, what we see of another's person's life is never the full picture. We form impressions from mere glances: the aged face, the wheelchair, the fez, the wedding ring, the pregnant belly, the turban. Real inclusively can only develop when we move from this place of fixed ideas and impressions, a place where we view everything through the lens of our own values and experiences, to a place where we truly desire to respect diversity. But how do we get to this place? I would like to suggest that there are two, fairly obvious, steps in the process.

First, we need to become aware of our own assumptions, biases and prejudices. We need to be conscious of our selection biases, doubt their accuracy and be prepared to critique and (if need be) discard them.

And second we need to begin to accept how little we know, and continue to find out, with an open and generous mind, about other people, other cultures and other faiths.

Because it is so easy to make assumptions on the basis of the limited knowledge that we already have, and because our lives are so busy, learning about other cultures and religions involves effort on our part.

It is the responsibility of each of us whatever our faith or if we have none to make that effort.

But here we encounter a major challenge. Why? Because faiths often claim exclusivity of truth and have had difficulty in the past dealing or accommodating other views. For example until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, many members of my own faith believed that non Catholics went to hell — It wasn't exactly a consoling thought for those of us married to non-Catholics. However, a deeper and in fact older and more authentic tradition had become over laid by theological simplifications in the course of centuries. That tradition stated that all people of good faith could be saved even those not explicitly Christians. It was a tradition articulated by the Third century theologian Origen. Origen's insights were central to many of the theologians of the Second Vatican Council.

In hand with that theological rediscovery went a philosophical return to sources. Gabriel Marcel, a French Catholic philosopher, writing in the 1960s began to articulate a different vision. He put forward the view that far from having negative views towards others, genuine religious belief mandated us to be pro-active in defending the right of others to believe differently. He believed that the intense conviction which a religious person experienced, and which is so much a part of who they were, should enable that person to empathize with another's convictions that were different, but equally intense. That ability is much more than mere tolerance of the other, it is true acceptance.

Islam too teaches the concept of human equality in the strongest terms.

A ringing affirmation of this is contained in the farewell sermon of the Prophet in which he said: “The Arab has no superiority over the non-Arab and the non-Arab has no superiority over the Arab.'

But how do we practise that in reality? How do people of faith respect other claims to ultimate truth?

Do we engage, but stick to the non-controversial items? Do we simply become comfortable having parallel conversations and ultimately living out parallel lives?

There is nothing more difficult than finding a middle way between an all-dominating exclusivism and relativism. I believe we can find one and that we are in the early stages of an emerging 'theology of dialogue'. That theology of dialogue must commence with some basic premises welcome for the other hospitality for the other and a dualistic approach to the teaching of, and learning from the other.

A person of faith is always faced with a difficult choice when they engage with those who follow other religions every bit as sincerely. In the past, and perhaps still today, we have placed greater emphasis on teaching them that our way led to the truth. Throughout history that has led to much bloodshed and abuse. The challenge is to find a way that allows us to pursue our truth on the one hand, but fosters a genuine respect and engagement with each other?

Faith communities are grappling with this perennial question. We have to find some way to square faith communities' commitment to mission and evangelization with a desire to fully understand the other and to respect their difference. That must surely come from a true desire to 'learn' from the other. I believe Human Rights can help us in this struggle.

What are Human Rights after all if they are not lived out in our daily existence? Living out Human Right and one's faith means fundamental respect for those we come across. It means respecting their faith. It does not mean ignoring it, not engaging it or marginalising it.

Rather it means that on the basis of our shared humanity, we see an individual's faith as something worthy of respect. We desire to learn from it — to enrich our own understanding of the other's tradition and ultimately our own. We accord it respect, we value it as a central feature of our own faith — our own journey towards discovering the true meaning of life and hence our existence. It is only when we see the faith and beliefs of other people as an integral thread in the tapestry of our lives that we will fully embrace and value difference and diversity, and yet be able to pursue truth. In other words the differences are part of our pursuit of truth not an obstacle to that pursuit.

Jonathan Sachs challenges us to make space for differences in our faiths. He writes, 'Can I as a Jew hear echoes of God's voice in that of a Hindu or Sikh or Christian or Muslim or in the words of an Eskimo from Greenland? Can I do so and not feel diminished, but enlarged?'

The Abrahamic religions all believe that man is made in the image of God. But only God can see the world, and each person in it, as she truly is. Each of us, as humans, sees only a part of God's wider canvas, but by recognising and celebrating our differences we can learn to see the world more clearly as God intended it to be.

The universal protection of human rights by respecting and protecting our diversity and individuality presents us with a way forward in troubled times where competing rights must be balanced against each other. Just as the religions of the world made an important contribution to the drafting of the Universal declaration of human rights so too can they continue to play their part within a Human Rights world to uplift humanity. But this, of course, also poses a challenge to each of us. For we must all in our lives, in our business decisions, in our relationships with each other, seek to do all we can to live up to our faiths and values and, in doing so, protect and promote universal human rights. Initially religions threw up a basis for human rights, possibly it is now human rights which could throw back a basis for inter-religious dialogue.

Great tasks and complex situations such as we now face require a belief in the power of possibility. My hope tonight is that through gatherings like this we can learn together and we can establish a common dialogue in which we all — whatever our background or religious beliefs, fasten onto a vision of democracy and human rights that eschews all that is partisan, evil, uncaring, selfish and demeaning. And that we can work together to effect and control a change — not in relation to East or West, North or South, but in terms of the best we can salvage from our collective heritage of humanity while preserving our rich diversity.

If I can conclude with the words of Eleanor Roosevelt when launching the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

'Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of an individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in'. the school or college he attend; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.'

That is as true today and as much as a challenge to us as it was to the nations of the world six decades ago. Thank You.

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