2020 ICLRS Symposium: Heiner Bielefeld’s Speech

Heiner Bielefeldt is Full Professor of human rights and human rights politics at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany

My specific theme today is “responsibility,” responsibility on behalf of religious freedom. I will distinguish between different layers or dimensions of responsibility.

Within the human rights movement, there seems to be some hesitancy to talk about responsibility. Certain governments like to invoke responsibility as “duties to the state” so the enjoyment of human rights becomes dependent on a prior fulfillment of citizens’ duties as defined by those governments. That, of course, can make the status of human rights including religious freedom precarious. Many human rights activists remain cautious in using the vocabulary of “responsibility.” We need a more precise way of addressing responsibility with diligence, precision, and caution but also with enthusiasm. So it is in this spirit that I will distinguish three different levels of responsibility to religious freedom as a human right.

The first dimension is the legal dimension of responsibility, the international law dimension. Human beings are the right-holders of religious freedom along with other human rights, and governments are the duty-bearers. Yes, states fulfill the role of guarantors of human rights under international law, but the human right we are particularly interested in, religious freedom, has been enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. So, there is a formal responsibility for those states who ratified the international covenant to act as the guarantors of that religious freedom right within their jurisdiction. Nowadays, we think we have to move beyond that because of the crisis of multilateralism where the limits of what the current infrastructure of human rights implementation can bring about by holding governments to account. In the search for more actors, for broadening the sphere of legal responsibility, international companies are in the discussion along with human rights cities and also religious communities and religious leaders. While it is important to search for more actors for broadening the sphere of activities in support of religious freedom, we should never forget that the form of guarantees rests with governments, so we cannot blur the contours of those formal responsibilities as they are anchored in international human rights law.

The second dimension is a moral responsibility for the protection of promoting religious freedom. All the right-holders are also duty-bearers, not in the legal understanding of the word but in the moral understanding of the words. This applies to all of us. We all are right-holders of religious freedom, but at the same time, we have the responsibility of being duty-bearers for the protection of that very important human right. This is a responsibility that particularly affects religious communities as well as religious leaders. The good news is that some religious communities show admirable commitment on behalf of religious freedom.

Let me give you some examples. A few years ago in the plenary of the Human Rights Council, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the representatives of the Bahai community took the floor and spoke in support of Shia Muslims under persecution, bearing in mind what the Bahais have suffered in the Shia-governed Islamic Republic of Iran. That is astounding: a Bahai representative speaks out in support of Shia Muslim minorities, suffering persecution in countries in Southeast Asia and also in the Middle East. It was one of those moments in the United Nations, one of those rare moments, where you felt a certain tringle going down the spine. And then, I was happy when visiting communities in Indonesia to meet a Shia representative, a young Shia Muslim woman who had spoken in support of the Bahais. It is wonderful that religious communities do not only speak on behalf of their people, which is also of course legitimate but across denominational and religious boundaries. Let me take the opportunity to tell what the LDS Church is doing in this regard. I have in the last few years, often met with representatives of the LDS Church, people who are very committed to religious freedom worldwide, and who have a very broad-minded understanding and interpretation of this right.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights started a new platform three years ago called Faith for Rights. It’s a learning platform that encourages religious communities to mobilize their own strength in support of human rights in general, and religious freedom in particular.

I have covered two dimensions, the legal one—international law holding states to account and requesting states to operate as a form of guarantors, and then the moral dimension which is much broader including all of us as duty-bearers. Now, let me turn to a third dimension I would like to call philosophical responsibility. Here is the crucial point: human dignity means taking responsibility for enhancing the awareness of the significance of human dignity within human rights. Religious freedom gives a particularly important entry point for such activities. What is human dignity?

I remember difficult discussions, and I do not want to make things more complicated than necessary. Human dignity has much to do with the exposure of human beings to demands of responsibilities. So human beings are the receptacles of responsibility demands. That is reflected in the mother document of international human rights law, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 1 starts by stating, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and, “All human beings are endowed with reason and conscience.” So, human beings have the potential for responsible agency. This can be misunderstood because it does not say that we only give dignity to those who behave responsibly. It is about potential. In my fellow-German, Immanuel Kant’s, words they are under the spell of the categorical imperative, agency, responsible agency. That is an agency that human beings can only share among fellow humans, responsible agency. In our current ecological crisis, while we are discovering that the scope of responsibility must go beyond human interests, it’s still true that we can share responsibility only among humans. I think that is an insight we always confirm at least implicitly when talking about human dignity, which is the core of human rights. It’s the core of religious freedom.

Dignity is not a meritocratic concept. It’s not something we give or grant in exchange for particular acts or performances. No, it is strictly egalitarian, and it is fully inclusive. It also includes, in particular, those people with severe handicaps, with mental disabilities, cognitive disabilities, dementia, etc. Everyone should be fully included in that web of responsibility that can only exist among human beings.

Now, back to religious freedom, I think dealing with religious freedom as a particular entry point works for addressing that most foundational dimension of human rights, respect for human dignity. We have a responsibility for cherishing, for cultivating the awareness of responsible agency, as the underlying foundation of human rights in general. Nothing could be more foundational than respect for human dignity. But religious freedom is the one human right that specifically tackles the issue that human beings have convictions. Human beings have responsibility. Human beings live or wish to live, should be free to live, under their existential beliefs. That’s why I mean this right also gives a particularly profound entry point for that discussion: human dignity as the core of human rights in general. So with freedom of religion or belief being but one example, but a very specific right closely connected with the awareness of human dignity.

In summary, I have distinguished between three levels of responsibility, international law responsibility (holding governments to account), moral responsibility affecting all of us, and finally, within that moral responsibility a philosophical dimension to cultivate an awareness of responsible agency among human beings (human dignity). These levels are specific, so we should distinguish between them. All of this is manifest in human rights’ commitment with specific possibilities to encourage reflection, start a debate, and raise awareness.

Thank you very much. And I wish you very good and fruitful deliberations. Thank you.

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