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2007 Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum

Faith and Freedom: Protecting Human Rights 
as Common Cause

The Carter Center, Atlanta, September 6-7, 2007

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1. Introduction

2. Addressing Mass Atrocities: Before, During, and After

3. Religion and Human Rights: Potential for Leadership and Cooperation

4. The Case of Israel and Palestine

5. Addressing the International Community

6. Bringing Human Rights Defenders Together

7. Next Steps: Leadership in Communities of Faith and Commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

 

Introduction

Human rights defenders and key policy makers from around the world convened in Atlanta from Sept. 6-7, 2007, to discuss the importance of faith communities in protecting human rights, and to propose strategies for addressing mass atrocities. The Carter Center and Human Rights First worked with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to bring defenders from countries moving away from past human rights violations, such as Chile or Kenya, as well as countries still struggling with armed conflict, like Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"I consider this to be the high point of my life each year at The Carter Center," said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter at the forum's opening. "When we try to define in one sentence 'What does The Carter Center stand for?' my evolved response over twenty five years is, 'We stand for basic human rights in the broadest definition of basic human rights.'"

The objectives of this year's forum were to identify:

1. challenges faced by human rights defenders in preventing, addressing, and in assisting societies to recover from mass violations of human rights,
opportunities for people and communities of faith, particularly in the United States, to help advance the protection of human rights and prevention of mass violations, especially through support for human rights defenders, and

2. ways for the international community, including governments, international organizations, and international NGOs, to support human rights defenders.

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Addressing Mass Atrocities: Before, During, and After

In a pre-conference session, human rights defenders compared their current and past experiences to provide recommendations on preventing, addressing, and rebuilding after mass atrocities. Special attention was paid to the role of human rights defenders in each stage and how the international community can best augment their influence. From the level of supranational organizations to the individual level, participants advocated for awareness, informed action, and prevention of impunity. Kenyan human rights defender Betty Murungi presented the recommendations for dealing with the aftermath of mass atrocities and the role of human rights defenders, acknowledging the danger but dismissing the claim that democracy should come only after stability.

"We recommend that human rights defenders should continue to fight for human rights and the construction of truly democratic institutions in all stages of mass atrocities," said Murungi. "Yet we recognize that human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable during this stage, post-mass crimes, and should continue to be provided with appropriate protection for their work and their institutions."

Sonja Biserko, head of the Serbia Helsinki Human Rights Committee, was one of many defenders who drew parallels with their own work and country for the benefit of other defenders.

"I think the Serbian situation after the war is…something that the human rights community can learn a lot [from] because it is hard to deal with the post conflict situation and how to address the peace process," said Biserko. "The peace process hasn't started yet in the region, though the peace has been established by different agreements. [The real] peace process is restoring the trust among the peoples and countries in the region."

Imam Talib, of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, New York City, connected the essence of these imperatives to the theme of the forum, arguing that "human rights violations are sacred life violations. As stated here, mass atrocities are inseparable from genocide. If it is true that mass atrocities begin with the individual then are we not each of us responsible both for the life and rights of every single human being? We are."

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Religion and Human Rights: Potential for Leadership and Cooperation

The forum's topic of "Faith and Freedom: Protecting Human Rights as Common Cause" was addressed directly by leaders of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities. Defenders agreed that human rights advocates have traditionally failed to communicate fully their common goals with the faith community, while religious leaders spoke to the short-comings of religious leadership in human rights advocacy. Imam Talib drew upon the words of a well-known Atlantan human rights defender to illuminate this point:

"Dr Martin Luther King Jr. once said that the problem with religious leaders is that too often they function like the tail light of an automobile, instead of the headlight," said Talib. "These impassioned, informative, and eloquent words that we have heard from Drs. Hammond and Mattson and from Marc Ellis have said to us, let us be headlights on this issue, and perhaps this might not translate so much into policy as an appeal that could go out to the religious and spiritual communities in America from this esteem gathering of leaders."

Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Lutheran minister from Bethlehem, added examples of what concrete measures religious leaders must take to stay in front of the issues in communities around the world, advocating that creating educational, health institutions, cultural institutions, and housing is very important because it gives people a foretaste of what human rights mean.

"For us there is a great need to create room where people can feel that they have a life worth living before death," said Raheb. "Because in our region people have no problem believing in a life after death, their challenge is to believe that there is a life before death that is worth living and I think this is part of our role as faith communities."

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The Case of Israel and Palestine

A conflict rooted deeply in religious discourse, the forum sub-topic of Israel and the Palestinian Territories served as a sobering reminder of religious division while equally suggesting the great potential for human rights and religion together to promote peace. Mitri Raheb again presented his sense of the contradictions, arguing "it's really a unique context because we have too much attention but too little action, too much politics, but too little care for the Polis, the community. Too much religion (I say this as a pastor) but too little spirituality; too much aid but too little development, too many resolutions…and almost no implementation. That is in brief our problem."

Jessica Montell, executive director of B'Tselem in Israel, explained that Atlanta was the first time she had met Mitri, despite their similar areas of work, because he cannot enter Jerusalem.

"From where my office is, it's illegal also for me to enter Bethlehem," said Montell. "If you think of that division between human rights activists, it's easy to imagine then the polarization between the two societies…that only further entrenches the conflict and polarization between the two societies."

Yet both defenders had specific recommendations for bridging this divide, which their respective organizations seek to implement on a daily basis. Montell focused on the need for the international community to question the increasingly severe security restrictions and to promote accountability for violators of human rights at all levels. Within faith communities, Raheb's organization seeks to develop human capital, reachout to international faith organizations, create functional infrastructure, and connect human rights to divine rights through spirituality. With regard to human rights organizations, Raheb emphasized, "we can complement each other…This is why building coalitions is of utmost importance for the future."

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Addressing the International Community

Critical policy makers from the United States, Ireland, Switzerland, and the United Nations also attended the forum.  In addition to listening to concerns of individual defenders, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour challenged the forum to address the issue of universality and to truly implement human rights norms within society, all while avoiding the perception of promoting an American or Western agenda.  She pledged to work with and for human rights defenders in this task. 

"I believe the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration will give us the opportunity to reclaim the universality of rights and open up our efforts to a more inclusive community,"said Arbour.

Speaking to the forum goal of advocating for both faith and freedom, Francis Deng, the new U.N. Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities, emphasized the importance of cooperation on an even higher level of government.

"I think it is very important for us to see our different ways of serving human rights and how we complement one another and how effective it can be to bring together different approaches and make them synergize in a constructive way," said Deng. "I used to tell governments that in this day and age, since the Cold War has ended and human rights and humanitarian issues have become the key concerns of the international community, governments have to see NGOs and human rights advocates not as adversaries but as partners as collaborators who can in fact help you in projecting a good image for you internationally."

Hina Jilani, U.N. Special Representative to the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, related the forum to the importance of her own mandate as well as her own work in Pakistan, particularly the importance of "engagement of the human rights community internationally with human rights defenders on the ground, to give them legitimacy and visibility and to send a very clear message to governments that these are agents which are very critical to any kind of change that we are expecting to happen in the condition prevalent in a country, which will in turn bring about a change in the human rights situation…I have been able to take back with me new thoughts coming from a level of people who are not only engaged in their own countries with human rights, but I've given a lot of thought on how human rights have to be promoted and protected at the national, regional, and international levels."

From the perspective of the human rights defender, the task often includes magnifying the voices outside of authority, whether in political power, religious leadership, or often a fusion of both. Several defenders expressed concern over the tendency to modify the concept of universality when leaders use religious or cultural terms.

"Who gets to decide that women can be discriminated against and the human rights of women can be violated in the name of religion and custom?" asked Zaineh Anwar, executive director of Sisters in Islam in Malaysia. "Whose voice is being heard in that process and how do those in authority and those in power give legitimacy and hearing to the voices of human rights defenders, of activists on the ground that are saying 'Look!'"

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Bringing Human Rights Defenders Together

Most forum attendees have been imprisoned at one point in their own country and would again face imprisonment if they return. Often the difference between life and death is the intervention of the international community of their behalf. Despite these dangers and challenges, the defenders shared their experiences in the hope that their recommendations will bring about better policies in the future.

"It's because I'm trying to enjoy my human rights by helping others enjoy their human rights that I've been denied my human rights" said Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste of Haiti. "I've been arbitrarily arrested twice. If it wasn't for the effort of the State Department and some officials at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti and through the pressure from grassroots people in the United States and all over the world and some other institutions, if it was not for the pressure coming from both sides, Republicans as well as Democrats particularly the Congressional Black Caucus, I could be right now far below ten feet of ground."

Many of the defenders and advocates at all levels of government have worked together for decades to promote human rights. In addition to illuminating violations and discussing strategy, the forum gives human rights defenders the chance to further develop a sense of solidarity and reaffirm that they are not alone in the struggle for universal rights.

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Next Steps: Leadership in Communities of Faith and Commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Following the testimony of the defenders and feedback from policy makers, participants agreed on an outcomes document presenting analysis and recommendations for addressing mass atrocities. Two central themes were awareness of the often contradictory pressures on human rights defenders and consistency in support for human rights norms. The document expressed forcefully the need to listen and respond in each individual situation to the concerns of defenders and the local community, in order to foster a true commitment to human rights within society.

For religious leaders, Imam Talib summed up the task in the United States and abroad: "On one hand, those of us who are not already doing so must act as partners in support of human rights actors, activists and defenders. On the other hand we must be, as a matter of prophetic ability, be such actors and activists and defenders ourselves…As this was the charge to the divine luminaries of ancient times, so much it is for us who will follow their path to prophetic leadership today."

President Carter agreed that the forum opened up new challenges but also a tremendous amount of new potential.

"There is, as I mentioned in my first day remarks, a lot of compatibility among Judaism and Islam and Hinduism and Christianity and others in our commitment to the basic principles of life, peace, alleviation of suffering and so forth," said President Carter in his closing remarks. "But there is a threat to us, I think, in the last few years. We've not seen any progress but deterioration in the global commitment to the protection of human rights. We've gone backwards. And that is a tragic thing…we globally say we're honoring the Universal Declarations of Human Rights, but we're not. We're too subservient or quiet or reticent about demanding that our own governments and others comply with these basic principles."

Zainah Anwar offered hope that these challenges were heard and internalized, to be implemented in their everyday work.

"Being here and listening to all the different voices, just reaffirms for me the importance of our work that, that mass violations begin with a single violation and that if we do not intervene at the start of the hate speech…that it could get worse," she said. "So I think for us, being here just reenergizes me and empowers me to really realize the significance of the work that we are doing that, even though things are not so bad, the importance, the awareness for human rights defenders that things can get bad if we do not scream and shout now and stop the kind of supremacist language and human rights violations that go on even though it is not on a huge scale…And that civil society needs to be strengthened, religious leaders need to be strengthened, human rights defenders need to be strengthened to continue to get their voice heard and to really network with a larger constituency across boundaries and across interest."

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