Faith groups sign human rights statement

15 December 2008

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Groups and individuals around the world this month have been commemorating the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which occurred on 10 December 1948. The United Nations has designated the anniversary each year as Human Rights Day.

Last week the Baha’i International Community was one of 11 faith groups whose representatives gathered at an international interreligious conference at The Hague to sign the 2008 Faith in Human Rights Statement. The event was organized by Justitia et Pax Netherlands in cooperation with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

For each of the signatories, the document represents a commitment to support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms both within and outside their faith community. Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations, signed on behalf of the Baha’is.

The document states, “While representing different faith traditions, we come together in unity to stress that religion has been a primary source of inspiration for human rights as our sacred writings and teachings clearly show.”

Organizers said the conference marked the first time that major world religions have jointly emphasized the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands was on hand for the signing of the document, which occurred on 10 December.

In New York, in a separate event to mark the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Baha'i International Community sponsored a seminar on 8 December on "Freedom of Religion or Belief: Perspectives and Challenges after Sixty Years of United Nations Protection."

Speakers included Felice Gaera of the Jacob Blaustein Institute who serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Azza Karam of the United Nations Population Fund; Cole Durham of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University; and Malcolm Evans of the University of Bristol School of Law.

Ms. Dugal, the Baha’i representative, welcomed the participants and discussed why religious freedom is so important – both to Baha'is and others.

“More than one-half of the world's population lives under regimes that severely restrict or prohibit the freedom of their citizens to study, believe, observe, and freely practice the religious faith of their choice,” she said.

“The freedom to change one's religion or belief has not been expressed with such clarity in any international instrument since the Declaration,” she stated.

She also noted that the Baha'i International Community is “well-acquainted” with persecution based on religion. “The enduring and systemic persecution of the Baha'i community in Iran, which has continued with varying degrees of intensity over the last 150 years, has manifested in a variety of ways,” she said.

The goal, she continued, should be “to create the conditions, legal, economic, political, social and spiritual, which allow human potential to emerge and flourish – that very potential which has continually driven forward human civilization, by seeking out new avenues of knowledge and refining human relationships and the organization of human society.”

“The human mind,” she added, “endowed with reason and conscience, must be free to search for truth and to believe.”

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In other countries, among the Human Rights Day events with Baha’i participation were the following:

In the United Kingdom, students took the theme “Education is a Human Right” and hosted events to raise general awareness and also point out that in Iran, Baha’is and others are often denied access to education.

At Queen Mary, University of London, Professor Eric Heinze of the School of Law addressed a special meeting hosted by the Baha’i student society and spoke about the origins and importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In Cardiff, students and friends gathered in the Nelson Mandela Room at the university’s Student Union to hear presentations and watch videos about human rights, access to education and personal experiences of living in Iran. The program was followed by a late-night prayer vigil for human rights in the world. Also in Wales, some 100 students at Brynmawr comprehensive school in Blaeneu heard a presentation about young people in Iran being denied access to education.

Students at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, participated in a letter-writing campaign supported by members of the university’s Amnesty International group.

In Canada, the Victoria Multifaith Society in Victoria, British Columbia, sponsored a two-day Human Rights Global Dignity Conference on 6-7 December with more than 150 participants. Gerald Filson, former chair of the Canadian International Human Rights Network and representative of the Canadian Baha’i community, was one of the featured speakers.

Dr. Mary-Wynne Ashford, past president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War who recently joined the Baha’i community, offered a presentation that included a focus on the “world’s newest superpower” – civil society. The conference included music, displays, and workshops, including one for children, “Becoming Your Best Self,” organized by Linda Kavelin-Popov.

Dr. Filson also spoke at a program in Abbotsford, British Columbia, sponsored by local Baha’is and the Fraser Valley Human Dignity Coalition, where he outlined both successes and failures in the promotion of human rights over the past 60 years.

In total, Baha’is participated in a dozen commemorative events in Canada, including a conference on 9 December at McGill University in Montreal, held in collaboration with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and the John Humphrey Center for Peace and Human Rights, and a gathering on 10 December at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

In India, the local Baha'i community of Kannur in the state of Kerala organized a meeting in collaboration with the local chapter of Amnesty International. Held in the Baha'i Centre Hall, the meeting featured an address by P.K. Premarajan, a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of India.

In the United States, Kit Bigelow, representing the Baha’is of the United States, read a Baha’i prayer at a Human Rights Day luncheon attended by more than 200 people on 10 December. The annual event was sponsored by the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area, the DC Commission, and the Office on Human Rights.

Baha’is also attended a ceremony on 8 December held in the Treaty Room of the U.S. State Department by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice honoring outstanding human rights defenders in the civil society and government.

Also, representatives attended a conference on 2 December sponsored by the American University Washington College of Law and the American Society of International Law titled “Realizing the Promise of Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Examining the First 60 Years and Beyond.”

In Brazil, the Baha’i community prepared a revised edition of the “Human Rights Pathway,” an exhibition representing the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Baha’is will be among the 1,500 participants of the four-day XI National Human Rights Conference that opens today, 15 December, in Brasilia.

In Australia, the Baha’i Regional Council of Western Australia welcomed more than 100 guests to a program where the focus was the ongoing relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the need for unending vigilance.