Reframing Human Rights II

Impressions and Expressions
By Ari Kohen, Assistant Professor of Justice at the Center for Liberal and Applied Social Science, James Madison University, Virginia, currently in Berlin as recipient of the ICS Research Grant

The 3rd Berlin Roundtables on Transnationalism continued from April 27–May 1, 2006. The topic under consideration was “Reframing Human Rights II: Genesis and Justification,” and the workshop provided an opportunity for a more detailed examination of topics raised during the first conference in October 2005. The workshop was jointly organized by the Irmgard Coninx Foundation and the Max Weber Center for Advanced Social and Cultural Studies at the University of Erfurt.
The workshop began with a compelling lecture by Ronald Dworkin, entitled “Taking Human Rights Seriously,” at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB). In some respects, his lecture seemed to update and refine the argument he makes in Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion and Euthansia. In that book, Dworkin stressed the primacy of a religious or philosophical devotion to human sacredness underlying the contemporary idea of human rights. Here, Dworkin seemed to jettison the sometimes problematic language of sacredness and argued instead that a commitment to human dignity lies at the heart of any conception of human rights. Acting only in ways that will respect the dignity of others, then, ensures that human rights are valued and protected. That said, he also challenged the crowded room to consider the truly difficult cases, especially of terrorism in the nuclear age. Undoubtedly, one of the most challenging questions that arose was whether a Kantian commitment to human dignity could, in such cases, prohibit us from making what seems to be an obvious utilitarian calculation? Such a calculation would necessarily result in disrespecting the human rights of the terrorist in order to save a great many innocent lives; would it be permissible to do so on Dworkin’s account?
Following Dworkin’s lecture, the invited workshop participants traveled to Erfurt where the sessions where hosted and chaired by Hans Joas, director of the Max Weber Center for Advanced Studies at Erfurt University. The group consisted of some finalists from last years’ essay contest on Genesis and Justification of Human Rights and a group of young scholars invited by the Max Weber Center. Also joining the workshop was Stefan Gosepath (University of Giessen), who served as chair for the conference in October. In the workshop sessions, each participant provided a short presentation of the paper he or she had submitted on the topic of genesis and justification of human rights before answering questions. These question and answer periods turned into lively discussions about the broader themes of the session.
During the workshop, participants also took guided tours of Erfurt and Weimar, which provided a wealth of information about the backdrop for their sessions. Both tours emphasized the impressive historical, cultural, and artistic heritage of the area in which participants found themselves. The tour of Weimar was followed by a trip to Buchenwald, a particularly challenging but important foray out of the ivory tower of the academy and into the real world where human rights are so often abused; the trip stimulated a great deal of reflection on the importance not only of thinking critically as academics about the genesis and justification of human rights, but also about the ways in which the contemporary human rights regime can be strengthened.
The Roundtables continued from May 17–May 20, 2006. The topic under consideration was “Secular and Religious Sources of Human Rights,” and the workshop provided an opportunity for a more detailed examination of issues raised during the first conference in October 2005. The workshop was jointly organized by the Irmgard Coninx Foundation, the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB), and Humboldt University.
Each evening featured a lecture at the WZB and each morning the lecturer joined in the workshop session for a more in-depth discussion of his presentation. Thomas Pogge, who spoke on “Global Poverty and Human Rights” argued in favor of an obligation to take action against poverty. Emphasizing the importance of focusing solely on negative rights, Pogge provided numerous examples, including a particularly careful examination of the pharmaceutical industry that underscored the necessity of caring for others around the world. He was particularly impressive in the morning session, as he fielded questions from the workshop participants for nearly two hours and covered a wide range of philosophical and practical concerns.

Abdelfattah Amor, Special Rapporteur for religious freedom and tolerance appointed by the UN and professor of international law at Tunis university spoke on  the development of  religious freedom as a basic human right and brought the perspective of the United Nations to the audience. In the morning session, the discussion revolved around many difficult contemporary cases of religious freedom and toleration, including the Danish cartoon controversy, the head scarf cases or school regulations as well as the discrimination of women in some Islamic countries and freedom of speech. Freedom of religion, as Amor stated, means freedom of belief and conviction – but it always has to go along with public law in a democratic state, in short: One can believe everything but is not allloed to do everything.
Christian Tomuschat professor emeritus at Humboldt University closed the workshop with his lecture: “Human Rights Between Realism and Idealism” – a resumee of the emergence of human rights as a central mean of politics in the past 60 years.
In addition to these interesting lectures, the daily sessions – chaired by Professor Tomuschat – allowed participants to discuss the workshop’s topic through the lens of the papers they had submitted. In the sessions, each participant provided a short presentation of his or her paper – five or ten minutes – before answering questions posed by the other participants. Session themes included “Physical Inviolability and the Limits of State Authority,” “Religious vs. Secular Sources of Human Dignity,” and “Due Process and Religious Dissent.”
Finally, the workshop included a trip to Potsdam and a guided tour by Sabine Berking. The tour served to introduce the workshop participants to the multicultural heritage that can be found in various locations around Potsdam. These included a history of religious refugees – like the Huguenots – who were invited to the area in the 18th century as well as the small Russian village built by Friedrich Wilhelm III in the 19th century. This conclusion to a workshop dedicated to the concept of religious freedom and expression was particularly apt. Further, it served as a helpful reminder of the connections that exist between the real world around us and the academic work that brought the participants together.