Reframing Human Rights I

3rd Berlin Roundtables on Transnationality, October 3-7, 2005

Prior to the 3-day event, which consisted of evening lectures and a workshop, an international essay contest was held in an attempt to address the topic of the universal validity and origin of human rights. Out of 160 applicants from more than 60 countries, the endowment panel of the Irmgard Coninx Foundation selected 32 members to participate in the workshop, altogether representing 16 different countries and diverse academic fields, namely philosophy, law, and political science. An international jury, consisting of Ingo Richter (Irmgard Coninx Foundation), Hans Joas (Max Weber Kolleg, Erfurt), Abdullah A. An-Na’im (Emory University Atlanta), Susanne Baer (Humboldt University), Folke Schuppert (WZB), Ishan Dagi (METU, Ankara) and Jürgen Kaube (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), awarded three participants a 3-month Irmgard Coninx research grant.

Both Abdullahi A. An Na’im and Hans Joas argued in their lectures that the human rights discourse could not be construed in purely secular terms. For An-Na’im, whose current research is dedicated to a new interpretation of the Sharia, there exists no inherent contradiction between the Western and Islamic conceptions of human rights. An-Na’im holds, in their political and social behavior people everywhere allow themselves to be influenced by religious convictions, and it is therefore necessary for faith to also be included in the human rights debate. If ignored, the entire field of religious influence on human rights could be abused by religious fundamentalists. For An-Na’im, secularism, a strict separation of state and religion, is essential for politics, but secularism should in any case be minimized as much as possible. With special attention given to Germany, it is important for Na’im that the state challenges people as citizens and not as religious believers to view all discussions of human rights in the context of state and political discourse. He views human rights in a post-colonial context: only since the end of colonialism have human rights been able to be universally introduced and claimed. At the same time, he recognizes the origins of human rights as diverse and not be limited to the European Enlightenment.

Hans Joas established a clear connection between a Christian and a Secular development of human rights. According to Joas, the Calvinist Roger Williams was the first to proclaim a general freedom of religion in Rhode Island in 1636, and other religious groups followed his example. To Joas, the belief that the individual is something sacred and that human dignity is inviolable can in no way be derived from purely intellectual experience, but rather begins primarily from religious conviction. At the same time, the universalization of human rights has also been heavily influenced by the development of capitalism, an increasingly complex social infrastructure, and a global media network which can broadcast human rights violations to every part of the world.

In his lecture at Humboldt University, Ihsan Dagi pointed out how the discussion of Turkey’s possible membership in the EU has positively impacted their human rights practices. Turkey has passed countless laws, all of which are fueling hopes that the precarious human rights situation in Turkey will finally improve. Often however, there exists a gap between what the laws demand and the way they are interpreted in Turkey’s mostly conservative court system. The fact that a party with traditional Islamic values is now responsible for negotiating Turkey’s entry into the EU is for Dagi proof enough that the land has finally grasped the importance of human rights for economic and democratic development.

All lecturers were also guests in the workshop sessions led by Stefan Gosepath (University of Giessen) where all key note speeches were vigorously discussed and debated. In two upcoming workshops the human rights debate will be explored further from the perspectives of philosophy and law.