Reframing Human Rights III: Secular and Religious Sources of Human Rights

5th Berlin Roundtables on Transnationality, May 17-20, 2006

The concept of human rights implies the idea of a broad international consensus. Most notably, the Universal Declaration of 1948 defines a landmark position, and based on it a number of political, social and cultural conflicts appear to have been overcome. This achievement has meant that human rights have had to rely on generalizing formulations that are necessarily open to interpretation. At the same time, the effectiveness of human rights within the practice of international law presupposes a legal interpretation that must allow for reliable decisions on controversial cases. As a matter of fact, this interpretation itself cannot be obtained by simply pointing to a given political consensus, since it is often enough the consensus itself that is at risk of being cancelled by the controversy in question. The international practice of case law thus proceeds from precedent to precedent in order to articulate decision rules for future conflicts. Even tough this pragmatic method may be applicable, it nevertheless remains unsatisfactory in theoretical terms. Positive law appears to stop short of the normative challenges posed by human rights universalism. Some commentators therefore refer to the pre-legal foundations of human rights in order to come to terms with the more than positive legitimacy of human rights. In such a scenario it seems that religious and moral beliefs could qualify as justifications. Analysis of the pre-legal foundations of human rights could therefore prove helpful for those who wish to understand pragmatically how, in the end, human rights may do more than merely mirror the present state of international affairs. At least implicitly, this idea seems to be at the heart of the 1948 Declaration and the related conventions: The aim of human rights is a global development that transcends the political status quo. However, this argument, attractive as it may be, comes with strings attached. If we assume that human rights work best if they can rely on some sort of value in surplus to positive law, we also have to face the fact that religion may also serve as an argument against a kind of human rights dominated by Christian tradition and Western culture.

The workshop adhered to a conceptual framework that revolves around three main topics:

  • Religious vs. Secular Sources of Human Dignity
  • Physical Inviolability and the Limits of State Authority
  • Due Process and Religious Dissent

Focusing on these fields, the workshop discussed the idea of the pre-legal foundations of human rights and analyze the role of the concept of human rights in legal practice.

The conference was accompanied by three public evening lectures:

Thomas Pogge, Yale University, USA
"Globale Armut und Menschenrechte"

Abdelfattah Amor, United Nations, Tunisia
"Religionsfreiheit und Menschenrechte"

Christian Tomuschat, Humboldt-University Berlin
"Menschenrechte zwischen Idealismus und Realismus"