On December 10, the world commemorated Human Rights Day to honor the 66th anniversary of the adoption of the\
Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. This is an appropriate time, then, to reflect on the concept of human rights from a Baha’i perspective.
When I was a young Baha’i, the teaching of the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, that most touched my heart was the unity of humankind and of people of all religions and races. Baha’u’llah said: “Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony.” And He declared: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”
In keeping with this teaching of human oneness, Baha’u’llah said we should “consort with the followers of all religions in
aspirit of friendliness and fellowship.”
This counsel meant a lot to me. I loved to visit churches with my Christian friends, knowing that as a Baha’i I also believed
in Jesus; I went to synagogue with my Jewish friends, also believing as a Bahá’í in Moses and the Hebrew Prophets; and my Baha’i school class once visited a mosque. Again, as a Baha’i, I accepted Muhammad as a Prophet of God and therefore felt a kinship with all Muslims. From these experiences I became aware of the need to build bonds of friendship between people of all faiths. I also developed a keen awareness of the importance of religious freedom, which has become a focal point for my research today as a professor of law. Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’u’llah’s eldest son, and the authorized interpreter of His teachings, affirmed in this connection that “just as in the world of politics there is need for free thought, likewise in the world of religion there should be the right of unrestricted individual belief.”
Another experience I had as a child cemented my commitment to the Baha’i teaching of racial equality and unity. My parents held meetings at our home welcoming African-Americans and whites to talk about how to overcome racism. One African-American couple had a son, Kevin, who was about two years younger than me. Kevin became my “adopted” brother, and we had a lot of fun together. We later fell out of touch when I moved away at the age of six, but remarkably Kevin found me on the internet and we reconnected this past year and had a brotherly reunion after over forty years! Again, this experience impressed on me the imperative of following Baha’u’llah’s teaching to “Close your eyes to racial differences, and welcome all with the light of oneness.” This further inspired me to do my best to promote interracial equity and understanding.
So human rights became a passion of mine, and I began to explore Baha’i teachings on human rights and their relationship to modern human rights concepts. Human rights are central to the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, for Baha’u’llah came to unify humankind through recognition of the fundamental spiritual and intellectual dignity of every human being. At the very heart of Baha’u’llah’s teachings stands the principle of the oneness of humanity. Baha’u’llah taught the full equality of men and women, and of people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. He taught that all religions emanate from one God, and that people of every religion, and with no religion, should associate in amity and concord. He came to strike down every possible barrier that can be falsely set up between people, and to eradicate every form of prejudice. And of course, prejudice is one of the root causes of human rights violations.
The teachings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha advocated the idea of universal human rights nearly eighty years before the recognition of universal human rights by the United Nations in 1945. For example, Baha’u’llah called on all the governments of the world to unite to “shield mankind from the onslaught of tyranny.” And Abdu’l-Baha declared that “Baha’u’llah taught that an equal standard of human rights must be recognized and adopted.” He said that governments have a moral and legal obligation to protect the rights of everyone whom they govern. Both He and Baha’u’llah called for the establishment of a global commonwealth that would unite all nations and peoples and safeguard their human rights. Shoghi Effendi, the grandson of Abdu’l-Baha and the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, explained that the Baha’i teachings call for the “establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded.”
Of course, we have not yet achieved that global commonwealth that effectively safeguards personal freedom alongside the autonomy of states. But the world has made great strides in recognizing the existence of universal human rights and committing itself to their protection. The contemporary human rights system is founded on the United Nations Charter, adopted in 1945, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on December 10, 1948. The Charter declares that one of its principal objectives is to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, [and] in the equal rights of men and women.” And Article 1 of the Universal Declaration affirms that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The Universal Declaration was the world’s first widely-endorsed and detailed affirmation that every human being has certain fundamental rights, regardless of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
The Universal Declaration spells out many of these rights, including, among others, the rights to life, liberty, and security of person; freedom from slavery or servitude; freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; the right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal; the right to privacy; the right to marry; the right to own property; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; the right to take part in government, directly or through elected representatives; the right to work; the right to a standard of living adequate for one’s health and well-being and that of one’s family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services; and the right to education. The adoption of the Universal Declaration was followed by the promulgation of many other declarations on particular rights as well as legally binding human rights treaties.
From a Baha’i perspective, the significance of this achievement should not be underestimated. The 66 years following the approval of the Universal Declaration have marked a sharp departure from the attitude so prevalent among ruling powers through the centuries that they could abuse their subjects as they wished – an attitude that was emboldened by the doctrine of absolute state sovereignty. Today we are living in a “human rights era” – at least with respect to ideals. Thanks in part to the Universal Declaration, the human rights practices of police forces, government officials, government armed forces, and non-state military and political groups, among others, are now subject to global scrutiny and criticism.
It is appropriate, too, in light of Baha’u’llah’s teaching of human oneness, that the Universal Declaration begins with a recognition of our “brotherhood” (and today we should add, our “sisterhood”). For it is our common humanity that must support efforts to achieve respect for truly universal human rights. Human rights are ultimately about human relationships; they are concerned with how we should treat each other and how governments should treat their citizens and other residents of the territories they govern.
There is another important truth articulated by Article 1 of the Universal Declaration. Human rights can only be realized fully when all people acknowledge and act on a responsibility to protect the rights and welfare of their human brothers and sisters. The provision properly rejects the notion that human beings are inherently selfish; indeed, from a Baha’i perspective, we are all created with the capacity and obligation to serve others, to “carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.” Baha’u’llah teaches that we must all be “an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression.” Baha’is are striving to play their part as advocates for the human rights of every person alongside their brothers and sisters of all religions or of no religion.
Indeed, the Baha’i Faith is not alone among religions in working towards the realization of human rights. The idea of human rights can be found in the teachings of all the religions of the past. All of them call on us to recognize that we are members of one human family, and to come to the rescue of the oppressed and the downtrodden. (For a more detailed review of these teachings, see my book Hope for a Global Ethic: Shared Principles in Religious Scriptures). However, these faiths were all revealed at a time when human society did not have the means to recognize our globe-spanning unity. The purpose of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation is to create just such a world civilization, grounded in recognition of our common rights as members of one human family.
As we commemorate the 66th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is obvious that there is still an unacceptably vast gap between the experiences of countless human rights victims and the Universal Declaration’s lofty goals. Nevertheless, the human rights era inaugurated by the Universal Declaration has given rise to a new global consciousness of our fundamental unity and our duty to come to the defense of others whose rights are being violated. Millions have arisen as part of national and transnational human rights movements to help realize the Declaration’s ideals. They have sought to transcend barriers of race and religion and overcome their own prejudices. They are seeking to build the world foreseen in the preamble to the U.N. Charter, to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, [and] in the equal rights of men and women.”
When I think back to my own childhood – to my friendships with young people of other faiths, and to my friendship with Kevin – I have no doubt that these globe-spanning efforts to eradicate prejudice, uphold human rights, and build bonds of love and amity between people of all backgrounds will ultimately triumph. In the words of Baha’u’llah, “Soon will the present day Order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.”
For further reading:
Baha’i-Inspired Perspectives on Human Rights, edited by Tahereh Tahririha-Danesh and with a Foreword by Al Lincoln (Juxta Publishing, 2001), available here.
Brian D. Lepard, “A Baha’i Perspective on International Human Rights Law” available here.
Matthew Weinberg, “The Human Rights Discourse: A Baha’i Perspective” available here.
Aaron Emmel, “Human Rights in an Advancing Civilization” available here.