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Universality or Pluralism? Commitment to Human Rights in the 21st Century

In 2012 tens of thousands are on the run from the rebel group M23 in Congo, the Russian parliament passes laws restricting oppositional activity, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez keeps the population in destitution and fear. Despite all scaremongering about economical and financial crises in the West, a large part of the world’s population still lives in countries where poverty and persecution are daily fare. For nearly fifty years the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) is now contributing in these people’s strife for justice, freedom and peace.

Thus, it’s only consistent that the foundation in cooperation with Engagement Global organized a congress Universality or Pluralism? Commitment to Human Rights in the 21st Century on November 30th and December 1st 2012 in Berlin. The idea came from the foundation’s scholars and was made possible with the assistance of the foundation’s staff and a substantial funding contribution of Engagement Global. A number of luminaries in the field of human rights could be converted to participate. Finally, the response was beyond expectations.

Rolf Berndt
Rolf Berndt
The beginning was made by words of welcome by representatives of the organizations that had been involved in the realization of the event: Germany’s minister of economic cooperation and development, Dirk Niebel, the patron of the conference, was cut in by video. He emphasized the universality of pivotal human rights, which must be defended, for “only in freedom man can develop fully”. Gabriela Büssemaker, the chief executive of Engagement Global, presented the organization and its contributions to the promotion of human rights in her address. And Rolf Berndt, executive board member of the FNF, pointed out the continuity from the first republican constitution of Germany in 1848 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Property rights he asserted to be crucial, as they ensure the integrity not only of one’s material property, but also of body and soul.

Irmgard Schwaetzer
Irmgard Schwaetzer
Germany’s Commissioner for Human Rights Policy, Markus Löning, whose predecessor Günter Nooke also attended the conference, gave the first talk. Firmly he argued that the human rights are the core of the European legacy. The peace and prosperity the free world is enjoying today compel us to stand up for those in need. He made a case for the arduous path of international cooperation and negotiation, underlining the importance of including the business world into human rights policy. Finally, he took on several questions from the audience.

Otfried Höffe
Otfried Höffe
The renowned German philosopher Prof. Otfried Höffe followed with a keynote address on the progress of human rights – an issue he has delved into for some time. The Virginia Bill of Rights (1776) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Rights of the Citizen (1789) mark the focal point of the modern idea of a universal moral code. These rights being universal ought to be conveyed in an intercultural dialogue. The hub of this dialogue is the fact that there are basic characteristics all humans share. Divested of all external circumstances man’s fundamental and inherent features show, such as being a living creature with the ability to talk and argue as well as the need to cooperate.

Christian Tomuschat
Christian Tomuschat
The Saturday began with a vivid lecture by the German anthropologist Prof. Christoph Antweiler. He strongly advised to focus only on the basic rights, which he deems universally valid regardless of their origin. These rights have to be brought up for a constant intercultural discussion. He understands that the disparate cultures will not be able to agree on the same values, so he suggests agreeing on the same rules and leaving their value reasoning to the respective cultures. This will be a practicable settlement, as there are certain human universals (e. g. fairness, hospitality, tabooing sexuality) we all have in common. “Men”, he summarizes, “do not live in different worlds, but differently in one world.”

The next speech was delivered by the German doyen of International Law, Prof. Christian Tomuschat. He pointed out how human rights have been implemented throughout the world by making them international law and point of reference for newly drafted constitutions. The UN conventions are instruments to gradually advance the very ambitious goal of universal prevalence of the human rights. Just as the two previous speakers he too urged to seek the dialogue in order to implement a sense for the validity of human rights in the people’s minds making them gradually self-evident.

Markus Löning
Markus Löning
Finally, the founder of the Human Rights Foundation, Thor Halvorssen, thrilled the audience with a very informing and enthusiastic speech. The Oslo Freedom Forum he initiated in 2009 was in fact the inspiration for the conference’s organizers. The wall which divided the city of Berlin he depicted to be the symbol for the division which still nowadays afflicts humanity: between freedom and tyranny, open and closed societies, the systematic respect for individual rights and their systematic violation. 55 % of the UN states, he revealed, are no democracies, half of them being actual dictatorships. He sternly criticized the social, cultural and economic human rights, identifying them as the main instrument of nondemocratic states to pillory the free world for not being compliant with human rights themselves. Visualizing several absurdities in the UN he struck a blow for a grass-roots commitment: Not the bureaucrats and academics ought to be the voice of freedom but victims and witnesses.

Three discussion panels gave opportunity to delve into the three great subjects of the conference: Panel I, hosting Prof. Antweiler and Reza Mosayebi, a lecturer of philosophy in Tübingen, was dedicated to the question whether and how human rights are universal. Panel II with Prof. Tomuschat and the Pakistan Supreme Court lawyer Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khaki addressed the conformity of and interaction between human rights and international law. And panel III, joined by Thor Halvorssen and Maja Dajurwala, the director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, approached the matter of enforcing human rights throughout the world. After lunch the panels were summarized and the results were discussed in the plenum. Irmgard Schwaetzer, former undersecretary in the foreign ministry and now board member of the FNF, gave the closing address.

The conference has lively demonstrated the topicality of human rights. A common stand was found in the claim to distinguish clearly between the basic freedom rights and the numerous additional rights, which, other than the former, cannot claim universality. Hopefully the conference will have given an impulse for all who attended to contribute, everyone in his own way, to help the striving for freedom and justice in our world, since this is a desire we all share.
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