Published: January 2000
Paper Presented at: Asia-Pacific Panel, Association for Bahá' Studies 21st Annual Conference, Washington, D.C. 14-16 November 1997
In the contemporary period respect for and promotion of human rights faces three challenges. First, a decline in traditional guarantees of protection has increased incidences of human rights abuses by both state and non-state actors. Second, dramatic changes in world conditions in the twentieth century, principally the shift to globalism and the accommodations this requires on the part of individual cultures and nations, requires the reconceptualisation of traditional practices of individual rights, to ensure agreement on common global or universal standards, while allowing for individual difference and diversity. A third significant challenge is to view human rights not simply as the claiming of individual rights from the state, but as the implementation of justice in governance, on the basis of mutual relations between states and citizens who constitute 'civil society'.
Bahá' Communities in the Asia-Pacific region face particular challenges. In some states they are yet to secure for themselves the fundamental rights guaranteed in international law. A second challenge is their ability to make a contribution to the promotion of human rights of all who live in the region. The purpose of this paper is to briefly review the status of Bahá' Communities in the Asia-Pacific with respect to existing human rights regimes, and to consider the educational needs of these Communities if they are to make a genuine contribution to the promotion of human rights.
It is generally observed that the articulation of the rights of individuals, and the legal means for their protection, have emerged in response to consciousness of the large-scale brutality of the twentieth century, and now comprise a significant portion of twentieth century international law innovation. A significant body of legal norms has been built on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights agreed by the United Nations in 1948. Although merely a 'declaration' of desirable standards pertaining to human rights, the UDHR has had considerable impact on the ways in which states and citizens understand notions of individual rights and obligations. In 1966 the UN concluded two "covenants" concerning human rights: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). A number of other declarations have been formulated since, including one seeking to eliminate of all forms of racial prejudice; another to eliminate all forms of religious intolerance; and yet another declaring the rights of indigenous peoples. In 1993 the United Nations convened a Conference in Vienna to review global progress in advancing human rights. In 1995 the United Nations declared the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004). In March 1996 the Bahá' International Community submitted a written statement to the UN Commission on Human Rights, indicating its full support for the Commission's Plan of Action.
Although the nation-states are not yet welded into a united global body-politic, they nonetheless feel impelled toward a common set of standards, and know intuitively that human rights development constitutes a noble aim. These covenants are now important instruments of international law. In voluntarily acceding to them, countries agree to bind themselves to the standards they contain, and undertake to report at set intervals to the United Nations' Committee on Human Rights. Despite its flagrant disregard for its obligations as a signatory to the ICCPR, Iran "...has neither denounced, derogated from, nor attached any reservations to the ICPR since the succession of the Khomeini government". In "Religious Human Rights Under the United Nations", Lerner describes the reporting process, and provides an instance in which the fate of the Bahá' Community is mentioned:
The yearly reports of the [Human Rights] Committee, issued as General Assembly Official Records (GAPR), Supplement No. 40, contain rich information on religious rights. When examining the periodic state reports, members of the Committee asked relevant questions and required additional information from the representatives of the states on legislation and facts concerning such rights. Just to mention a few recent instances, when the second periodic report of Morocco was discussed, questions were asked regarding procedures relating to the recognition of religious sects, the status of the Bahá'í Faith, marriages between members of different religious groups, and the meaning of terms such as 'religion of the state', 'revealed religions' or 'heretical sects'.
With the emergence of this global human rights discourse in the second half of the twentieth century, issues of identity and difference have emerged. In the west, for instance, rights are sometimes referred to as 'first generation' (civil and political rights), 'second generation' (social and economic rights) and 'third generation' (group rights). Elsewhere, however, rights are not necessarily ranked in the same order. In March 1993, just prior to the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, the Asian state representatives issued the Bangkok Declaration, which opposed the notion of "universal" human rights on the grounds that human rights as such do not accord with "Asian values." Whereas regional human rights instruments have been agreed for Africa, the Americas, and Europe, to promote human rights protection in these areas, there is as yet no such regional instrument in the Asia-Pacific.
The Involvement of Bahá's in human rights
Bahá's have long been involved in the promotion of human rights. Much of the activity undertaken by Bahá' communities in such fields as social and economic development has consisted of the practical promotion of the same rights that the international covenants seek to recognise and advance: what others would project as a society adhering to good human rights practice, Bahá's might characterise as a "truly enlightened community", since human rights is in one sense the application of moral development - whether at the level of the individual or the community. The recent statement by the Bahá' International Community concerning "Global Prosperity" can similarly be regarded as a contribution to human rights promotion and education.
Human Rights in Asia-Pacific
Australia regards itself as a 'multi-cultural' society, an active participant in the community of nations, and a supporter of universal human rights. Wide ranging 'equal opportunity' legislation has been enacted at both federal and state levels following Australia's acceptance of the international human rights covenants. In recent years, however, a series of events has shaken this nation's confidence in its human rights record. Significant judicial decisions have acknowledged, in legal terms, that the sovereignty of Aboriginal Australians has not been entirely 'extinguished' by dispossession, occupation, or cession. Reports to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and by Amnesty International have berated Australian governments for failing to raise the living standards of the Aboriginal population. Most recently, the Human Rights Commission has reported on a 'Stolen Generation' of Aboriginal children systematically removed from their families and placed in the care of white society. The Bahá' Community has issued a statement supporting race reconciliation, and may be called on to issue further statements on this theme.
In matters of religious freedom, Australia regards itself as an enlightened and tolerant community. The federal Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has recently issued a discussion paper examining Australia's ability to comply with the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Regarding the persecution of Iranian Bahá's, successive Australian governments have been sympathetic to their plight, and have allowed several thousand victims of religious persecution to settle in Australia.
The persecution of Bahá's in Iran is the most widely acknowledged instance of persecution of Bahá's on the basis of their religion, but it is not the only instance. In Asia, for instance, political and social upheaval, and political and religious ideology, have affected the situation of the Bahá's in a number of countries. All effective contact with the Cambodian Bahá's was lost during the period of Khmer Rouge rule (1975-79), and apart from contact with Bahá's subsequently found in refugee camps in Thailand, the community had to be completely re-established in the 1980s. In Vietnam, similarly, the Bahá' Community was affected by government policy toward religions implemented after reunification in 1975. [Parliament of Australia, 1995 #6287]
The activities of Bahá' Communities in predominantly Islamic countries face a number of limitations. The Bahá' Community of Indonesia has been deprived of basic rights since the 1960s. Although the Indonesian constitution states "The State shall be based upon belief in the One, Supreme God", and that "The state shall guarantee the freedom of the people to express and to exercise their own religion", a Presidential Decree of 1962 which banned a number of religious organisations including the Bahá' Faith, is yet to be revoked. The length of this ban, and the legal arguments used to support it, are beginning to attract scholarly comment. The activities of the Bahá' Communities of Malaysia, Afghanistan and Pakistan are also subject to restrictions specified by law.
In the islands of the Pacific, most Bahá' Communities enjoy freedom of religion afforded by express constitutional protections. Subtle forms of persecution persist, however, at 'grass-roots' level in cultures that are unfamiliar with notions of human rights, and with religious diversity. Some Pacific Island constitutions protect Christianity as the state religion while allowing freedom of religion, creating a tension occasionally expressed in calls for the banning of non-Christian religions. Bahá' Communities in these states are uniquely placed: in many they constitute the largest non-Christian religious communities. While some Pacific Island states are members of the United Nations, most are too small to meet the basic requirements of membership: whether membership fees, or the costs of diplomatic representation. Accession to international treaties is an imposing exercise, and adherence to international standards of compliance and reporting is equally daunting.
Asia-Pacific Bahá' Communities and Human Rights Education
Asia-Pacific Bahá' Communities have been prepared for involvement in programs of Human Rights Education by several circumstances. Firstly, they are part of a global religious tradition that holds the values of the human rights culture implicit in its scripture. Second, on the basis of their own experience, they understand the urgency of systemic change in the operation of state power, and for broader understanding of the advantages of more enlightened cooperation between governments, individuals, and civil society.
This positive disposition, however, is accompanied by several constraints. There is a lack of detailed knowledge across Asia-Pacific Bahá' Communities about current human rights practices and procedures. Those who do have such knowledge are not sufficient in number to conduct broad-based education programs. The short-term implication is that such activity as does occur in the field of human rights education, and human rights advocacy, will be by a small group of specialists acting on behalf of their Communities. Despite the benefits of such activity, a broader approach to human rights education and advocacy will be required if the aspirations of the Human Rights Commission's Plan of Action is to be realised. The BIC statement on that plan comments:
The Plan of Action prepared by the High Commissioner for Human Rights reflects this integrated conception of education by defining human rights education as "training, dissemination and information efforts aimed at the building of a universal culture of human rights through the imparting of knowledge and skills and the moulding of attitudes which are directed to:
a) The strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;
b) The full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity;
c) The promotion of understanding, tolerance, gender equality and friendship among all nations, indigenous peoples and racial, national, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups;
d) The enabling of all persons to participate effectively in a free society; and
e) The furtherance of the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
The Bahá' International Community fully embraces these goals and objectives. Human rights education, if it is to succeed, must seek to transform individual attitudes and behaviour and thereby establish, within every local and national community, a new "culture" of respect for human rights. Only such a change in the fundamental social outlook of every individual - whether a government official or an ordinary citizen - can bring about the universal observance of human rights principles in the daily lives of people. In the final analysis, the human rights of an individual are respected and protected - or violated - by other individuals, even if they are acting in an official capacity. Accordingly, it is essential to touch the hearts, and elevate the behaviour, of all human beings, if, in the words of the Plan of Action, human rights are to be transformed "from the expression of abstract norms" to the "reality" of the "social, economic, cultural and political conditions" experienced by people in their daily lives."
This paper has argued that the Asia-Pacific is a region of diverse traditions about human rights and obligations. With the emergence of global human rights discourse in the second half of the twentieth century, issues of identity and difference have emerged. There is no regional human rights organisation in the Asia-Pacific, and a number of nations in the region insist on defining rights in their specific 'historical and cultural circumstances'. If Bahá' Communities wish to become successfully involved in the promotion of human rights development, they will have to first address some fundamental questions. First, what model of 'human rights' is elaborated in the Bahá' Writings? Secondly, since Bahá's promote universal human rights, but acknowledge the principles of diversity and difference, how then will Bahá' Communities in the Asia-Pacific approach problems of difference? Only after examining these and other important questions will Bahá' communities in the Asia-Pacific be well placed to engage in human rights discourse. What is needed, therefore, is a model of human rights education for Asia-Pacific Bahá' communities that examines Bahá' Writings on the subject, the currently global and national human rights regimes, and preferable futures (global, regional, and domestic) in Bahá' perspective. The UN Decade for Human Rights Education provides the opportunity for Bahá' communities to contribute a broad conception of human rights, in terms of their origin, scope, and ultimate purposes, to a vitally important component in the construction of global civil society and the new world order.