Human Rights and the Limits of Diversity

Deborah L. Nichols

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, bases its statements about human rights on the critical assumptions that human dignity is inherent, and “all members of the human family” have “equal and inalienable rights”: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” (Article 1)  Prominent in the preamble to the declaration is the assertion that “a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge”. This is a universalist assertion; that is, it acknowledges that the foundation for achieving human rights is a common agreement about what those rights are.

In many public venues currently, diversity is advocated as a positive value. Attitudes toward diversity as promoted in schools, social programs, and the workplace range from tolerance to acceptance and encouragement. In many social venues, cultural diversity is a fact of life that may enrich experience while also sometimes presenting challenges. Open-mindedness, tolerance, and awareness of diverse points of view have a place in promoting a peaceful society. Many of us grew up in times and places where a lack of open-mindedness created problems for people, including the denial of human rights. Acceptance of diversity is seen as necessary to modern life, and also as potentially offering improvements to society through new approaches to problems and drawing contributions from wider sources.

Tolerance toward diversity is urged, especially with respect to religion and other cultural beliefs and practices, often without qualification. There are, however, topics on which the tolerance of diversity is at odds with human rights. This is especially true in the case of cultural and religious systems in which belief, custom, and even law deny, or fail to protect, the rights of individuals. For example, tolerance of cultures that restrict the rights of women to equal education, property ownership, political participation, employment, and reproductive rights, is tolerance of the denial of human rights. In fact, this kind of harmful tolerance is not a position that should be accepted by anyone who believes in human rights.

When there is disagreement between diverse cultures about the treatment of human beings, a problem arises about how to settle the opposing claims. One proposal would be to allow each culture to determine its own concept of human rights within its own borders and/or for its own citizens. This is not an acceptable principle, however, because it would allow societies to determine that certain groups and individuals do not have human rights equal to those of others – a well-documented practice both historically and currently.  Other proposals try to build agreement persuasively by appeal to principles like the Golden Rule; but this presupposes a sense of inherent fairness and empathy towards all people, something that a society that denies human rights to some individuals does not have.

Can agreement on a universal principle emerge from diversity? There may be hope that it can, assuming (as the UDHR does) that all human beings are “endowed with reason and conscience”. However, even if reason employs consistent principles of logic, reaching common conclusions depends upon beginning with shared premises.

The UDHR affirms an individual’s right to hold – and express – beliefs. Article 18 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” (Emphasis added.) Article 18 places no limit on the kinds of beliefs an individual may hold. Further, the Article advocates an individual’s (and group’s) right to practice their beliefs, not simply to hold them.

What about a belief that some human beings do not have human rights? The Declaration states that there should be limits to behavior: Many Articles (for example, 4, 5, and 9) prohibit specific kinds of treatment, such as slavery and torture. The practice of slavery may arise from the belief that the enslaved individuals are not human, or less than human – certainly not human in the same way as the slave-keeping group. That belief might even be based in a deep-rooted religious, philosophical, or cultural system. In such cases, the practice of religion should not be protected. And, in my opinion, the views that support those practices, while perhaps people are free to hold them, should not be allowed to go unchallenged in expression. While individuals may have the right to freedom of thought and speech, they do not have the right to profess and advocate oppressive views without facing a direct challenge by principled argument and criticism.

For those who acknowledge human rights as expressed in the UDHR, there is a right, and even an obligation, not to tolerate beliefs or practices that deny or impede the rights of others. We have the right not to tolerate every form of diversity. We must not allow harmful beliefs, and the practices they support, to shelter illegitimately under the claim that because they are religion, they cannot be questioned, debated, criticized, or opposed.

It may be objected that no one has the authority to say whose religious beliefs and practices are oppressive, especially if they are long-standing, cherished, and accepted in their culture – and perhaps accepted even by the oppressed. But if we can decide, or subscribe to, an enumeration of human rights like the UDHR, then we must also be able, through reason and conscience to determine the limits of tolerance. It may also be objected that it is not practical to challenge the beliefs of countries or societies whose cooperation is needed by our own. But the challenge must be made. For those who accept the UDHR, there is an obligation to use dialogue and argument, where possible, and sanctions, if necessary, to persuade people to abandon harmful beliefs and practices.

Deborah L. Nichols