Conflicting Rights


I’ve been considering the question of why some rights are more contentious than others especially in the context of relativism. The article by Olgun Akbulut provides insight into the tensions that exist between parental religious rights and compulsory religious education in Turkey.

The hegemonic influence of the state in promoting the Sunni beliefs and traditions through state run religious education classes which minority ethnic and religious groups such as the Alevi Kurds are required to attend restrict the rights of such groups to choose a form of religious education that accords with their particular beliefs and arguably undermines Article 18(4) of the ICCPR which requires that ‘The State Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents …to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.’

The rights of the Alevis to employment within state institutions in Turkey is also a matter of concern as reported in the New York Times by Kingsley in an article entitled: ‘Turkey’s Alevis, A Muslim Minority, Fear a Policy of Denying Their Existence.’ (July 22,  2017).

One considers whether Art 25(c) of the ICCPR is also engaged: ‘Every citizen shall have the right and opportunity, without any distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions to have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.’

One questions why such political and cultural disagreements between nation states and such minority ethnic and religious groups exist? Why, for instance,  did the UN High Commissioner for human rights describe the current situation faced by the Rohingya in Myanmar a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’? ( Reuters, September 11, 2017)

Hannah Arendt in her work on totalitarianism and banality of evil sheds some light when  she explains that ‘….the reason why highly developed political communities , such as …modern nation states , so often insist on ethnic homogeneity is that they hope to eliminate as far as possible those natural and always present differences and differentiations .. because they indicate all too clearly those spheres where men cannot act and change at will , i.e., the limitations of the human [political] artifice.’ ( Arendt 1972:301, quoted in Preece, pg 7) .

It is arguable that disagreements on rights involving for instance religion and education contribute to the tensions that exist on the one hand between the need for freedom of choice and diversity, and on the other hand, the policies of a state to promote  social uniformity and solidarity  in a way that achieves social and political control.

Kate Cronin at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government notes that ‘when nations are defined around a majority ethnic group, that can lead to a sense of seige – a belief that the majority status needs to be protected, because if it shrinks, the claim of the majority could as well.’ ( Quoted by Amanda Taub in the New York Times, Sept 18, 2017). Ironically, the respect for self- determination of peoples ( Art 1 of the UN Charter)   may conflict with and undermine rights of minority groups to freedom of religion (Art 18 ICCPR) and even Art 6 ICCPR :the inherent right to life of every human being.

Taub notes that ‘there is a problem inherent in self- determination that can make it an enemy of the freedoms it is intended to protect.’ Might it be argued that the rights of people of self -determination and to freely determine their  political status (Art 1 of the ICCPR) might serve as basis for determining ‘who belongs in that nation and who is an outsider.’ (Taub ,’The Interpreter”, Sept 18, 2017.

Preece notes that ‘minority questions are among the most contested issues in political life because they speak to an inherent tension in human affairs between competing desires for freedom and belonging.’ (Preece, pg 5) .

Furthermore, David Little notes the way ‘religion itself is manipulated by political entrepreneurs in nationalistic struggles’. These writers remind us that culturally and ethnically  diverse societies may at times be subject to structural strains within their social fabric underpinned by competing  claims of majority and minority groups to the recognition and protection of their political and social rights.

Relativists argue that human rights cannot be understood in a context void of cultural values, traditions and moral norms specific to a particular society. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam,1990, for instance stands in conflict with the UDHR by indicating the Shariah Law to be sole basis for the identification of rights.

David Little adds that ‘the Cairo document nowhere guarantees equal freedom of religion or equal rights for men and women’ whereas, he notes that, similar provisions are protected in Article 4 in the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.

Lindholm questions whether there is ‘the need to recognise the impossibility of discovering one master moral model for the world’ that takes into account the socio-political and cultural differences of communitarian , socialist , liberal,  and theocratic  societies.

I am inclined to believe , however, that the idealism of those individuals and organisations which gives recognition to  a universality of human rights that transcends cultural differences is what acts as a safeguard against the excesses of a political state relying on its cultural and political particularism to justify and legitimate state policies that discriminate against minority groups and violate their fundamental rights.