This year marks the 70th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights: a milestone of great significance in the West and further beyond. But has its promise been realised – either where it was first mooted or indeed, universally?
I recently co-organised a conference at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on a related theme as part of a broader long-term research interest of mine: the interchange between Islamic tradition, Muslim communities and the human rights discourse.
The conference had several key objectives: the first was to examine the underpinnings of the Islamic intellectual tradition and how those frames of reference engaged with the human rights discourse. The second was to see how that played out in particular geographical contexts such as Malaysia or the United States, and the third was to see how that engagement affected actual topics, such as medical ethics or gender.
But there was a very symbolic inclusion in the conference – and that was in our keynote speaker, Dr Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti emeritus of Bosnia. It was poignant because the universal declaration of human rights is largely a western document, even if certain non-western actors were involved in the deliberations that led to its founding. And that western document, informed by western intellectual traditions that emerged in Europe, gained particular currency following the atrocities of the Second World War.
And yet, 50 years after the end of that brutal war – in the heart of Europe, the continent that gave the world the human rights declaration – genocide occurred.
It’s a critical point to note because on this continent, where so many of us declared "never again" to the horrors of the Holocaust and other atrocities, genocide did happen again. On this continent, where so many of us upheld the universal declaration of human rights as a great moral force, it was not a strong enough force to avert genocide in its own backyard. The Bosnian Muslims, the Bosniaks, would not be protected by that declaration, nor by any other.
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It’s an important historical truth to note, especially today, when so many continue to suffer around the globe, both within the Arab world and beyond. And likewise, it is important to hear from a witness such as Dr Ceric, our keynote speaker, who lived through the Bosnian genocide.
Yet in his closing remarks, there was no bitterness nor unconstructive victimhood. Dr Ceric bore witness to the trauma of his country and his community but he called people to the future, to build and to overcome. That, too, is a message worth hearing. It is one that today, in this region, needs to be heard again and again, because there has been much pain and trauma at the hands of tyrants and dictators. And their crimes ought not to be forgotten nor accountability swept to one side – but building the future waits for no-one.
But accountability should be at the heart of rebuilding. Accountability matters and if the human rights declarations that emerged over the last 70 years mean anything at all, they are supposed to be means by which the powerful are held to account by the less powerful or the powerless.
That’s a framework we must constantly keep in mind as we ask searching questions in the dialogue between Islamic intellectual tradition and human rights discourse. Those questions should not be put to one side nor cast in a way that makes them irrelevant or simply semantics. There are genuine philosophical questions of meaning at stake here, which we were privileged to discuss at this recent conference.
But as we do discuss those issues – on a practical level as well as a theoretical, paradigmatic one – we must also be aware that discussion does not take place in a vacuum. As those kinds of philosophical questions exist and are discussed, the Rohingya question remains. The rampant abuse by state authorities in different parts of the world remain, including by many Muslims. Full accountability for the genocide in Bosnia remains incomplete.
And yet, moving forward, as Dr Ceric noted, is not a luxury, nor a choice. It is a fundamental necessity – and one that requires us to never forget the victims, but to seek to build a world which first and foremost, contains fewer victims.
Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London