Spinoza and secularism at the UN

  • Date / 10 September 2008

Quoting Spinoza in a statement to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva delivered jointly with the Association for World Education, IHEU has urged the Council to prioritize freedom of expression over demands for laws of the state to yield to the laws of God.


JOINT STATEMENT by Representative David G. LITTMAN (AWE) – Tuesday (am) 9 September

UNITED NATIONS HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL – Ninth Session (8–26 September 2008)

Annual Report of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights and Reports of the OHCHR… (item 2)

[Words reduced and in square brackets were not pronounced in the 3 minutes available]

Thank you, Mr. President. [This is a joint statement by the Association for World Education (AWE), the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and the Center for Inquiry – on the Address by Ms. Navanetham, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Opening of the 9th session of the HRC (“in particular, I refer to the 60th anniversaries of the UDHR.”)]

We congratulate you, sir, on your election and extend a hearty welcome to our new High Commissioner.
As you stated, Madam, in your opening address:
“… we must focus on the challenges that remain in bringing to reality the comprehensive vision of human rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration. This vision is a beacon of hope for the future.”

Madam, you personify for civil society and many here that Shakespeare line: “For now sits Expectation in the air.”
The theme of the 60th anniversary of the UDHR is “dignity and justice for all”. In this context, we maintain that articles 18 on “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and 19 on “the right to freedom of opinion and expression” should be neither diminished nor qualified – other than as indicated in articles 29 and 30.

Six months ago, a veteran Paris-based NGO, the LICRA [Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et Antisémitisme/International League against Racism and Antisemitism] circulated a substantive statement worldwide signed by thousands [including Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel]: The United Nations versus Human Rights.* The title speaks volumes.
[The key question it posed – and being asked more and more within civil society – is this: “Will 2008 be the year when the United Nations celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and simultaneously destroys its own principles? There is, indeed, cause for great concern because the institution has lost its own way in recent years, becoming a caricature of itself.”]

Surely, sir, it is time for this Council to resolve not to make any further concessions that weaken the principle of “dignity and justice for all.” The universal standards of the United Nations should be upheld, not watered down by cultural relativism or special pleading, nor should restrictions on human rights be dignified with the status of UN Regional Instruments.

We are making available our two joint NGO written statements on this subject: Sixty Years after the UDHR: Threats to the Universality of Human Rights [A/HRC/9/NGO/2]; and The Cairo Declaration and the Universality of Human Rights [A/HRC/7/NGO/96].
350 years ago, Spinoza attempted to substitute the concept of secular law for the 17th century European notions of the Deity as the source of law. On the triumph of the ‘sectarians’ – a term covering religious fundamentalists of all stripes – he was explicit. I quote:
… inasmuch as concessions have been made to their animosity, […] they have gained state sanction for the doctrines of which they are the interpreters. Hence they arrogate to themselves state authority and rights, and do not scruple to assert that they have been directly chosen by God and that their laws are Divine, whereas the laws of the state are human and should therefore yield obedience to the laws of God — in other words, to their own laws.”
He concluded, and I quote “… in a free state every man may think what he likes and say what he thinks.”
And: “I have thus shown […] That it is impossible to deprive men of the liberty of saying what they think.” **

Mr President, we urge all participants at this Council to consider carefully the relevance of Spinoza’s words today.
Thank you, Sir.

* LICRA – Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et Antisémitism / International League against Racism and Antisemitism It was signed by many eminent personalities, including Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel. www.licra.org/news/pdf/get_file.php?file_name=the_united_nations_versus_human_rights__english_version_.pdf
** Conclusion of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670, by Baruch/Benedict de Spinoza, The Works of Spinoza, R.H.M. Elwes, I, chapter XX, pp. 257–66, New York: Dover, 1955]

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