Former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon believes the entire human rights movement has fallen victim to a new form of skepticism that risks bringing it to collapse, with religious freedom being in the most precarious position.
Currently a law professor at Harvard University, Glendon told Crux in an interview that “a new skepticism” is developing in society which, differently from the deep-rooted suspicion of the modern age towards most things, is specifically targeting the human rights movement.
“Human rights activists are worried that the cause they gave their life to is falling apart. Human rights specialists are writing books about the end-times of human rights, so where does that come from?” she asked.
While the causes are many, “they’re all converging in one direction and it’s put the whole great project in peril,” she said, adding that in her view, the whole idea of human rights has become “a victim of its own success.”
After World War II, heavy emphasis was placed on the importance of ensuring and protecting human rights, leading to the drafting of the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights. From that point on, Glendon said, the movement picked up at an accelerated pace, with many organizations pushing for their own private interests to become a human rights project.
Glendon said her biggest concern is for religious freedom, which she said risks “becoming a second-class right that is regularly, or too often, subordinated to a whole range of other rights, claims and interests,” particularly in the United States.
While it might seem surprising, Glendon said there are a number of prominent legal academics arguing to toss out religious freedom laws on grounds that, with freedom of speech and expression and assembly, a law specifically guaranteeing religious liberty is “a relic of a superstitious [age],” and is no longer necessary.
“That’s very dangerous, and of course it betrays a lack of understanding of the role of religious freedom as foundational for many other rights,” she said.
Glendon gave a keynote address on the last day of a Nov. 15-16 symposium on “Fundamental Rights and a Conflict among Rights,” organized by the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Foundation and held at Rome’s LUMSA University. Speakers at the event included Princeton Professor Robert George, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and the head of the Vatican tribunal, Giuseppe Dalla Torre.
Though threats to religious freedom are different in countries such as Iraq or Pakistan, Glendon told Crux she sees hope at a global level, part of which stems from a ministerial conference organized in July by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which addressed religious freedom and drew the participation of diplomats and experts from around the world.
“The United States right now in its foreign policy is becoming very active in promoting religious freedom,” she said, explaining that there’s a notable difference in terminology used today versus when she was Vatican ambassador from 2008-2009.
At the time, the term “freedom of worship” was a common turn of phrase, yet it was “exactly the phrase that human rights violators used,” Glendon said, explaining that during a stint as a religious freedom commissioner, the phrase was often used in countries such as Turkey or Pakistan.
When it comes to church-state relations, particularly the current push for abortion and euthanasia to be declared human rights, Glendon said the debate needs to happen but outside of a courtroom.
“If the issues are decided in the courts, you’re going to get an all-or-nothing decision where it makes the losers very angry and disappointed,” she said.
“If we want to save our democratic experiment, it’s gotta take place in the realm of bargaining, education, persuasion, convincing your fellow citizens of the justice of your cause, and then you vote.”
Another major concern for Glendon is in developing nations, where “Western-funded human rights organizations are coming in and claiming universal human rights status for their agenda, treating people in those countries as if they are ignorant and they better get with the human rights program.”
“It smacks of neocolonialism, and makes people very angry,” she said, adding that at the moment, “very little is known about the financing of the scores of NGOs that are promoting one right or another.”
When it comes to liberal democracies, the number of rights claims is now somewhere around 1,000, and this “cheapens the currency,” Glendon said. Not only does it trivialize the meaning of a right, but she said it also takes attention away from legitimate causes such as slavery or torture.
Though it isn’t perfect, Glendon said the 1948 declaration, which lists just 30 universal rights for humanity, is both “modest” and “simple,” sticking to the basic claims rooted in great global philosophical and religious traditions, and which at the time of drafting were found to be generally accepted by most nations.
In comments to Crux, Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who spoke on the birth and transformation of freedom and human rights in contemporary society, said that in order to save the human rights movement, there has to be “a reflection on anthropology.”
“Before starting with rights, which are a consequence, we must ask ourselves about human nature, ask ourselves about our foundational structure, which is not just an economic dimension, and nor is it merely a juridical, procedural dimension. It is also a dimension that has cultural, spiritual elements and also a human dimension,” he said.
“What is being lost in our days is the matrix, to go back to reflecting on rights, but at the roots.”
Religions have a key role to play, he said, because their main task is to prioritize human dignity. While protecting religious freedom is important, it’s part of a wider protection of “the totality of the person, not reducing it to a political, economic, component on the world’s chessboard.”