09 September 2008

No taboos, says the new Council President, but . . .

Yesterday afternoon the NGOs at the Human Rights Council were invited to a meeting with the new President of the Council, Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi of Nigeria. The Center for Inquiry delegation was sitting with the irrepressible David Littman, who spoke up towards the end of the discussion period. He called the President a "watchman," the protector of civil society against those Council member states who would target NGO representatives with ad hominem attacks.

Littman went on, probing the taboo on religious subjects imposed by Uhomoibhi's predecessor: "We understand there are a list of words that we may not use. Can you tell us what that list is?" Uhomoibhi responded without hesitation, "There are no taboos in the Council as far as I am concerned." Littman queried, "There are no words?" Uhomoibhi repeated, "There are no taboos."

"But," he began, "your responsibility is to know that your freedom and my freedom are one," with which he launched into a lucid philosophical passage on freedom and constraint, with shades of Rousseau (but which one, Rousseau the father of the revolution, or Rousseau the father of the Terror?).

"You cannot insult me and insult my belief and say that you are free. You cannot humiliate me and my belief and say that you are free."

Growing increasingly emotional, the President intoned, "I am not less human than you are. You cannot ascend a high moral pedestal and treat me as nothing."

Problems arise "when people are opinionated and they think they hold absolute truth." he said. Instead, the President concluded, with something close to exasperation, "Let us be humble. Let us not think we can be god to another person. This is my plea. Because this world is complex, but it is beautiful. This is really my bottom line."

It was an effective statement, but of course it left Littman and the rest of us wondering what exactly it implied. Clearly the matter was close to the President's heart. I think the most charitable reading, which I urged my colleagues to adopt, is that comments on religious subjects may be advanced if done in tones of civility, humility, and mutual respect.

We should take the President at his word, which he has elaborated in media interviews: "No subject is taboo in the Council. Everything that touches on human rights ought to be discussed in total openness. Some believe that to address one subject authorizes them to abuse another. Debates must take place with mutual respect."

1 comment:

Kate said...

Nice idea and all, but sometimes even the vocabulary is insulting. Or criticizing people's religious beliefs as anti-human. Seems like a big taboo to me.