Towards a Global Consensus that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Embodies a Civilizational Vision that the World’s Diverse Peoples, Faiths, and Nations Should Strive to Fulfill

“This is not just another meeting among countless meetings. It is essential to say ‘Hineni!’ — We are here! In the midst of so much hate speech, polarization, death, horror, wars, and the widespread trampling of human dignity: We are here!”
~ Rabbi Silvina Chemen
Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano (Argentina)

Nassau Hall at Princeton University (est. 1746)

PRINCETON, New Jersey — On 13 – 14 December 2023, international religious authorities and scholars representing the world’s major faith traditions gathered in Princeton to discuss the future of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and build upon the momentum of previous G20 Religion Forum (R20) summits held in Bali, Surabaya, and Jakarta, Indonesia.

Princeton University’s James Madison Program for American Ideals and Institutions hosted the conference, which was co-sponsored by the world’s largest Muslim organization, Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the Center for Shared Civilizational Values (CSCV), the R20, and the global Humanitarian Islam movement.

Following a two-day exchange of ideas and substantive discussion, participants adopted a twelve-point R20 Princeton Declaration, which concludes:

  1. THEREFORE, we urge the United Nations General Assembly to recommend that all UN Member States distribute an electronic and/or hard copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their national language(s), to all school children, through their respective ministries of education; and
  2. We urge religious authorities of every faith and nation to marshal the power and influence of their respective spiritual traditions and communities to impact decision-making circles; halt armed conflicts raging in the Middle East, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and other regions of the world; develop effective mechanisms for dialogue and negotiation that may lead towards the peaceful resolution of such conflicts; and join Nahdlatul Ulama as well as the G20 Religion Forum (R20) in expanding and strengthening the global Movement for Shared Civilizational Values.

From left to right: Nahdlatul Ulama Chairman KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf; Dr. Timothy Samuel Shah, CSCV Director of Strategic Initiatives, who moderated the two-day event; Prof. Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard; and Archbishop Henry Ndukuba, Anglican Primate of Nigeria, at the conference head table

The R20 Princeton Conference on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was held in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the UDHR by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948.

Two days prior to the anniversary, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Harvard Law School professor (emerita) Mary Ann Glendon, based on a keynote address Prof. Glendon prepared for the opening session of the Princeton UDHR conference. In her address, titled “A House on Fire,” Prof. Glendon said:

The distinguished political commentator Walter Russell Mead described the current situation starkly in a recent column. “The most important fact in world politics today,” he said, “is that the so-called rules-based international order has not been this imperiled since the 1930s.” The core elements of that order — the UN charter, the UN itself, and the universal rights project they initiated — are all growing weaker and less relevant. They are ignored by powerful actors who recognize no rules, and they are being eroded from within by political decadence and institutional decay.

In that light, the aspirations for our conference must sound naïve and wishful. That is, until we consider the alternative: Unless there are some common principles to which all can appeal, we are back to the scene depicted by Thucydides long ago — where the terrified inhabitants of the island of Melos appealed to the conquering Athenians in the name of justice. To which the Athenian ambassadors replied: “Right is only a question between equals in power. The strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must.” 

It is as true today as it was then that if there are no principles of human decency to which nearly all can appeal, nothing is left but the will of the stronger, force and violence, death and desolation. And therein lies the urgency of this meeting’s topic.

Over the past few weeks, as I was thinking about this consultation, the lyrics of an old African-American spiritual kept running through my head. It’s about what God said to Noah after the great flood that almost destroyed the world.

God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
“No more water, the fire next time.”
East and West the fire will roll,
How will it be for my poor soul?

Since there are many scripture scholars here tonight, I hasten to say that the song does not exactly conform to the account in Genesis. But it does speak to the very dangerous possibilities inherent in the conflicts that are now raging in two parts of the world. 

Those possibilities mean that we have to take seriously the question that is in the minds of skeptics on this 75th anniversary of the UDHR: Is it really possible to reinvigorate consensus on a relatively small set of principles such as those in the UDHR?

In an opening address to the conference titled “Fulfilling the Aspirations of the Medina Charter and the Charter of the United Nations,” KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf — Chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board as well as Founder and Chairman of the G20 Religion Forum (R20) — observed:

Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, survival of the nascent Muslim community and of subsequent Islamic caliphates required that they compete in a bitter struggle for dominance in an international environment defined by the merciless logic of “might makes right.” In these circumstances, a monopoly on political and military power was deemed necessary to secure Muslims’ right to life, faith, progeny, reason, and property, which Islamic theologians defined as maqasid al-shari‘ah or “the purposes of shari‘ah.”

Dwelling within a framework of vicious inter-tribal, inter-civilizational, and inter-religious competition for supremacy, Muslims developed a sophisticated corpus of religious and legal norms designed to foster the consolidation and unity of their communities, in order to safeguard Muslims from the unending and ever-present danger of predation and subjugation by civilizational and religious “others.”

Over the centuries, this set of norms became firmly established within Islamic discourse and proved highly successful in achieving their purpose: i.e., maqasid al-shari‘ah. Due to the undeniable, millennia-long track record of success these Islamic norms have had in ensuring Muslims’ security, they exert an extraordinarily powerful influence over Muslim communities, and continue to shape the mindset of the majority of Muslims worldwide.

However, in an age of mechanized, industrial warfare and weapons of mass destruction, the supremacist mindset embodied in Islamic norms is no longer “fit to purpose,” for achieving their five-fold objective….

Despite these immense threats and challenges, we believe there is reason for hope. The very scope of the multiple crises facing humanity offers a compelling logic for people of goodwill of every faith and nation to cooperate in addressing these challenges. One essential step is to bring our religious teachings into alignment with the international consensus that emerged after the Second World War and mobilize our respective communities to build a more just and harmonious world order.  

Nahdlatul Ulama is actively engaged in this effort. In 2017 we published the Gerakan Pemuda Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam, which offers a concrete roadmap to — and I quote — “develop a new religious sensibility that reflects the actual circumstances of our modern civilization, and contributes to the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order, founded upon respect for the equal dignity and rights of every human being.”

Our presence here today — at an event co-sponsored by the James Madison Program, Nahdlatul Ulama, the R20, and the Center for Shared Civilizational Values — is part and parcel of this effort.

AB Henry Ndukuba with KH. Yahya Cholil Staquf and Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III (Church of God in Christ). Background: Prof. Mary Ann Glendon; Prof. Christine Schirrmacher (University of Bonn); AB Thomas Schirrmacher (Secretary General, World Evangelical Alliance); Dr. Jacqueline C. Rivers (Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies); and Mr. Stephen Rasche (Vice Chancellor, Catholic University of Erbil)

In his keynote remarks, Archbishop Henry C. Ndukuba, Primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria and Bishop of Abuja, spoke bluntly about the West’s failure to acknowledge and defend the human rights of his fellow Nigerians:

The UN and leading nations of the world should take prompt action to protect Christian communities in Nigeria from the frequent massacres and expulsions perpetrated by terrorists who are motivated by ethnic and religious hatred. In parts of Nigeria, Christians are becoming an endangered species. Innocent Christians have been lynched by Muslim mobs, incited by flimsy accusations of blasphemy, without these murders ever being punished by law. Impunity reigns, as Christian victims are denied fundamental human rights, including the right to justice.

A false narrative among Western powers that the widespread massacres and displacement of Christian communities in northern and central Nigeria are a consequence of climate change — and policies that deny foreign aid to African countries that refuse to legally endorse same-sex relations — must be jettisoned. The international community must focus its attention on the indisputable evidence that well-organized, well-equipped, and well-funded militias — with links to Ansaru, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram terrorist groups — are operating in many parts of northern and central Nigeria, devastating vulnerable Christian communities. The fact that these massacres continue unabated, despite significant funds being poured into security measures, equipment, and training of the nation’s military, casts enormous doubt on the politically correct narratives that the international community continues to embrace, ostrich-like.

Just days after Archbishop Ndukuba delivered his address in Princeton, Muslim extremists massacred over 200 Christians and wounded hundreds of others in a series of “Christmas attacks” that drove inhabitants from nearly 20 villages in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt.”

Rabbi Silvina Chemen of Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano (Buenos Aires) presents Mr. Staquf with a verse from the Book of Isaiah that reads, “‘You are my witnesses,’ saith the Lord.”

Rabbi Chemen, who in November 2023 delivered an address titled “Transcending Annihilationist Rhetoric: From the Book of Joshua to Rahmana” at an R20 event in Jakarta, traveled to the US two weeks later to participate in the Princeton UDHR Conference. Her intervention was titled “Hineni! (We are here!).”

Less than three weeks ago many of us gathered in Jakarta for the second R20 International Summit of Religious Authorities, to discuss “Religion’s Role in Addressing Middle East Violence and Threats to a Rules-based International Order.”

After reflecting upon the weaponization of identity — including ethnic and religious identity — in conflicts raging in the Middle East, Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa, we adopted the “R20 ISORA Analysis and Call to Action,” which our hosts have distributed to each of us and which I commend to your attention.

And we are here again, gathered with old friends and new, to further advance our shared agenda. To spread the light of hope and inspiration — which we experience among ourselves — to our religious communities, societies, and nations.

This is not just another meeting among countless meetings. It is essential to say “Hineni!” — We are here! In the midst of so much hate speech, polarization, death, horror, wars, and the widespread trampling of human dignity: We are here! Grasping onto an illusion? A utopian dream? No. This is not a question of delicate and rarified spiritual statements. At their best, religions are a concrete expression of the finest aspects of humanity. This noble aspect of religion has nothing to do with the brutal violation of human rights that so often occurs in the name of our respective traditions.

We are here to make our voices heard, amidst the bombs that seek to silence us. Because religions today can and should function in partnership with other civil society institutions and political organizations that strive to realize the vision of a more just and harmonious world order, founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being.  

In the intricate tapestry of human existence, we are bound together by the shared values and aspirations that define our humankind. As a rabbi deeply rooted in the Jewish faith tradition, I am humbled to address the profound importance of foundational Jewish principles that served from their origins as ethical and spiritual beacons, helping to lay a foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While the concept of human rights — as articulated in contemporary terms — may not be explicitly laid out in our ancient holy scriptures, the underlying principles within our respective faith traditions resonate with the fundamental values upheld by the UDHR.

From left to right: Dr. Stephen Hildebrand, VP for Academic Affairs & Professor of Theology, Franciscan University; Dr. Ephraim Isaac, Director, Institute of Semitic Studies (Princeton); Rabbi Yakov Nagen, Director, Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity (Jerusalem); and the Rev. Dr. Thomas K. Johnson, Special Envoy to the Vatican & Special Envoy to Engage Humanitarian Islam, World Evangelical Alliance

On 4 August 2023, Nahdlatul Ulama, the Center for Shared Civilizational Values, R20, and Indonesia’s most distinguished university, Universitas Gadjah Mada, launched the first in a series of volumes that will document the strategy, proceedings, and impact of the R20 and related CSCV initiatives. The 428-page volume is titled Proceedings of the R20 International Summit of Religious Leaders in Bali, Indonesia, and is available for download in PDF format.

Subsequent volumes in this series will include a book titled Report and Findings of the First ASEAN Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue Conference (IIDC) and an edited volume tentatively titled Proceedings of the R20 International Summit of International Religious Authorities (ISORA) in Jakarta, Indonesia and the R20 Princeton Conference on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The many substantive and cogent addresses delivered by distinguished religious authorities and scholars at the R20 Princeton Conference will appear in this latter volume.

Speakers and observers at the R20 Princeton UDHR Conference

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