Fundamentalisms and Human Rights page – 1

Fundamentalisms and Human Rights

Montreal, 12-14 May 2005


Report of the Meeting (Summary Version)

© International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, 2005.

This report may be freely excerpted, provided credit is given to Rights & Democracy.

Ce rapport est aussi disponible en français.

Coordination of the Project and Research: Ariane Brunet, Coordinator, Women’s Rights, Rights & Democracy
Author of the report and background paper, and Rapporteur of the meeting: Jan Bauer
Revision: De Cruz & Schulman and Janis Warne
Production: Anyle Coté, Officer, Special Events and Publications, Rights & Democracy

In November 2002, the organization Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) convened a meeting on the theme of “Warning Signs of Fundamentalisms.” It became evident at that meeting that it was both important and urgent for human rights organizations to take stock of this phenomenon. In response to the work that clearly needs to be done on this issue, Rights & Democracy hosted a three-day meeting, in May 2005. The goal of the meeting was to help key actors from several organizations that promote and defend human rights to identify guidelines on the subject (see Appendix II for the list of participants).

It was acknowledged that all participants, whether they are involved in human rights groups, women’s rights groups, social justice organizations, are working in the field of human rights and, as such, represent a human rights organization. The use of the term “human rights organizations” in the agenda and during discussions refers specifically to international human rights organizations (IHROs) that have been and continue to be active in constructing the normative framework through which the many dimensions of human rights have been defined (covenants, conventions, declarations, guidelines, principles, etc.).

Prior to the meeting, participants were asked to consider the following questions:

    • How should organizations working in the fields of human rights and specifically, women’s rights, take into account the roles and actions of non-state actors and ensure that when they violate or abuse rights they are sanctioned?

    • Is it possible to go beyond scholarly debate about the phenomenon and to formulate ways to actively defend and promote human rights, and, in particular, women’s rights?

    • What approach can be taken to deal with the problem of the abusive use of human rights concepts by fundamentalist movements to justify unjust actions in the name of “authenticity,” morality or culture?

    • What approaches need to be developed to demonstrate that “political power” is not always “state power?”

    • What approaches can be taken to counter the efforts of fundamentalist movements to control political power from a distance, and to influence and even direct the functioning of the state without becoming the state?

    • Has the human rights community, both regionally and internationally, dealt with the problems posed by fundamentalists in a way that supports the efforts of women’s and human rights organizations locally and nationally? If not, what must be done to ensure that the problems raised by the dichotomy of the public/private sphere receive adequate, regular and systematic treatment, in cooperation with those who are most directly affected by these problems?

    The concrete objective of the meeting was to arrive at a common approach by identifying how each participating organization or individual, within the scope of their respective mandates, can

    • take stock of the phenomenon of the rise of fundamentalisms;

    • articulate the defence and promotion of women’s rights and continue to battle the reversals advocated by fundamentalists;

    • begin to develop common guidelines;

    • initiate cooperation on relevant issues.

The agenda for the meeting reflected Rights & Democracy’s awareness that the issue of fundamentalisms and human rights presents challenges and that there is a diversity of strongly held views and opinions. It was also acknowledged that the subject encompasses a wider range of issues and concerns than could be addressed in one meeting. This did not imply that some issues are of greater importance than others but, rather, reflected a practical need to limit discussions to several areas. The hope is that the outcome of the meeting will serve as a framework for future discussions of, and continuing work on, additional concerns and issues.

It must be acknowledged, at the outset, that there was no agreement at the meeting on a definition of “fundamentalism.” Members of WLUML and others living in countries where the effects of fundamentalism are experienced strongly and daily, have developed their own definition, which was included in the background paper for the meeting (see Appendix I). This definition states that

Fundamentalisms are political movements of the extreme right, which, in a context of globalisation, i.e. forceful international economic exploitation and free-for-all capitalism, manipulate religion, culture or ethnicity, in order to achieve their political aims.1

Given the different political and cultural settings in which fundamentalisms arise, the term “extreme right” in the Helie-Lucas definition was taken to mean any platform or agenda that is exclusionary both on its face and in substance and that seeks to narrow the space in which “the other” may live and function.

This definition was not accepted by some participants; specifically, representatives of several of the IHROs. Their reluctance to embrace this definition appeared to reflect, at least in part, an unwillingness or institutional inability to accept that fundamentalisms are very often, if not always, political projects.

In order to keep the meeting from degenerating into a squabble over definitions, participants eventually agreed to use the term “non-state actors” rather than “fundamentalisms.” It was clear, however, that for the women at the meeting who “live this life”—the daily struggle to survive the narrow, sometimes violent and exclusionary positions promoted by fundamentalists—the term “non-state actors” unequivocally includes fundamentalisms that have at their source political aims. As one participant pointed out, in the context of religion (e.g., Christian evangelicals, conservative Catholics, Pentecostals), leaders impose on followers an obligation “to do politics.” In such cases, it is not enough for adherents to be faithful, to follow the church canon, to proselytize and seek conversions. Depending on the context, they may also have a duty, for example, to oppose abortion; to seek to limit the reproductive rights and choices of women through social policy and law; to campaign for the nomination, to national and high courts, of judges whose interpretations of laws most closely reflect their social biases and religious beliefs; to contribute to the election campaigns of members of their own faith or one that is very similar to theirs; to oppose same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general.

Thus, while the term “non-state actors” was agreed upon for the sake of facilitating the discussions, not all participants accepted the position of the IHROs that human rights and the violations (or abuse) of them by fundamentalists stand removed from politics. This leads to the question of whether IHROs are willing and able to consider the possibility that actions arising from fundamentalisms, whatever their stripe, often have a political source and aims, which obliges IHROs to re-think their assumptions and adapt their methods of work to this reality.