The Malta Independent 24 October 2021, Sunday

‘We will not kill each other’

Evarist Bartolo Tuesday, 21 September 2021, 08:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

“We will not kill each other. We will rescue each other. We will forgive each other.”

The Interfaith G20 Forum meeting in Bologna a week ago ended with this short declaration rooted in the heritage of all the major religions and dismantling the arguments of those who mobilise religions to kill and harm others. The theme of the forum was: ‘Time to heal: Peace among cultures. Understanding between religions.’

Around 400 persons from 70 countries around the world with different religions and cultures, coming from the fields of religion, politics, business, social activism and academia met for three days in Bologna to discuss global challenges in a spirit of dialogue and collaboration and agree that “we together will support each and every community in a spirit of equity”.

This was not a “Kumbaya” event where naïve participants joined hands and sang to God to rid the planet of its problems. Science, politics, religion, business and social commitment were discussed pragmatically, which does not mean in an unprincipled way, but with the purpose of not only interpreting the world but also changing it, for the better.

In his concept note for the forum, Professor Alberto Melloni: “Refining an abstract category – even one like fraternity could be insufficient (Cain and Abel taught us the perils of fraternity). Instead, we conceive dialogue as a process where no one is exempt from the duty to ask forgiveness, or from hope that they may learn some truth in the exchange of forgiveness.”

Melloni refers to Cardinal Matteo Zuppi’s concluding remarks at the 2020 Interfaith Forum in Riyadh about “the pandemics of war, hatred, and enmity (the “time to kill” of Ecclesiastes 3.3) that have already devoured more lives that the pandemic itself, absorbed more resources than any vaccine, sowing despair and fear, and fed new hatred, new enmity, and new wars.”

The to do list that emerged from the Bologna forum includes:

-         A high level meeting of religious leaders of the Western Balkans to help heal the regions’ open wounds

-         The transition path to be followed as we move from fossil fuels to clean energy

-         The Sustainable Human Goals that should guide our political, social and economic action

-         A new Bretton Woods architecture fit for the 21st century

-         A Mediterranean Conference on Security and Cooperation

-         Research to throw more light on the thousands killed in the last 40 years at their place of prayer

-         A commitment to use research and action to tackle the global warming of religions so that we learn to live together on this planet.

We are facing a co-existential crisis as much as we are facing a climate emergency as we allow political, military, economic and religious conflicts tear as apart rather than bringing us together to address the global challenges that no single country can address adequately on its own. As Miguel Angel Moratinos of the United Nations Alliance for Civilization says: “We need to save the planet from global warming but then we need to ensure that there are human beings left to live in it.”

Free unfed and unfree fed?

Human rights are universal and not specific to a particular culture or political system. Promoting them globally cannot be dismissed as interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.

But as we promote human rights we must be very careful not to develop a Manichean foreign policy especially if we are self-righteous and overlook the fact that all of us in the world have serious human rights issues in our own societies and so should talk with humility when we talk about democracy in the rest of the world.

President Joe Biden showed some of this humility after the assault on the Capitol last January when he said: “that democracy is fragile. That it must always be defended. That we must be ever vigilant.” And he was not referring to countries with autocratic regimes. He was referring to his own country, the United States of America.

We also expose ourselves to accusations of double standards and hypocrisy when we weaponize human rights according to our geopolitical interests and buyers of our armaments. If a country with problems in human rights is within our sphere of influence, we have no problems selling it arms. But if another country sells arms to another country with human rights problems and that country is not our ally, then we invoke human rights to denounce such arms deals and try to stop them.

Conducting human rights crusades as if we form part of a Holy Alliance of Democracies against the Evil Legions of Autocratic Devils is also counterproductive. Does not a policy of a full-frontal attack on other countries using human rights have the unintended consequence of hardening positions and pushing countries to turn inwards and defend themselves and become more autocratic as they feel encircled? Can human rights flourish in a state of siege?

After all, what do we mean by human rights? When we talk of human rights we should widen our focus on human rights to include not just the political rights to elections, freedom of expression and assembly but also economic and social rights like the right to a life without poverty and access to health, education, employment and decent accommodation.

Political, social and economic rights are indivisible. They go together and reinforce each other. In every country in the world there is still a lot of work to do to ensure that every person on the planet enjoys full political, economic and social human rights. Some countries stress political rights. These are not enough. Others stress social and economic rights. These are not enough either. We should work to have as many people as possible on this planet live free from fear and want. Not free from fear or want. But free from both. And all of us on this planet have a lot to do to make people live in dignity.

Instead of finding it convenient to weaponise opportunistically the issue of human rights against others, without advancing the cause of human rights in a serious manner, we should concentrate on tackling the political, social and economic shortcomings in our own societies to enable more people to live free from fear and want. Leading by example is the best way forward.


Evarist Bartolo is Minister for Foreign and European Affairs


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