International Human Rights Activist Aaron Rhodes in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times
By Hatef Mokhtar
HAMBURG, 11.02.2015 (Oslo Times) – International Human Rights Activist, essayist and university lecturer based in Hamburg, Germany, Aaron Rhodes, in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times International News Network’s Editor-in-Chief, Hatef Mokhtar, spoke about pertaining human rights issues in Europe including the growing religious and political extremism in various countries across Europe. Rhodes, who is also a co-founder of the Freedom Rights Project, a human rights research initiative and think-tank, which documents and analyzes trends including the inflation, dilution and politicization of human rights in international law, also gave his views on what he thinks is the biggest threat to humanity today.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to be involved with human rights?
Human rights were important to me because of my studies in political philosophy, which brought a respect for the principles of liberalism, and also because of values instilled by my family. In the 1980s, as a university administrator, I got involved with efforts to assist scholars working in communist countries; eventually I was engaged to manage a project to assist universities in post-communist countries. From there I went fully into human rights as director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.
What does human rights mean to you?
Human rights are international laws and standards to protect individual freedoms, which have universal applicability. Human rights set limits on the degree to which laws and governmental practices may intrude upon our choices about things that are fundamental to our common human nature and the fulfillment of our potential.
Can you tell me about the Freedom Rights Project where you are the co-founder?
The concept of human rights has been stretched so far it is breaking; when everything anyone wants or thinks is good is considered a human right, then human rights means nothing. This benefits dictators who exploit a too broad, collective idea of human rights that is not centered on protecting basic freedoms. The Freedom Rights Project is a research initiative and think tank established by several lawyers, professors and activists to document the betrayal of the concept of human rights and its manifestations in international law, and to urge reforms that will bring human rights back to a focus on basic civil and political rights.
What are the accomplishments of the Freedom Rights Project?
That is probably not for me to say, but I hope we have begun to challenge the human rights community to be more careful with the precious concept of human rights, and to avoid using human rights to promote political agendas; we have challenged international courts and UN institutions to avoid expansive interpretations that create absurd new human rights, thus cheapening the idea; and we have tried to expose how dictatorships exploit a weakened concept of human rights. We have provided a platform for much needed dialogue about the meaning of human rights.
You are also the president in FOREF, can you tell me about FOREF’s engagement in human rights?
The Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe promotes the freedom of religion and defends individuals and groups whose rights are being violated. FOREF monitors religious freedom issues in many countries; provides reports and analysis for international bodies like the UN, Council of Europe and OSCE; and intervenes on behalf of victims when possible. FOREF’s work is informed by an inter-religious council and a Scientific Committee we are building up to become a platform for exchanging information and developing strategies.
What has FOREF accomplished so far?
Peter Zoehrer, the Secretary General of FOREF, called it a ‘low budget, high impact” organization. FOREF’s work has improved the way media in a number of European countries deal with minority religions—making the public more sensitive to discriminatory characterizations. FOREF has also exposed how various governments have been inappropriately influenced by bigoted “anti-sect” organizations. Some of our recent efforts: helping to defeat a Council of Europe resolution that stigmatized minority religions; criticizing the French “burqa ban,” which was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights; advocating for repeal of Hungarian legislation that has resulted in the de-registration of many religious groups; defending a Christian group persecuted in Germany; providing the UN Human Rights Committee with information. FOREF has over 1000 members in our Facebook community from all over the world.
We often criticize human rights violation in other parts of the world. But how is the situation in Europe?
I am worried about how European countries violate the freedom of expression. People are being jailed and fined for social media posts and what they say in conversations in a misguided effort to promote “tolerance” and protect people from being insulted. “Political Correctness” is being institutionalized in a manner not so different from a totalitarian society. Hate speech legislation—which exists in international law because communist states put it there, over-ruling democracies—is against human rights. And it does not work, obviously. But today you find human rights activists and high-level officials promoting restrictions on freedom of speech.
Is the EU a protector of human rights?
The EU has pledged to guarantee the human rights of EU citizens, and does much to promote human rights abroad. But the EU also embraces the expansive, watered down concept of human rights I mentioned earlier. The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency seems more concerned to restrict free speech by promoting hate speech legislation than defend it. It is also apparent that the EU often puts human rights on a back burner when dealing with repressive countries that have resources. All the same, we need to remember that the EU is a multinational formation reflecting many different interests and positions. Civil society has a lot of opportunities to influence the EU to focus on human rights.
Is there any reason to worry about the human right situation in Europe today?
Of course, we need to worry about human rights everywhere, including in Europe. While European governments and courts waffle on protecting basic freedoms, some citizens, promoting ideological multiculturalism, do not seem to respect the core principles that have generally been understood as European political values. With many more refugees and asylum seekers coming, and citizens feeling economic and other tensions, it seems likely that Europe’s commitment to human rights will be tested in the coming years.
How can we mitigate Islamic extremism in Europe?
The authorities have a terrible dilemma—how to protect us both from terrorism, and from violations of our civil liberties. Confronting totalitarianism, whether in the form of communism, Nazism, or Islamist extremism, carries with it the danger of losing the very freedoms and humanistic values being threatened. Aside from law enforcement and security measures that protect human rights to the highest degree possible, we need to wage a philosophical war against Islamic and all forms of extremism. That is a task not just for governments, but for civil society. We need to show why we reject any coercive, intolerant, intellectually suffocating and destructive ideology. We cannot tolerate islands of extremism in our own societies, where people cannot enjoy their human rights.
A lot of European youth are being lured and misdirected into joining extremist groups like ISIL, what steps do you think the local government should do to prevent youngsters from joining these groups?
Governments and civil society can reduce risk factors that make youth vulnerable to such appeals, but the fact is that many who have joined ISIL have not suffered from poverty and discrimination. People are not mindless victims of circumstance; they make moral choices. The truth about the ISIL needs to be spread. I do not have a lot of sympathy for anyone who, having been exposed to this information, still chooses to join a group that murders, rapes and tortures other people because of religious differences. Frankly I think the best way to prevent recruitment to ISIL is to defeat ISIL. The abuse of populations in Syria and Iraq, and in Nigeria and elsewhere by equally barbaric groups, is intolerable.
What are your views on right wing extremism?
There is today a resurgence of nationalism, racism, ethnic chauvinism and anti-Semitism. The right wing parties to an extent give these reactionary impulses a political home, but I don’t think these views are embraced by all who support conservative right wing parties. Most of these parties are supportive of the Putin regime in Russia. What scares me is that each time there is a terror attack by Islamists, these parties get stronger, and they feed on economic malaise and other problems, so there is a highly negative dynamic.
It’s a well known fact that many youngster’s seem to be developing extremists tendencies because they don’t feel like they belong to the society they live in, what kind of efforts do you think are necessary in making children feel a sense of belonging towards the community they live in?
I think it is necessary to promote a “civic nationalism,” that is, one based not on ethnic origins but rather on citizenship, equality, and pluralism, yet emphasizing a common embrace of human rights and the Rule of Law, and a common national language. I have the feeling that the “nation state” model is not too successful in assimilating members of minorities.
Some nations choose not to respect the fundamental values of human rights. how do you think we can deal with such nations?
What is important is to show solidarity with and try to assist the people in such countries. In terms of international relations, democracies have to make it clear that they cannot have normal relations with any state that abuses its citizens. But each situation is different. There is no single strategy or approach that works in all cases.
What would you say, is the biggest threat to humanity today?
Economies of major industrial societies are not operating on a sound basis; currencies are unstable. The developed countries are vulnerable because people are too dependent on fragile economic, energy, and transport systems. The highly inter-dependent world carries risks. Politically, dictators are ascendant while the rights of the individual are increasingly violated.
What gives you hope in today’s world?
Innovations are curing diseases, standards of living are rising in some poor regions, and information is more freely available, which empowers more people to contribute to global progress as well as caring for themselves. There have been major steps toward the emancipation of women and ending racial discrimination.
Is there a message that you would like to give to our readers?
Just consider that acts of love, kindness and generosity have an infinite, positive “ripple effect” in the world, and always respect the sanctity of life.