Synthesis of 10th Annual Spiritual Human Rights Conference - part 1

A Breakthrough for Human Rights

On December 10, Soteria International, Youth for Human Rights Denmark, and ENAR Denmark, hosted the 10th Annual Spiritual Human Rights Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. Human rights activists and spiritual practitioners gathered to discuss the success of the past decade and directions for the future in order to improve on the current situation. The conference was chaired by Konrad Swenninger from Soteria International, who introduced this 10th Annual Spiritual Human Rights Conference by stating the importance of the spiritual aspect of human rights, as mentioned in the preamble to the UN Declaration of Human rights, that spirituality is in fact the base of human rights. Mr. Swenninger gave a short introduction to the topics undertaken in the previous conferences, leading to the topic of this year’s SHR conference, and emphasized the importance of the partnerships and collaborative efforts of the individuals and organizations present.

Bashy Quraishy, speaking on behalf of the European Network Against Racism and a board member of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, quoted António Guterres, the Secretary General of the UN, stating that "human rights is the 3rd pillar of the UN alongside peace and development." Quraishy emphasized the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born of human rights abuses taking place within Europe, not outside. So we must continue to look at the state within our own region. He urged us to look at the current trend in society, as well as, the attitudes of political parties. Speaking from 35 years of experience working for anti-racism, anti-discrimination, religious discrimination, human rights, Quraishy stated his opinion that "Europe does not want non-Europeans to come…and demand human rights" and that the situation is worsening. Within the Danish Institute for Human Rights, where Quraishy is a board member, he has heard the opinion that the state should be able to interfere in family reunification, asylum rights, and refugee issues. He stated that "if the guardians of human rights are acting in a populist manner, what can we expect the Danish People's party and the Danish society as a whole?" He also referred to ODIHR & ENAR's own research that indicates that hate crime due to religion has increased in relation to other hate crimes in society and this creates an increased atmosphere of alienation. He stated that we're at a crossroads where making bad choices is not an option. He urged the participating parties to choose the right strategy for the future coupled with innovative tools and new alliances in order to improve on the current situation.

Marina Jakobsen, spoke on behalf of Santo Daime, a rapidly growing spiritual organization with roots in native shamanism that originated in the Brazilian rainforest. Ms. Jakobsen described the current Santo Daime as a marriage between native shamanism and Catholicism, calling it a "mystery school" due to the use of initiations and tools used to contact the spiritual world, putting practitioners in touch with the divine here and now as a part of daily life. Ms. Jakobsen presented the issue which practitioners are facing with respect to their sacrament, ayahuasca, or Daime as it is called within the Santo Daime practice. This is a preparation, also called the Vine of the Spirit, which is made from two original plants from the amazon. Ms. Jakobsen stated that this mixture is able to change the consciousness of the person so as to facilitate the connection with the divine, which is not possible with the everyday ego. The mixture contains DMT, a psychoactive compound which is legal in its natural form as found in many plants and animals--including human beings--yet which is illegal in its synthetic form. Earlier this year, Santo Daime sought legal advice in order to determine whether the practitioners could legally conduct ceremonies with Daime. The lawyer advised the group to be careful as the outcome would be uncertain if they were to be discovered. Following this advice, the Danish Santo Daime applied, through a lawyer, to import the ingredients for their sacrament with the Ministry of Health, however, the Ministry of Health refused to grant permission, stating that it could lead to dependency among those using it. This decision also impacted the group's ability to be recognized as an official religion, with the reason that Santo Daime was using an illegal sacrament and that the Church Ministry couldn't overrule a decision made by another authority within the country. Santo Daime subsequently chose to sue the Ministry of Health and the Church Ministry for preventing the group from freely practicing their freedom of religion. Santo Daime lost the case in March 2017, yet the court recognized that there was indeed a considerable violation of the freedom of religion. Santo Daime has now appealed the decision at the Supreme Court and will appear in court again in May 2018. Ms. Jakobsen concluded by stating that democracy should protect groups such as Santo Daime who are experiencing violations of their rights for reasons which are in fact not causing any damage to society.

Gregory Christensen, represented Youth for Human Rights Denmark, a non-profit organization that works with human rights education, bringing, primarily, information into schools in order to educate the general population through the youth. Mr. Christensen based his contribution on the results of two studies conducted on youth, grades 6-10, in Denmark in 2014 and 2017 in order to show a comparison of human rights knowledge among this age group. He stated that within this study, the percentage of youth who stated that they know a bit or a lot about their human rights changed from 22% in 2014 to 31% in 2017, a 9% increase in the three year span. Although this is a positive indication for the increased dissemination of human rights knowledge, specific categories did not produce such positive results. For example, for the question: 'is torture acceptable if there is a chance it could prevent terror?' 34% in the age category answered 'yes' in 2014, versus 42% in the same age category in 2017. Mr. Christensen deduced that there are different factors influencing this statistic as "there is no doubt that there is a total ban on torture worldwide," among, not in the least, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also the United Nations Convention against Torture, yet still almost half of Danish school children would accept torture if it was justified.  He, therefore, suggested that progress has indeed been made in education, however not necessarily in the quality of education, also indicating that teachers indicate that they do not feel well enough equipped to teach human rights. Youth for Human Rights would like to work towards remedying this gap in human rights education and named a few current obstacles, such as lack of cooperation and the political and social environment. With respect to the lack of cooperation, he suggested that although there are multiple human rights organizations working towards the goal of human rights education and despite there being a Danish law stipulating that Danish students must learn about human rights, there is no working group put together in order to accomplish this agenda. With respect to the political and social environment, Mr. Christensen provided the example of a Danish documentary aired on TV2, which led to the passing of five laws targeting "religious practitioners who seek to undermine Danish laws and values." He outlined an issue, also recognized by the Danish Institute for Human Rights, that if such a ban exists for religious groups, should  there not also be a ban on social groups or for the public at large? That if individuals cannot speak privately about changing Danish law, how open and free can Denmark actually be considered? Mr. Christensen, therefore, emphasized the fact that currently, "the way human rights issues are portrayed are relatively uninformed and lacking factual information," and it is extremely important that this debate is factual and taking the actual case into hand.

Camelia Marin spoke on behalf of Soteria International in her capacity as Vice President. Ms. Marin reminded us of the discrepancy between the obligation of EU member states to respect and protect the freedom of conscience, thought and religion and to combat discrimination versus the current state of affairs in which discrimination and non-tolerance continue to challenge our societies. She suggested two perspectives on the freedom of conscience, thought, and belief: the internal perspective where individuals have the freedom to believe what they choose; and the external perspective, which is the externalization of the internal perspective--putting these beliefs into practice together with others. Ms. Marin stated that we are currently witnessing “a restriction on the freedom to choose a spiritual path, due to the fact that society understands the actions of individuals in a local paradigm of behaviour that is appropriate to the rules of social life in a respective region.” So, although the field of human behaviour has been a result of globalization, local paradigms are not adapting at the same rate in order to embrace the existence of non-traditional practice, even if these practices are legitimate, peaceful, and non-abusive. Ms. Marin spoke of the necessity of “social order and rules of social coexistence” to adjust to changes at the social level in order to maintain the fundamental freedoms which should be upheld in a democratic society based on the rule of law.

Nobu Igarashi spoke on behalf of the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), an international NGO with special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Mr. Igarashi described UPF as an organization which conducts activities related to, among others, interfaith understanding, service, and human rights. In Denmark, his organization focuses mainly on interfaith activities, where they meet with different religious leaders, and create opportunities for different religious leaders to meet with one another in order to facilitate a deeper understanding of one another. In this regard, he stated that, in fact, 70% or more of the scriptures in various world religions are the same, yet, the different groups do not realize this. It is not a problem with religious scripture, but how the scriptures may be taught.  Mr. Igarashi described how failing to engage in dialogue across different faiths has proven to produce a state of ignorance and misunderstanding of one another and the belief that the 'other' is wrong or 'bad'. UPR's goal is to mobilize religious leaders to collaborate in the creation of peace activities, not just for their own congregations, but for the benefit of everyone. His organization believes that religious leaders can play an important role for the teaching of human rights, because many aspects that are crucial to human rights, such as tolerance, patience, and respect, are also fundamental components of religious teachings. This means that religious leaders can and should encourage followers to cultivate these qualities in themselves, helping each of us, as human beings, to put human rights into practice.

Anette Refstrup, the Head of Communication for the Church of Scientology in Denmark began by addressing the fact that although the UN is beginning a year long celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, in many countries who have signed the declaration we see a rising hostility towards human rights and those who defend them. She provided the example of Denmark, which currently has the EU chairmanship, and who is making a point to challenge and diminish the influence of the EU Human Rights Court. Interestingly enough, siting a study, Ms. Refstrup stated that Denmark is one of the countries in the world which partly comprises the 3% of the worldwide population which is considered free and open, while 97% are living within a limitation of civil rights. Ms. Refstrup stated that there is a culture emerging which is rendering hatred, intolerance, and the  violation of human rights more and more acceptable. She argued that this culture is harmful to absolutely everyone and as a 'free and open' country Denmark must rise up to the responsibility and continue to set an example. So, although freedom of expression and religion are present in Denmark, they aren't necessarily universal. Ms. Refstrup stated that the individuals who are pushing such tightening of civil rights have a short sighted view--not realizing that if they diminish the rights of others, of course they also diminish their own rights in the long run because actions of the few perpetrators will have consequences for us all. Ms. Refstrup referred to an analogy made by Tim Jensen, a Human Rights expert who stated that we cannot refer to religions as 'living thinking organisms' in themselves. Religions in themselves are not able to do anything as they are only as alive, ethical, and supportive of constructive ideas as the people within  the practicing group. This makes it a duty and responsibility for each one of us as religious and spiritual practitioners to ensure that we maintain our code of ethics and ensure that we remain in alignment with creating a better world. We have a responsibility to put compliance with these rights into practice, because if we aren't willing to face the fact that it's also our duty to help others comply, then it will all come back to us in the long run. In conclusion, Ms. Refstrup stated that the UN declaration was signed in order to improve the world, yet as we know, this is no guarantee that current leaders will enforce this document and respect for these rights are diminishing in certain areas. As world citizens, we cannot abandon these rights just  because they're under pressure. We must band together and support the institutions that are working to ensure our rights. "Now is the time to spread as much knowledge as we can about the importance of these rights and act like concerned citizens by upholding these rights."

Advaitananada Stoian spoke on behalf of Natha Yoga School in Denmark and as the leader of the Atman Federation of Yoga worldwide. Mr. Stoian has partaken in Soteria's work and conferences since the birth of the organization and attested to the growth and progress he has seen in the past 10 years. Mr. Stoian stated that he was optimistic and involved from the beginning. He mentioned that small groups can easily become dissidents, considering the changing sphere of intolerance and the degradation of the spirit of morality. Showing the courage to take a stand in this arena which possesses a certain degree of duality of personality and hypocrisy that is making work in this field very difficult. For example, something may be said on international platforms, while something else is signed behind closed doors, rendering the whole field unstable from a certain perspective. In terms of his involvement with Soteria, he stated that the relaunching of the concept of ‘spiritual human rights’ has seen more positive response. Soteria wanted to create a foundation of what human rights actually means--looking into what human rights are in connection with human responsibility and the frame of affirming rights which is where numerous misunderstandings and conflicts arise. Mr. Stoian discussed a project including comments improving on old paradigms in the UN Declaration of Human Rights that Soteria would like to publish next year during the 70th Anniversary celebration of the documents. He stated that human rights were signed based on a reaction, that human rights are beginning to be seen more in the public conscience, yet more so as a reaction. That on one hand the public accepts human rights, but on the other, for example, also accepts torture, among other violations, more than before. We need to see a shift from human rights in a reactive paradigm to a proactive paradigm--to focus on  education and putting forward values, rather than reactions to situations and conflicts. Mr Stoian stated that he has seen this happen  timidly in the beginning, and more consistently in the past few years where Soteria has consistently come forward with principles and values that can bring value to our lives in general. An example is the idea of connecting responsibility with rights.

The conference continued with a discussion on the points mentioned, which are presented in the part 2 of the article.