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Justice and Peace: Advocacy for Human Dignity


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 3/2012, P. 115-117
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In the public debate, especially in specialist circles of philosophers and jurists, the number of those who are sceptical about the concept of human dignity is apparently growing. In late January, a working group of the German Commission for Justice and Peace took this as an opportunity to convoke a symposium on human dignity in politics.


Especially in social or bio-political conflicts, it can often be observed that people try to lend weight to their arguments and demands by invoking "human dignity" - sometimes almost excessively. At the same time, it is quite possible that contradictory positions are justified by referring to human dignity. This can be seen for example in the discussion about the pros and cons of euthanasia or in the various conflicts regarding the dealing with pre-natal life. But it is not only the occasionally almost excessive use or the obvious contentual openness of this term that induced the working group "Human Rights" of the German Commission for Justice and Peace to address particularly the issue of human dignity.

Something else worries the by Heiner Bielefeldt, Chair of Human Rights and Human Rights Policy at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, led working group of ecclesial experts in issues of human rights, development and peace. In its not yet completed position paper "Grund der Menschenrechte. Überlegungen zum Stellenwert der Menschenwürde" [Reason for Human Rights. Considerations on the Significance of Human Dignity] it says that the principle 'human dignity' is undoubtedly of paramount importance, both for the interpretation of the Basic Law and for the understanding of human rights. After all, already the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations begins with the "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family" and the first sentence of its first article states, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

Despite or perhaps because of this overriding importance the working group of Justice and Peace thinks that a most disturbing trend can be recognized: There are increasingly discomfort and skeptical questions where human dignity is mentioned, sometimes even tangible contradiction - due to the combination of "contentual openness and high normative status" (see Heiner Bielefeldt, Auslaufmodell Menschenwürde? Warum sie in Frage steht und warum wir sie verteidigen müssen, Freiburg, 2011 [obsolescent model human dignity? why it is called into question and why we must defend it]).

Philosophers are worried about the possibility that with reference to human dignity public moral debates might arbitrarily be broken off. Some lawyers in turn seem to be worried about the fact that it is obviously very difficult to define the contents of this term, precisely because it is also emotionally highly charged. Others are afraid that in the name of human dignity a new variant of the "virtuous state" will be propagated, or they take exception to the seemingly irresolvable conflict between the secular constitutional principle of religious and ideological neutrality on the one hand and the governmental commitment to the dignity of man on the other hand, which can scarcely hide its ultimately (civil) religious character.

The working group sees very different proposals for action result from this skepticism and from such concerns. They lead usually to downgrading the importance of the concept of human dignity. Thus, there are definitely proposals to abstain as much as possible from using 'human dignity' as argument in serious ethical debates. The expert group around Bielefeldt, who for many years was head of the German Institute for Human Rights in Berlin and since the summer of 2010 holds the honorary post of the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom, is also worried about the increasingly restrictive interpretation of respect for human dignity in the commentaries on Basic Law. There the human dignity is less and less understood as a positive principle of the legal system as a whole but is treated as a legal norm at the same level as other legal norms.


Taking Objections Seriously

The working group of the by the German Bishops' Conference and the Central Committee of German Catholics jointly maintained federation of ecclesial agencies, associations and organizations is convinced that the church must not remain unmoved by all this, because she has always seen herself as "advocate of every human being's dignity, which has to be respected unconditionally." However, the position paper also explicitly asks to bear in mind that public ecclesial opinions on this issue are only then useful if they take all the skeptical objections seriously and are responsive to the underlying motives.



To this end, tellingly on 27 January, the Day of Remembrance for Victims of National Socialism, the working group held recently in Berlin a conference, and invited "from outside" political scientists, theologians and philosophers, politicians, professionals from government ministries and political parties and representatives of various interest groups.

For this conference, the Cologne philosopher of religion Saskia Wendel took on the task to remind once again of those two issues: First, there are many and diverse objections to human dignity. They reach from discrediting it as makeshift term or meta-juridical pathos formula up to the latent suspicion of fundamentalism. Secondly, Wendel also reminded that in a religiously and ideologically pluralistic society the church can only be a credible advocate for human dignity if she recognizes the variety of possible religious, philosophical and ideological interpretations of that concept, and if she simultaneously endeavours to express her argumentation and its "connectivity" in a way which everyone can understand in the public debate.

Thus, Bielefeldt discussed in Berlin with a specialist in this matter, the Protestant theologian Wolfgang Vögele and the Frankfurt political scientist Stefan Gosepath the question of how communicable at all is the concept of human dignity in a religiously and ideologically pluralistic society, and in concrete terms, of how workable is the by the working group chosen starting point for substantiating human dignity, as regards the respect for man as the subject of responsibility. How is it possible to keep the contentual scope of the term human dignity broad, without to become arbitrary. What are basically the prospects of its religious and theological substantiation, and how must be defined the relation between human dignity and human rights?

For it was of no central importance during the emergence and development process of the human rights idea - in the Anglo-Saxon discourse upon human rights up to the present day. Voegele, in turn, urged the Christians to make self-confidently their own contribution to the discussion about the statement of reasons for human dignity. They should not overly defensively put it up for discussion as a "particular position".

This debate over substantiation and viability of the concept of human dignity was put in concrete terms and quasi "grounded" by relating it to the end of 2006 by the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted "Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities". Its core objective is to ensure that people with disabilities are able to participate fully and self-determinedly in all spheres of social life. In the meantime, 153 countries have ratified the UN Convention; in Germany the agreement is in force since March 2009.

For the working group "Human Rights", the discussion about this convention has quasi exemplary character: Due to the fact that they are firmly and comprehensively based on human dignity, the stimuli which might come from the Disability Rights Convention to human rights debates point far beyond the in the Convention addressed group to different forms of discrimination. This convention could insofar give new impetus also to the debate on human dignity, emphasized the deputy chairman of the German Commission Justitia et Pax, Barbara Krause. Bielefeldt, too, underlined its importance for the development of international human rights protection: In the Disability Rights Convention human dignity is not only far more often mentioned than in other international human rights instruments. It is also mentioned as subject-matter of a necessary consciousness raising.



The lawyer and former Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin and the Berlin philosopher Volker Gerhardt, Member of the German Ethics Council explicated the consequences both for social policy and the self-image and "self-esteem" of our society as a whole - due to the paradigm shift in terms of human dignity in this UN Convention. For with the Convention a fundamental change in perspective has taken place: What matters are no longer "only" the recognition of and the respect for certain rights to equality and freedom of the disabled, but their participation at eye level in all areas of social life.

Politically, they should no longer be regarded as petitioners. What is asked now is what they themselves want. Däubler-Gmelin and Gerhardt here left no doubt that Germany is still in its infancy as regards the legal and political implementation of this Convention, and how demanding it is both for the whole society and for each individual.

Connectivity to the public and political debate in a religiously and ideologically pluralistic society was after all demonstrated by the Justice and Peace Working Group in a discussion that was supported by a broad consensus about this matter and concern: with the disability policy spokesman of the Left faction in the Bundestag, Ilja Seifert, and the CDU Bundestag member Stefanie Vogelsang, a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Health and of the Bundestag's Enquete Commission on "growth, prosperity, quality of life."

In summer, the working group "Human Rights" will face up to quite different inquiries and objections in discussing human dignity in a dialogue with the African partners of the ecclesial organisations that cooperate in the Commission for Justice and Peace. What is their view on the concept of human dignity, and which role play the African traditions in this matter? And what is their view on the universal validity claim of human rights and on the principle of human dignity?


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'