In the last two weeks I have spoken twice on the Assisted Dying Bill (2nd Reading) and on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first attracted 123 speakers and the second, shorter one, 23. The allowed speaking time was 4 minutes for the first, and 5 for the second. Both debates were well-informed and thoughtful.
Assisted dying was seen, on the one hand, as being a euphemism for euthanasia for some of the terminally ill, and on the other as an exercise in compassion and personal choice. Opinion was very evenly divided, with arguments for the common good of all on one side, and for the benefit to the individual on the other. Opponents of the Bill suspected that it may be a forerunner for more radical measures.
I could not see why the terminally ill of sound mind should be allowed an early death, while those without full capacity should not, even if their suffering was the same. The two sides respected each other and the arguments seemed genuine and sincere. The Bill was read a second time and will have a Committee stage. This will no doubt be long, complex and contentious.
The debate on the Universal Declaration was concerned with Article 18. This deals with freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to change religion, and to manifest one’s beliefs in teaching, worship, and observance. The article has been called the “orphan article” because no-one has a duty to uphold it and it is widely violated, even in countries that have ratified the Declaration.
Lord Desai, from a secular point of view, described how the Cold War period saw persecution and abuse of human rights in many places. This was followed by a short golden era when interventions, eg in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and to some extent Libya, tried to uphold the rule of law. Now no-one is willing to intervene in Syria. The former international system is to some extent dead. The multi-polar system is anarchic. The war on terror, combined with the rise of militant Islam, have ended the good times.
The other speakers were more hopeful, and cited examples of freedom of conscience being honoured, or conflict-resolution being tried. In my view, national dialogues can help to give ordinary citizens an influence on the future of their countries. This has happened in Tunisia. It was tried in Egypt, and may yet continue. Bosnia had public demonstrations last spring and is now planning a national dialogue. This could examine the need for a new and more appropriate constitution. It is encouraging that the Gulen Movement, which originated in Turkey, sees dialogue as a religious duty for sincere Muslims.
There seems to be a consensus between public opinion and many governments that there are things worth a serious campaign. I think of stopping the trafficking of people and especially of children, ending modern slavery, and preventing all forms of violence against women. These themes may be somewhat different from upholding freedom of conscience and religion, but all four appeal to ideals that are widely shared.