x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

As the cradle of human rights, the Middle East should lead

At a time when Europe was still primitive, the ancient civilisations of Arabia were composing laws that confronted perceived injustices. Evidence strongly points to an ancient and well-established tradition of addressing human rights.

Here is a question for lawyers: who issued the first human rights charter? Typical answers range from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights to the US Constitution. Some go so far back as to include the Magna Carta.

All of the examples cited are western, and reveal a bias in their understanding of the history of human rights. This in turn leads to a rather patronising attitude in that the concept of human rights is seen as needing to be introduced to the Middle East by the West.

Recently, I stood in the pulpit of St Andrew's Church and read out the words of Isaiah, who declared to a religious nation that God would no longer listen to their prayers as they were neglecting issues of social justice. Instead it was demanded that they "do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow". What struck me forcibly about this encounter between Isaiah and the people is that God long ago revealed through the scriptures a demand to respect the dignity of all human beings and that it was firmly rooted in a Middle Eastern context.

At a time when Europe was still primitive, the ancient civilisations of Arabia were composing laws that confronted perceived injustices. Evidence strongly points to an ancient and well-established tradition of addressing human rights.

For example, in the year 539 BC, Persian troops entered the city of Babylon in modern day Iraq. The Persian ruler Cyrus the Great entered the city and assumed the title of King of Babylon. He issued a declaration that was preserved in cuneiform on a clay cylinder and it was placed under the walls of Babylon as a foundation deposit. The Cyrus Cylinder spoke of, among other things, the commitment to "abolish forced labour". This historical artefact is interpreted as expressing respect for humanity and establishing religious tolerance and freedom. The result of such policies led to a groundswell of support for Cyrus.

To be fair to academia, I must say that scholars are divided about whether the cylinder can be properly described as a human rights charter. The rulers of Mesopotamia have a similar tradition of issuing such declarations when beginning their reigns and this can be traced back to the third millennium BC. The Hammurabi Codex (1,760 BC), which came out of what is now modern Iraq, reveals a striking similarity to the Ten Commandments. An even older set of laws is the Codex of Ur-Nammu (2,050 BC), which is also from the Arabian region.

It is worth reminding those in the West that many of our laws and concepts of human rights are directly influenced by a heritage that emerged in the Middle East. The laws of the Old Testament are striking in that they esteem the rights of the individual. Jesus Christ himself is widely recognised as esteeming the individual.

Let us also not forget the vital and transforming Middle Eastern heritage of Islamic law, which brought order out of the chaos that typified pre-Islamic Arabia and went on to underpin some of the greatest empires of human history. The Hadiths record many examples of the Prophet Mohammed and his compassion for individuals. A well known Quranic principle is summed up in the quote "enjoin good, forbid evil".

There is a tendency today for Middle Easterners to dismiss the human rights movement as alien moral posturing by westerners. Accusations of injustice by western governments are perceived as an arrogant, hypocritical and undesired interference in the internal affairs of the Middle East.

Yet the fact remains that here in the UAE, non-governmental organisations allege a list of human rights abuses. These range from laws that favour the employer and don't provide labourers sufficient protection from abuse.

There is a sense that authorities are being nudged to adopt reformed policies against their will. This foot-dragging would be understandable if it were a reaction to perceived meddling by external forces. In truth, the necessary laws exist, but need to be enforced more strongly.

In the meantime, I will continue to remind the expatriates who meet at St Andrew's church that "charity begins at home". We make a big difference if we treat our workers with respect and dignity, and that we should ensure that the international companies we work for treat their workers humanely. Before we point our fingers at human rights abuses overseas we need to examine life closer to home.

The very concept of human rights emerged thousands of years ago in the Middle East; it is one of the many gifts which the region bequeathed to the West. It is time for the region to stand on its moral heritage and lead the world again.


Andy Thompson is the senior Anglican chaplain at St Andrew's Church in Abu Dhabi