The Baha’i Faith and Human Rights

Four clenched fists raised against blue skyOn December 10, the world commemorated Human Rights Day to honor the 66th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. This is an appropriate time, then, to reflect on the concept of human rights from a Baha’i perspective.

When I was a young Baha’i, the teaching of the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, that most touched my heart was the unity of humankind and of people of all religions and races. Baha’u’llah said: “Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony.”1 And He declared: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”2

In keeping with this teaching of human oneness, Baha’u’llah said we should “consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.”3 This counsel meant a lot to me. I loved to visit churches with my Christian friends, knowing that as a Baha’i I also believed in Jesus; I went to synagogue with my Jewish friends, also believing as a Bahá’í in Moses and the Hebrew Prophets; and my Baha’i school class once visited a mosque. Again, as a Baha’i, I accepted Muhammad as a Prophet of God and therefore felt a kinship with all Muslims. From these experiences I became aware of the need to build bonds of friendship between people of all faiths. I also developed a keen awareness of the importance of religious freedom, which has become a focal point for my research today as a professor of law. Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’u’llah’s eldest son, and the authorized interpreter of His teachings, affirmed in this connection that “just as in the world of politics there is need for free thought, likewise in the world of religion there should be the right of unrestricted individual belief.”4

Another experience I had as a child cemented my commitment to the Baha’i teaching of racial equality and unity. My parents held meetings at our home welcoming African-Americans and whites to talk about how to overcome racism. One African-American couple had a son, Kevin, who was about two years younger than me. Kevin became like a brother to me, and we had a lot of fun together. We later fell out of touch when I moved away at the age of six, but remarkably Kevin found me on the internet and we reconnected this past year and had a brotherly reunion after over forty years! Again, this experience impressed on me the imperative of following Baha’u’llah’s teaching to “Close your eyes to racial differences, and welcome all with the light of oneness.”5 This further inspired me to do my best to promote interracial equity and understanding.

So human rights became a passion of mine, and I began to explore Baha’i teachings on human rights and their relationship to modern human rights concepts. Human rights are central to the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, for Baha’u’llah came to unify humankind through recognition of the fundamental spiritual and intellectual dignity of every human being. At the very heart of Baha’u’llah’s teachings stands the principle of the oneness of humanity. Baha’u’llah taught the full equality of men and women, and of people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. He taught that all religions emanate from one God, and that people of every religion, and with no religion, should associate in amity and concord. He came to strike down every possible barrier that can be falsely set up between people, and to eradicate every form of prejudice. And of course, prejudice is one of the root causes of human rights violations.

The teachings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha advocated the idea of universal human rights nearly eighty years before the recognition of universal human rights by the United Nations in 1945. For example, Baha’u’llah called on all the governments of the world to unite to “shield mankind from the onslaught of tyranny.”6 And Abdu’l-Baha declared that “Baha’u’llah taught that an equal standard of human rights must be recognized and adopted.”7 He said that governments have a moral and legal obligation to protect the rights of everyone whom they govern. Both He and Baha’u’llah called for the establishment of a global commonwealth that would unite all nations and peoples and safeguard their human rights. Shoghi Effendi, the grandson of Abdu’l-Baha and the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, explained that the Baha’i teachings call for the “establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded.”8

Of course, we have not yet achieved that global commonwealth that effectively safeguards personal freedom alongside the autonomy of states. But the world has made great strides in recognizing the existence of universal human rights and committing itself to their protection. The contemporary human rights system is founded on the United Nations Charter, adopted in 1945, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on December 10, 1948. The Charter declares that one of its principal objectives is to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, [and] in the equal rights of men and women.”9 And Article 1 of the Universal Declaration affirms that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The Universal Declaration was the world’s first widely-endorsed and detailed affirmation that every human being has certain fundamental rights, regardless of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.10

The Universal Declaration spells out many of these rights, including, among others, the rights to life, liberty, and security of person; freedom from slavery or servitude; freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; the right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal; the right to privacy; the right to marry; the right to own property; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; the right to take part in government, directly or through elected representatives; the right to work; the right to a standard of living adequate for one’s health and well-being and that of one’s family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services; and the right to education.11 The adoption of the Universal Declaration was followed by the promulgation of many other declarations on particular rights as well as legally binding human rights treaties.

From a Baha’i perspective, the significance of this achievement should not be underestimated. The 66 years following the approval of the Universal Declaration have marked a sharp departure from the attitude so prevalent among ruling powers through the centuries that they could abuse their subjects as they wished – an attitude that was emboldened by the doctrine of absolute state sovereignty. Today we are living in a “human rights era” – at least with respect to ideals. Thanks in part to the Universal Declaration, the human rights practices of police forces, government officials, government armed forces, and non-state military and political groups, among others, are now subject to global scrutiny and criticism.

It is appropriate, too, in light of Baha’u’llah’s teaching of human oneness, that the Universal Declaration begins with a recognition of our “brotherhood” (and today we should add, our “sisterhood”). For it is our common humanity that must support efforts to achieve respect for truly universal human rights. Human rights are ultimately about human relationships; they are concerned with how we should treat each other and how governments should treat their citizens and other residents of the territories they govern.

There is another important truth articulated by Article 1 of the Universal Declaration. Human rights can only be realized fully when all people acknowledge and act on a responsibility to protect the rights and welfare of their human brothers and sisters. The provision properly rejects the notion that human beings are inherently selfish; indeed, from a Baha’i perspective, we are all created with the capacity and obligation to serve others, to “carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.”12 Baha’u’llah teaches that we must all be “an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression.”13 Baha’is are striving to play their part as advocates for the human rights of every person alongside their brothers and sisters of all religions or of no religion.

Indeed, the Baha’i Faith is not alone among religions in working towards the realization of human rights. The idea of human rights can be found in the teachings of all the religions of the past. All of them call on us to recognize that we are members of one human family, and to come to the rescue of the oppressed and the downtrodden. (For a more detailed review of these teachings, see my book Hope for a Global Ethic: Shared Principles in Religious Scriptures). However, these faiths were all revealed at a time when human society did not have the means to recognize our globe-spanning unity. The purpose of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation is to create just such a world civilization, grounded in recognition of our common rights as members of one human family.

As we commemorate the 66th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is obvious that there is still an unacceptably vast gap between the experiences of countless human rights victims and the Universal Declaration’s lofty goals. Nevertheless, the human rights era inaugurated by the Universal Declaration has given rise to a new global consciousness of our fundamental unity and our duty to come to the defense of others whose rights are being violated. Millions have arisen as part of national and transnational human rights movements to help realize the Declaration’s ideals. They have sought to transcend barriers of race and religion and overcome their own prejudices. They are seeking to build the world foreseen in the preamble to the U.N. Charter, to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, [and] in the equal rights of men and women.”

When I think back to my own childhood – to my friendships with young people of other faiths, and to my friendship with Kevin – I have no doubt that these globe-spanning efforts to eradicate prejudice, uphold human rights, and build bonds of love and amity between people of all backgrounds will ultimately triumph. In the words of Baha’u’llah, “Soon will the present day Order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.”14

For further reading:

Baha’i-Inspired Perspectives on Human Rights, edited by Tahereh Tahririha-Danesh and with a Foreword by Al Lincoln (Juxta Publishing, 2001), available here.

Brian D. Lepard, “A Baha’i Perspective on International Human Rights Law” available here.

Matthew Weinberg, “The Human Rights Discourse: A Baha’i Perspective” available here.

Aaron Emmel, “Human Rights in an Advancing Civilization” available here.


  1. Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 288. []
  2. Ibid., p. 250. []
  3. Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 22. []
  4. Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 197. []
  5. Quoted in Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 31. []
  6. Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 249. []
  7. Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 182. []
  8. Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 203. []
  9. U.N. Charter, preamble. []
  10. See The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 2. []
  11. See The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 3-27. []
  12. Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 215. []
  13. Ibid., p. 285. []
  14. Quoted in Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 161. []

About the Author

Brian D. Lepard

Brian is a professor of law at the University of Nebraska College of Law, where he teaches courses on international human rights law, comparative law, and international tax law, among other subjects. He worked for three years as a human rights specialist at the United Nations Office of the Bahá’í International Community. Brian has written numerous books and articles on international law, comparative law, human rights, world religions, ethics, and tax law. Brian’s books include “Hope for a Global Ethic: Shared Principles in Religious Scriptures,” published by Bahá’í Publishing in 2005. Additional information about Brian can be found at http://law.unl.edu/brian-d-lepard/.

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Discussion 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Brian. A very well-written and structured essay about this subject.
    I would be interested in a series of occasional follow-up posts going deeper into some of the aspects of human rights that you find interesting. They would obviously come from your Baha’i perspective, but could illuminate features of international law, of how the United Nations deals with human rights violations, etc.

  2. What a timely joy to read and re-read professor’s insights which in a sense amount to a 21st century recounting of the only cure: the fundamental principles of the Baha’I Faith lived out by altruistic human beings whether Baha’i or not on a day to day basis.

    I’m reminded of similar documents listing those eternal principles: ‘Seven Candles of Unity’ and the ‘China Tablet’ and ‘Tablet to the Hague’ and ‘Promulgation of Universal Peace’ because they too in language from about a century ago enumerate the principles and present them as luscious fruits on a huge dining table, on occasion even to diplomats serving at the League of Nations in Abdu’l-Baha’s life time. ‘The Promise of World Peace’ and ‘Turning Point for all Nations’ (TP) from approximately one generation ago also offer Baha’u’llah’s eternal principles as the road to world peace and for harmonizing inimical religions. TP proposes the Baha’i community as a role model at the service of the United Nations vis-à-vis the UN’s noble attempts en route to realizing human rights for everyone.

    ‘Turning Point For All Nations’ devotes a lengthy section to the UN’s human rights regime and crucially to its two major shortcomings as referenced by Brian vis-a-vis responsibilities and by Alan regarding violations: “limited means for enforcement and follow-up and too little emphasis on the responsibilities that accompany all rights.” Under its rubric, ‘Protecting Fundamental Human Rights’, TP lauds “the all-important Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948” and rightly itemizes “the rights of women and children, the right to freedom of worship, and the right to development…human rights must be applied irrespective of differences of racial background, ethnic origin, religious belief or national identity. They encompass the equality of women and men, they include for all individuals worldwide the same rights to freedom of investigation, information and religious practice; and they embody the right of everyone to basic necessities such as food, shelter, and health care.” Furthermore, the authors and authoresses of ‘Turning Point For All Nations’ wisely include: “the right to be recognized as a person before the law” and “the right to marry” and “the right to work” and they frame a yet lengthier section of equal beauty in Advancing the Status of Women.

    Given “the responsibilities that accompany all rights” along with everyone’s right (including all rank and file Bahá’ís) as penned in TP, “to freedom of investigation, information and religious practice” and given too, unmentioned in TP, language rights specifically cited in “the all-important Universal Declaration of Human Rights” the next edition of ‘Turning Point For All Nations’ might well add as part of Protecting Fundamental Human Rights the highlighted by me below and cited by professor Lepard above, language rights in Article 2 adopted by the United Nations in 1948:

    “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, LANGUAGE, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”

  3. Dear Alan and Brian et al

    Please pardon the tardiness of my addition to this conversation today; I suffer horrendous migraines from time to time which, on the positive side, provide ample time for me to consider theodicy.

    Another word on human rights at the UN and among Baha’is specifically in regard to language rights:

    Our present Baha’i priorities for a generation now, as recommended by the Universal House of Justice, consist in advancing: (a) the status of women, (b) global prosperity, (c) moral development and (d) human rights. Let’s ever recall that numerous Bahá’í texts, whether from our institutions or from our central Figures, together with resolutions from UNESCO (Montevideo 1954 and Sofia 1985) as well as a timeless and unforgettable entreaty from the United Nations in its famous 1948 Declaration – all list language rights as an integral part of human rights. While the eventual selection of a universal auxiliary language to be taught in all schools is an open question not to be resolved by Bahá’ís alone and while the understanding of what our holy Writings specify regarding Arabic, English, Esperanto and Persian is complex and not widely known, there is no misunderstanding possible in the mind of true believers that it’s wrong to deny equal rights to women or education to any child or assistance to the poor and sick, to be superstitious or prejudiced. Awareness of what the holy Writings call for on any issue is of course a meritorious deepening step for any Bahá’í community; active observance follows some time later.

    Actually, as world citizens informed believers might well be as shocked and disappointed as I at our limited consciousness of the auxiliary language principle when one considers its foremost position among the Bahá’í principles in the realization of world peace. “What! Are you serious or delirious?” I hear you ask. “Mes amis! I’ve never been more serious or delirious, in the latter’s non-pathological sense”: In America ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said: “It will become the cause of the tranquillity of the human commonwealth.” and “The very first service to the world of man is to establish this auxiliary international means of communication.” In France in 1913 he expanded: “…the activities which are trying to establish solidarity between the nations and infuse the spirit of universalism in the hearts of the children of men are like unto divine rays from the Sun of Reality, and the brightest ray is the coming of the universal language. Its achievement is the greatest virtue of the age…”

    The bounty of studying our core activities and universal virtues in Baha’i Ruhi courses is open to all. However, so many superlatives from Scripture and from the Universal House of Justice regarding the virtue of a universal auxiliary language might surprise many seekers and other participants too. A generation ago in its paramount statement to the peoples of the world (The Promise of World Peace – PWP) the Universal House of Justice concisely, yet no less superlatively, reiterated the overarching importance of a universal auxiliary language: “A fundamental lack of communication between peoples seriously undermines efforts towards world peace. Adopting an international auxiliary language would go far to resolving this problem and necessitates the most urgent attention.” (Whose attention is not specifically stated, other than as mentioned in PWP’s opening gambit several pages previous: “To the peoples of the world”) PWP’s immediate follow up lines on an international language directly address “the abolition of war.” Bahá’u’lláh Himself has written: “…the greatest means for the promotion of that unity is for the peoples of the world to understand one another’s writing and speech.” And elsewhere He has stated that the selection of “a single language for the use of all on earth will be the greatest instrument for promoting harmony and civilization.” ‘The Sixth Ishráq’ and ‘Kitáb-i-Aqdas’ paragraph 189.

    As recently as 2004 in Beijing the Bahá’í International Community (BIC), whose NGO secretariat and United Nations Office is located in the United States, confirmed the position of the Universal House of Justice from 1980 and from 1985 in which Haifa stated: “The one certain thing about the choice of an International Auxiliary Language is that the Universal House of Justice does not judge the present time propitious for it to take any action in this regard.” And yet, as long ago as 16 March 1946 in an official letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi one reads: “Bahá’u’lláh’s Eighth Leaf of the Exalted Paradise does not contradict His instructions as to the need immediately for an auxiliary language.” Because an issue entails complexity constitutes no valid reason to avoid it; everything of value is difficult at first. For example, careful study shows that the last mentioned extracts above from virtually the same Baha’i institutional source are not contradictory.

    Much more than the selection question is involved when consultation really starts in a widespread serious way vis-a-vis the language principle and human rights whether at an institutional level or for individual activists and altruists. For example Baha’i texts even link the language principle, the principle itself, with propagation

    Baha’i love

    Paul

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