Religion and Human Rights: A Conversation with Elisa Massimino

By: Elisa Massimino

October 11, 2022

In November 2021, Elisa Massimino joined the Berkley Center as a senior research fellow. Massimino is a visiting professor and executive director of the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, where she recently served as the Robert F. Drinan, S.J., Chair in Human Rights. She is also part of the Berkley Center’s Rethinking Religion and Human Rights project that engages scholars, practitioners, and religious thinkers in conversations about how to reclaim the revolutionary premise at the heart of the human rights idea and use it to advance solutions to today’s most pressing rights challenges.

The Berkley Forum sat down with Massimino to discuss the aspirations of the project, the scope of her advocacy work, and relevant issues at the intersection of religion and human rights. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What excites you about participating in the Berkley Center’s Rethinking Religion and Human Rights Project and the opportunity to convene conversations about reclaiming a vision of universal human rights in our current global environment? Where do you see the project going in the next academic year?

We conceived of this project because we saw a disconnect between current conceptions of human rights and the challenges that we’re facing today, in our society and around the world. At the heart of the global human rights movement is a powerful idea, expressed so eloquently in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: every person on the planet is born free and equal and is entitled to enjoy certain fundamental rights—not because of anything a government says or does, but simply by virtue of their humanity. That’s a radical and progressive vision; I’m not sure we could get agreement on it today if we tried. But in the wake of the global catastrophe that was World War II, it represented a consensus of all nations that global peace and security depends on universal respect for every person’s inherent dignity and human rights. 

This insight—that respect for human rights is not some kind of utopian dream but rather a practical strategy designed to guarantee a more peaceful and prosperous world—seems to have dimmed recently and is very much needed today.

I’m excited about the prospect of reclaiming this essential wisdom and the potential it holds for bringing together movements of people to address the many complex challenges—climate change, pandemics, inequality, gun violence, mass incarceration, to name a few—that we face today. These and many similar challenges remind us that we cannot go it alone; to make sustainable, lasting change, we must work together. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny.” We are all in this together. We cannot—we will not—survive without centering love and respect for each other.

How does the project’s focus align with your lifetime of advocacy work?

Early in my career, I focused most of my efforts on trying to get my own country to stand up for human rights abroad—to use its outsized power to persuade other governments to uphold their human rights commitments. While the United States itself was obviously falling short—and has always fallen short—of its stated ideals at home and in its foreign policy, many around the world still looked to the United States for leadership on human rights. My job was to try to leverage that position for good.

It's not surprising that, despite its imperfections, so many activists trying to advance human rights in their own countries look to the United States for help. The United States was at the forefront of developing global human rights standards after WWII; Eleanor Roosevelt played a pivotal role in the drafting and diplomacy that led to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But she was also keenly aware, at the same time she was promoting these standards at the new United Nations, of the profoundly undemocratic treatment of Black Americans and other racial minorities at home. She famously said, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

After the attacks of 9/11, the United States began, for the first time in my memory, to not only violate but to openly reject some of the most fundamental, non-derogable rights—like the right to be free from torture—which it had pledged to uphold. That was a pivot point for me. The United States was making the same arguments about suspending the rules that protect human rights that the worst rights-violators routinely made. I realized then how much work we had to do to get our own house in order. So, I began focusing on the role of the United States not only as an actor in the world and what it does globally, but also as an example to the world. What kind of example are we setting? What would it look like to take human rights obligations seriously here at home? We have so many rights challenges in our country—the death penalty, the right to housing and education, the right to adequate food, reproductive justice, just to name a few. We have a lot of work to do. I’m not one of those people who thinks the United States should be quiet about global human rights until we get our own house in order. We have to speak up, with humility about our own failings past and present, for these universal values of human rights. That’s what I’m hoping this project will help us do.

Are there other ways that your research interests intersect with the Berkley Center’s mission to deepen knowledge and solve problems at the intersection of religion and global affairs?

My own human rights journey started in the context of protecting refugees. And I’ve yet to find a faith that does not have as a central tenet the importance of welcoming the stranger. So, I have always worked very closely with religious communities. In this country and in many others, communities of faith have a proud tradition of leadership in protecting refugees. When you think about it, refugees are the physical manifestations of the failure of states to protect human rights. And we have more refugees in the world today than at any time in recorded history. The role of religion in setting an example for governments to live up to their human rights obligations to people who have been forced to flee because they can’t find protection for their fundamental human rights is a key intersection of religion and rights.

At the same time, we know that religion has been a flashpoint for human rights violations, and contentions around religious belief have created some environments where rights are not respected. We also know that people of faith have been at the forefront, literally and figuratively, of attempts to solve these problems and ensure that people’s rights are respected. 

That has always been true, and one of the things we want to do with this project is to interrogate the contours of that dichotomy and encourage the positive efforts of religious people to run at these problems and be part of the solution.

How has COVID-19 influenced the relationship between religion and the law? What changes have you noticed since the start of the pandemic, and what are your thoughts on the future?

One of the many lessons of the global pandemic echoes the essential wisdom of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: we are all in this together. Whether we’re talking about pandemics or climate change or migration or religious differences, we can’t solve our problems by putting up walls or pulling up drawbridges. We exist in community and in the community of nations. The pandemic proved once again the truth of MLK’s insight that we are caught in “an inescapable network of mutuality.”

The pandemic also functioned as a kind of social x-ray, revealing in more stark detail all of the flaws and fault lines in our societies. One of those is the persistent denial of the rights of women. According to the UN, the progress that women have made globally is being set back decades because of the unequal impact the pandemic has had on women both being caregivers and having to step back from employment opportunities. The ripple effects of this dynamic will be profound and deserve urgent attention from all of us.

In addition, we've seen some issues raised by the pandemic where there appears to be friction between some conceptions of religious liberty and human rights. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of conscience and freedom to practice your faith. During the pandemic, we saw public health officials grappling with what that means in the context of public health and the safety and security for all people. There’s a lot more to grapple with here, and I’m excited that my affiliation with the Berkley Center will allow me to explore such questions more deeply.

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