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If all of human history had happened today, the concept of human rights for all would’ve been born about two minutes ago.
Scholars have determined that no language on earth even contained a word or phrase for the concept of human rights before the year 1400. In 1789, the first nations to adopt formal definitions of human rights — the United States with its Bill of Rights and France with its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen – limited those rights to white, property-owning males. The first truly egalitarian, global human rights document emerged from the United Nations in 1948 – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now the basis for international law, the UDHR has become, in the 65 years of its existence, the most-translated document in the history of the world.
But almost a century before the UN developed and promulgated the UDHR, the Baha’i Faith became the first religion to call for universal human rights. Baha’u’llah taught that every country must recognize the common global citizenship rights of all its peoples: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” Abdu’l-Baha, speaking in Europe and North America in 1911 and 1912, reinforced the Baha’i concept of universal human rights:
Baha’u’llah taught that an equal standard of human rights must be recognized and adopted. In the estimation of God all men are equal; there is no distinction or preferment for any soul in the dominion of His justice and equity. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 181.
This early, radical advocacy raised a truly global Baha’i voice for guaranteed rights for all human beings. In his speeches, addresses and writings Abdu’l-Baha repeatedly pointed out the sheer absurdity of national, racial and gender-based prejudices, which granted rights to some but denied them to others:
…the world of humanity is one race, the surface of the earth one place of residence and these imaginary racial barriers and political boundaries are without right or foundation. Man is degraded in becoming the captive of his own illusions and suppositions. The earth is one earth, and the same atmosphere surrounds it. No difference or preference has been made by God for its human inhabitants; but man has laid the foundation of prejudice, hatred and discord with his fellowman by considering nationalities separate in importance and races different in rights and privileges. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 231.
Because of the strong Baha’i emphasis on human rights, the elected institutions of the Baha’i Faith have long made global human rights a high priority. The Baha’i International Community works closely with the United Nations to extend human rights protections to everyone, including the extremely poor, prisoners of conscience, women and children, the disabled and those who belong to national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. In 2010 The Universal House of Justice, the democratically-elected governing body of the Baha’is of the world, issued this statement on gay rights:
With respect to your question concerning the position Baha’is are to take regarding homosexuality and civil rights… Baha’is are enjoined to eliminate from their lives all forms of prejudice and to manifest respect towards all. Therefore, to regard those with a homosexual orientation with prejudice or disdain would be against the spirit of the Faith. Furthermore, a Baha’i is exhorted to be “an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression”, and it would be entirely appropriate for a believer to come to the defense of those whose fundamental rights are being denied or violated.
The Baha’is themselves, especially those in Iran and Egypt, have suffered terrible oppression and the denial of their most fundamental human rights since the earliest days of the Faith’s existence. Because of the progressive Baha’i teachings on human rights-related issues and the essential unity of all religions, several governments have denied Baha’is their rights to education, employment, housing and even burial. Iran’s government has imprisoned, tortured and executed Baha’is solely for their Faith. Hundreds of Baha’is – including women, infants and the elderly – now languish in brutal Iranian prisons for no crime other than being Baha’is.
Many of the world’s governments, including the United Nations, have repeatedly condemned these shameless violations of basic human rights, these crimes against humanity. Until the entire world adopts the Baha’i view on human rights for all, however, the oppression, persecution and denial of fundamental rights will continue – not just for the Baha’is, but for many oppressed peoples.
Ultimately, the Baha’is believe that the arc of universal human rights will inevitably bend toward justice:
The wrong in the world continues to exist just because people talk only of their ideals, and do not strive to put them into practice. If actions took the place of words, the world’s misery would very soon be changed into comfort. My hope for you is that you will ever avoid tyranny and oppression; that you will work without ceasing till justice reigns in every land…. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 16.