Faith & Reason: We should not confuse justice with the law

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SOME YEARS ago I was invited to make a Sikh contribution to an inter-faith service on the theme of world peace. I readily agreed, and looked at Sikh scriptures to find suitable texts on the desirability of peace. To my dismay there was nothing. It was then that I realised why a religion that offers such positive guidance on justice and human rights is silent on the idea of peace in its most generally accepted sense, namely "the absence of war".

The reason is that the absence of open hostilities does not guarantee political freedom and respect for human rights. All wars conclude with the end of fighting, but this does not necessarily imply justice. In the summer of 1989, Chinese tanks and guns suppressed student revolt and brought peace to Tiananmen Square. It was the peace of the graveyard. And though democracy returned to Chile in 1990, removing the military from power does not bring an end to conflict, as the attempts to extradite the former dictator General Pinochet in London this week show.

Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, whose birthday we celebrate next week, bravely criticised powerful rulers of the day as "butchers of the poor" who sought to increase their wealth and power by oppressing the weak. He taught that the only way to true and lasting peace was through respect for human rights.

The first of these fundamental human rights, the Guru said, lay in the recognition of the oneness of all humanity. Five centuries ago he criticised all notions of race or caste and taught the equality of all human beings and stressed that this equality naturally extended to women. He taught that no individual or group of people has the right to dominate or oppress others. This summer that same principle found expression in the international arena with the first stage in the setting up in Rome of an International Criminal Court to bring to justice those responsible for human rights violations. And this week we've seen the High Court wrestling with a similar issue as it considered the culpability of General Pinochet for the atrocities committed under his regime. Considerations of compassion for a hospitalised octogenarian must be balanced against the need to send a clear message of likely retribution to those who indulge in the abuse of human rights.

In the 15th century, which was Guru Nanak's time, much of the oppression lay in the area of religion and the bigoted view held by some that their view of their religion is the only one, and that other people are heretics , heathens, infidels or generally inferior. He tackled this arrogance of belief in his very first sermon in which he said that God is not interested in our religious labels, but in the way we conduct ourselves.

The Guru lived the life he taught and instituted a system of succession to show the relevance of such teachings in different social and political environments. The Sikh Gurus' constant struggle for human rights frequently brought them in conflict with authority. They refused to be cowed. Two of the 10 Gurus were martyred for their defence of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience for all people.

Today gross human rights abuse takes place in more than half the membership of the United Nations. The key as to why lies in the words of the great human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. Human rights abuse would continue, he said, until we become "even-handed" in our condemnation of all such injustices.

Much the same sentiment was expressed by the Sikh Gurus who taught that human rights were absolutes that should never be compromised by factional considerations. In a verse in the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib states:

All such alliances are subject to

death and decay

All such pacts are for worldly

power, and selfish ends.

The verse warns us against the dubious morality of viewing human rights abuse through the filters of trade or political convenience.

It may be that Pinochet's physical frailty is such that he should be spared the ordeal of a trial. But if that is so we should be clear of the grounds on which that compassion is exercised. It goes no way to condone the brutal treatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by Slobodan Milosevic. Nor does it excuse our relative silence over the treatment of the Kurds by our Nato ally Turkey. Nor our polite looking the other way as monasteries and a whole way of life continue to be destroyed in Tibet.

Next month as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and pledge ourselves to work for its ideals we'll do well to remember this need for even-handedness. Where human rights are concerned there are neither friendly nor unfriendly powers, but, as Guru Nanak taught, one common humanity. We also need to strive to remove injustice at all levels in society as stressed in the egalitarian and uplifting teachings of the Guru - teachings that have a resonant echo in the work and ideals of the United Nations.

Indarjit Singh is Editor of the `Sikh Messenger'