Conde Lectures as Part of ‘Rights in Conflict’ Series

Victor Conde, an international human rights lawyer and educator, examined the global and national importance of international human rights law in the Center for Human Rights and International Justice Center’s Rights in Conflict Series talk Friday afternoon. He explored the United States’ failure to actively learn and incorporate human rights laws domestically. Throughout the presentation, he emphasized his view that international human rights law and education about fundamental human rights protections are paramount in today’s society.

Conde has served as a professor and lecturer on human rights and as a human rights legal consultant to NGOs, to the O.S.C.E., and as the legal counsel for the Catholic Church’s permanent representative at the United Nations Human Rights Council. He credits his pursuit of preserving international human rights to his own experiences with Jesuit education.

“I’m a product of the Jesuits,” Conde said. “They talked to me about Christians behind the Iron Curtain in Russia and that really got to me, this idea of freedom of religion. This really stuck with me as a calling.”

He began his lecture by noting the important role education plays in preserving human rights globally and in preventing religious radicalization that can result in human rights abuses. In his current work with the organization Hardwired, Conde enters into conversations with local populations in countries with religious conflict about religious tolerance and pluralism as they relate to the human right of freedom of religion.

“We give them teaching in international human rights law about freedom of religion that their country has ratified, that their country is bound by,” he said. “We are not trying to teach Western law, or American law—we’re teaching them international human rights law that they already have, but they have no idea that it exists.”

This ignorance of human rights law also permeates the American legal landscape. Conde used the example of the 2017 Supreme Court Case Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which concerned a baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple on religious grounds.

Focusing on the ways this case presented human rights in conflict with one another, specifically the freedoms of religion and expression versus the right to equal protection and non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, he delved into how international human rights law balances the “maximization of the protection of human freedom and dignity with the needs of society to regulate the economy, safety, health, and public morals.”

Noting that the court decided the case in favor of the baker on the basis of his freedom of religion because it “saw some dangers in our society for how we demonize people and hold certain views as holding no rights” and because “the court is seeing the movement of the spirit of the age, the zeitgeist, become more pro-LGBT and more […] anti-religious,” Conde lamented the absence of the discussion of international human rights law in this case and in adjudication in the United States in general.

“The problem to me is we don’t know human rights, so we don’t put them into the argument,” he said. “Probably no one … put in an argument about international law and religious freedom. … We need to incorporate the international human rights arguments into domestic law.”

Conde sees the larger trend of government moving away from actively engaging with human rights law as deeply concerning, and repeatedly noted that “human rights education is the key to changing the whole process.” He cited Americans, specifically, as being apathetic toward human rights law as a field.

“Americans think that we do this so well we don’t need to learn this—all this is for exporting to other countries,” Conde said. “We try to make other countries follow these norms, but we don’t have to because we do it so well. Well, we don’t do it so well as we think. It’s not as bad as some people say, but it’s not as good as we think.”  

He went on to emphasize the responsibility of government to protect the fundamental rights of all persons, calling for a return to prioritizing these rights instead of viewing them as an impediment to international commerce, trade, and negotiations for jobs.

“The purpose of government is to protect the fundamental rights of the people under its sovereignty,” Conde said. “That’s the fundamental task of government. It says that in the Declaration of Independence. [It’s] not to have the best soccer team in the world, or to get to the moon—it’s to protect the fundamental rights of the citizens. What are those rights? How far will we protect those rights? Where is the line?”