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Secularist Suspicion and Legal Pluralism at the United Nations

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Drawing on a secularist view of religion as primarily a private matter for individuals, the international discourse on human rights has historically considered alternative bodies of law and legal reasoning to be inherently suspect. This ‘secularist suspicion’ has been particularly pronounced towards religious and customary forms of law, which are commonly seen as challenges to the sovereignty and hegemony of human rights law. Through a close reading of the practice of United Nations committees monitoring racism and women’s rights from 1993 to 2010, the development of a gradual divergence in their views of legal pluralism is explored. It is suggested that these views stem from different understandings of what religion is and should be in law, politics and society. Left unattended, this divergence may threaten the conceptual unity and holism of the human rights enterprise.

Affiliations: 1: Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo OsloNorway

1 I am grateful for comments and suggestions to earlier versions of this article from Kari Telle and Christine M. Jacobsen, and for comments and revisions suggested by the anonymous reviewer, all of which have led to significant improvements. Any eventual errors, misinterpretations or misrepresentations are of course only my own.

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