An Activist State for Diversity: Some Reflections on “Neutrality” and Secularism in Lautsi V Italy

by Claude Cahn and Vijay Nagaraj

The European Court of Human Rights, sitting as a Grand Chamber, recently rendered judgment in arguably among its most watched cases of all time, Lautsi v. Italy. The Court’s judgment turned extensively on the idea that “States have responsibility for ensuring, neutrally and impartially, the exercise of various religions, faiths and beliefs.” 

Intervenors such as Human Rights Watch also argued that, “Effective protection against violations of the rights of parents and children … requires State neutrality ….”

We take issue with the question of whether – philosophically or legally – “neutrality” is an appropriate conceptual or normative framework.

We argue that little in the history of human rights seems to suggest that “neutrality” or anything like it has ever been a norm conducive to the effective protection of minorities or other groups facing exclusion. Only an activist state, engaged in rigorous and ethical, rather than selective and instrumental, defence of diversity can effectively secure fundamental human rights. As religious fundamentalisms increasingly lead to patterns and practices of human rights abuses in all corners of the globe, we find the doctrine of neutrality not merely barren but an abdication of core human rights principles. We invite a call for an activist state for diversity.

Our full analysis provides further detail, and we welcome your comments for further discussion.

Further Reading:
About the Authors:


Claude Cahn is the Human Rights Adviser at the Office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Moldova.
Vijay Nagaraj is the Executive Director at the International Council on Human Rights Policy.

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