UVU’s God and Human Rights Conference kicked off with a thought-provoking speech from Martin Palous, Czech Ambassador to the United Nations, last Wednesday in LI120. Sponsored by UVU’s peace and justice studies program, in collaboration with the religious studies and honors programs, the symposium featured a day-long barrage of speakers representing all sides of the philosophical spectrum.

The theme of this conference was “Are Faith or Foundations Necessary?” Each speaker explored the question of whether human rights are necessarily rooted in belief in God or in a natural order of things. President Holland explained that the idea originated by a visit to the United Nations, where he first met the Czech Ambassador. “By the end of the visit, I had extended an invitation to Palous to come and visit UVU.”

Palous read extensively from the writings of Jan Pato?ka, whom he called “the most important Czech philosopher of the 20th century,” particularly from his Charter 77 manifesto. A native citizen of Prague who was personally acquainted with Pato?ka in his lifetime, Palous used these ideas to postulate that human rights are rooted in plurality, rather than any religious or natural foundation. The Czech philosophers who came together to form Charter 77, he said, “discovered the binding power of acting together.” He argued that the basis for these rights were “not so much connected with rights themselves, but the duty of others to raise up their voice when someone’s rights are violated.”

“With each newborn human being is a new beginning in the world, a new chance in the world,” said Palous. “And new beginnings need to be protected. That’s why human rights are essential in that context.” His secular argument set the tone for the following speeches in the day, given by professors of politics and philosophy from University of Utah, BYU, and Catholic University of America.

But according to Director of peace and justice studies Michael Minch, the most important figure behind all of this was UVU’s own president. “This wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for President Holland,” he said. “It was his idea.”

For his own part, Holland made a convincing case for his choice of Palous to initiate the dialogue: “In Plato’s ‘Republic,’ Socrates’ hope was that power and philosophy would collide; this seems to be exactly what has happened with Ambassador Palous,” he said.