International Affairs, Peace & Human Security

Human Rights and Churches: Challenges of a Globalized World

Concern for human rights in the ecumenical movement goes back to the 1910 International Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, which addressed the question of religions freedom. These concerns remained with the churches through the World Conference on Life and Work in Oxford in 1937, whose ideas formed the basis for further work on religious liberty and human rights. The churches brought these concerns to the San Francisco Conference in 1945, where they successfully argued the case for including human rights prominently in the new UN Charter adopted there. Dr. O. Fredrick Nolde, who stated the case in San Francisco, was subsequently made director of the new Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), and in that capacity was instrumental also in promoting the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Armed with the wording of an article on religious freedom thoroughly discussed in the founding Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1948, Nolde attended the Paris meeting where the final text of the Universal Declaration was being prepared for adoption. There he offered the language which was finally included on religious liberty.

The WCC has since been among the international organizations at the forefront of both the struggle for the realiyation of international standards for human rights, and for improvements in these norms. It promoted the adoption of the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in more recent years, it was instrumental in developing new international standards on torture, extrajudicial executions and the death penalty. It also contributed significantly to the elaboration of "third generation" rights to development and to peace. One highlight of WCC involvement was the Human Rights Resources Office for Latin America (HRROLA), which was created in 1974 following the coup d’état in Chile. For twenty years HRROLA was instrumental in the formation of a strong network of human rights defense organizations throughout the content, many of them church-related.

The CCIA has been prominent in the work of the UN Commission and Subcommission on Human Rights ever since these bodies were created. Since the 1970’s especially, attention has been focussed on bringing victims of human rights vilolations to testify in person. This practice, now followed by many other NGOs, has often made more pertinent and effective the work of the United Nations in this sphere.

The contemporary basis

The basis for the World Council of Churches involvement in contemporary human rights work was laid at the International Consultation on: Human Rights and Christian Responsibility organized by the CCIA at St. Pölten, Austria in 1974. The recommendations of that consultation served as the basis of the statement of ecumenical policy on human rights adopted at the WCC Assembly at Nairobi in 1975. The Assembly affirmed the ecumenical consensus on basic human rights agreed to at St. Pölten, emphasizing:

  • the right to basic guarantees of life;
  • the right to self determination and cultural identity and the rights of minorities;
  • the right to participate in decision making within the country;
  • the right to dissent;
  • the right to personal dignity; and
  • the right to religious freedom.

The Assembly at the same time also emphasized the theological basis for churches involvement in human rights in the following words: "Our concern for human rights are based on the conviction that God wills a society in which all can exercise human rights. All human beings are created in the image of God, equal and infinitely precious in God’s sight and ours. Jesus Christ has bound us to one another by his life, death and resurrection, so that what concerns one, concerns all." It went on to add that the struggle for human rights was central to the struggle for liberation from poverty, colonial rule, racist systems and military dictatorships.

Over the years this became the basis of churches work on human rights. Most of it was in the area of civil and political rights. Churches and church networks were highly effective in exposing human rights abuses committed by military regimes in the South during this period. To counter the atrocities committed by military dictatorship in Asia, Latin America and Africa, churches took their responsibility seriously creating human rights programmes and engaging directly and often courageously in the costly struggle for human rights. It was during this period that WCC in close cooperation with the regional ecumenical organisation organised consultations, dialogue encounters, workshops and training programmes in human rights for church related workers, church leaders and others. Fact-finding missions and pastoral delegations were sent to churches in crisis situations.

Subsequent to the WCC Assembly at Canberra in 1991, CCIA board decided to undertake a Global Review of Ecumenical Practices and Policies on Human Rights. In this connection seven regional consultations were organised in cooperation with REOs, churches and church related organisations. Around 132 participants participated in this program over a period of three years. Since the issue of religious freedom and liberty has been paramount to the Council’s agenda, a separate working group meeting was organised in Geneva in 1995 on Religion and the State, Religious Liberty and Intolerance.

The results of the review process, together with the discussion paper prepared by the staff, was then shared with 49 participants, who came together at an international consultation at Morges, near Geneva. The consultation participants studied these documents and deliberated on the emerging trends. After extensive debates and discussions the group produced the report - Human Rights and the Churches - New Challenges. This report together with the feedback received from the churches served in the preparation of the revised statement on human rights that was adopted by the Eighth WCC Assembly at Harare, 1998.

The Review Process undertaken by CCIA was quite timely. It contributed to the churches renewed thinking on justice, peace and human rights in the changing World Order. The process took place as the world was emerging out of the era of Cold War politics that in many ways was responsible for the slow progress in the advancement of human rights. The Assembly statement on human rights is based on the findings of the Global Review Process and takes note of the emerging socio-economic and political trends. It acknowledges the shortcomings of the churches actions for human rights and the withdrawal of many churches from the work on human rights as a priority of christian witness. While recognising the substantial improvements made in the achievement of international norms and standards, it also notes the lack of progress made in the application of established rights.

The Harare statement is a challenge and opportunity to the churches. It brings out the deep concerns that have grown out of the experience of the churches in many regions in their struggle against the effects and root causes of human rights violations. The context in which the churches are called to do human rights work has radically changed. In the past, churches in carrying out their work on human rights focussed mainly on the role of the state - the consequence of its action or inaction. Today however, new forces have entered the scene. Their actions have direct or indirect implications for human rights - private armed groups, TNCs and international financial institutions. Presently the role of the state is diminishing in the promotion and protection of human rights. The state is under attack both from outside - with the intrusion of foreign capital as a result of globalization. From inside it is under attack at the hands of religious, ethnic and nationalist forces that have become increasingly violent and destructive. These trends have contributed to the erosion of the power and authority of the state and have resulted in an increase of human right violations.

In many parts of the world government decisions are now determined by the requirements of the market. The need to provide stable and conducive environment for foreign capital often takes precedence over human rights and justice concerns in formulation of state policies. The demands imposed by international financial institutions have forced many governments to reduce state subsidies on basic needs such as health care, housing, food and education. These measures in turn have impacted on the fundamental human rights of people both in the North as well as in the South.

Religion and the State, Religious Liberty and Intolerance

In recent years increase in resurgence of religious fundamentalism and the changing nature of state and politics, religious freedom and liberty have been the subject of renewed debates in many countries as well as at various international forums, including the United Nations. The growing incidence of religious intolerance and violence has compounded the situation because of the impact these have on society and politics.

Previous political equations of religion and state are in question particularly where societies are in transition. Activities of foreign missionaries and new religious movements have had a negative impact not only on the state but also on interconfessional and interfaith relations. In some countries there is fierce competition between religious organisations to broaden their base. This has often led to tension and conflicts. These new developments coupled with rise of religious sentiments and the reassertions of the fundamental role of religion in society have made the state wary of the hold and power of religion over the people forcing it to seek defensive actions that have resulted in human rights violations.

Current programme emphases

It is in this context that International Affairs, Peace & Human Security staff is called upon to fulfil its mandate on human rights. To achieve this task it maintains intensive engagement with member churches related organisations, agencies and REOs concentrating particularly on the following areas:

  • Assisting churches, related organisations and ecumenical partners amongst others through educational and training programs as they struggle to address human rights concerns in their respective situations ensuring that the work is rooted amongst the churches and congregations; organising fact finding and pastoral visits to situations of crisis.

  • Facilitating the attendance of church representative and others before inter-governmental organisations like the UNCHR at the same time ensuring adequate flow of information in order to strengthen ecumenical solidarity networks for advocacy and lobbying purposes; making interventions on thematic or country specific situation at UNCHR and using the occasion to do lobby and advocacy work.

  • Encouraging and supporting theological reflections in relation to human rights work in the changing context.

  • Engaging in interfaith dialogue as a vehicle to promote and protect human rights, particularly the rights of religious minorities.

In addition to the above long standing goals, on which work will continue, attention will be given to promote and protect human rights of all people with special emphasis on the following areas in the coming period:
  • Religion and State, Religious Liberty and Intolerance - new trends and perspectives as exemplified by challenges posed by enactment of new laws and practices that impinge on the rights of religious minorities; and implications of the Shariah on Christian life and witness.

  • Globalization - Challenges and Opportunities in the Struggle for Human Rights.

  • Peace Making and Human Rights, linking prevention strategies (early warning) to the promotion and realisation of human rights; encouraging and supporting the victims perspective in endeavours to replace cultures of impunity with a culture of accountability and justice.

The involvement in human rights struggle is based on the awareness of the meaning of human dignity in the human community. Recognising that human dignity leads to human solidarity that is capable of cutting across racial, religious, ethnic and national boundaries.

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