Catholic Voices

Human Rights Day
December 10

By Donn Mitchell

“My soul stood erect, exultant, envisioning a new world where the light of justice for every individual will be unclouded.” With those words in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller described her reaction on December 10, 1948, when the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, naming as humanity’s highest aspiration “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want.” Keller, who overcame deafness and blindness to become one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals and a tireless campaigner for justice, understood the implications of what had been achieved.

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The declaration is to date the world’s most widely agreed statement of how human beings should treat each other. It recognizes and defines a broader range of rights and duties than those mentioned in the Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. And it calls on “every individual and every organ of society” to promote respect for the rights it recognizes. It has been endorsed by all the world’s major religions and in the past six decades has been affirmed once by the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and four times by the Lambeth Conference.

December 10 is Human Rights Day across the world, as it has been since 1950. Occurring in the middle of Advent, when the Church recalls humanity’s longing to be delivered from the bondage of sin and injustice, the observance may prompt reflection on how cultivating respect for human dignity helps us prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight what long was crooked, to make the rougher places plain.

As my ethics professor, the late Beverly Harrison, once said: “Justice is the minimal face of love.” In a very real sense, by taking justice seriously, we take love seriously.

The first article of the declaration asserts: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Episcopalians should have no difficulty connecting this assertion to our understanding of Christian duty. In our baptismal vows, we are asked: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

This emphasis on human dignity distinguishes the declaration from all previous human rights charters, according to Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. In A World Made New, she notes that the document sees the individual as inherently relational. It addresses family, community, and employment relationships in ways that the American Bill of Rights and its precursors do not. And unlike earlier charters, it is not structured as a claim against government but as a claim on all human beings and social institutions, including government, churches, and civil society.

The declaration recognizes all of these rights as inherent. It does not “grant” or “confer” them, nor does Human Rights Day commemorate the beginning of human rights.

The Book of Ezra tells us that “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing.” This proclamation, inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform on a clay cylinder discovered by archaeologists in 1879, is regarded by many as the first known charter of human rights because it sets out a policy of religious toleration and promotes the material well-being of conquered peoples. A replica of the cylinder commands a place of honor at the United Nations in New York.

Legal historian Harold Berman argues that contemporary human rights discourse is not limited to fostering tolerance but is predicated on the idea that there is a higher law to which all human law must answer. It is today’s version of the divine law of medieval Europe and the natural rights of the Enlightenment, he says. While concepts of higher law are found in other world religions, modern human rights covenants, he argues, strongly resemble their medieval Europeans precursors — the Peace of God and Truce of God movements of the Cluniac monasteries. Beginning in the late 11th century, the monks of Cluny encouraged whole towns to swear oaths to uphold certain human rights ideals, such as refraining from acts of violence against Jews.

According to Berman, the oaths became crucial to the founding of cities and guilds and informed the shape and tone of legislation promulgated by dukes, kings, and emperors.

The upheavals of the Renaissance and Reformation challenged accepted patterns of authority and created new categories of rich and poor, majorities and minorities. As nation-states evolved as the dominant polity, human rights were written into charters, constitutions, and treaties.

The emancipation and suffrage struggles of the 19th century refined these concepts further. Finally, in the aftermath of the First World War, human rights found their way into international law through such instruments as the Treaty for the Protection of Minorities of 1919.

But the ultimate failure of these mechanisms to prevent the world’s most extensive genocide led to demands for a more comprehensive framework as the founding of the United Nations began.

Proponents recognized a meaningful commitment to human rights would require some agreement about what such rights actually are. To that end, the United Nations created a Commission on Human Rights in 1946, led by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of Church of the Incarnation, New York City; St. James, Hyde Park, New York; and St. Thomas, Washington, D.C.

Frightened by the magnitude of the task, she wrote to her daughter Anna: “tho’ the responsibility seems great, I’ll just do my best and trust in God.” She asked her daughter to pray that she would be “really useful on this job for I feel very inadequate.”

Glendon says the declaration “transformed the language and texture of international relations, gave legitimacy to anti-colonial movements, inspired a new form of activism, and helped bring down totalitarian regimes.”

What does the declaration mean in a world of injustice and abuse? Surprisingly, it has come to mean considerably more than lofty sentiment.

Through the U.N.’s developing multinational treaties, known as covenants, all principles of the declaration have been written into international law. A total of 250 covenants have been developed, but the two most significant are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. By 1976, these two covenants had gained sufficient ratifications to become enforceable under international law. Together with the declaration, they are known as the International Bill of Rights.

In ratifying these covenants, the parties promise that, over time, they will bring their domestic law into compliance with the principles of the treaty, and sanctions can be imposed if they do not.

Almost all nations of the world have ratified both covenants, including some with notably poor track records, such as Cambodia, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Sudan, and Uganda. The major holdouts are China, which has not ratified civil and political rights, and the United States, which has not ratified economic, social, and cultural rights. The first covenant guarantees, among other things, freedom of speech and religion, trial by jury and the presumption of innocence, and freedom from discrimination of all kinds, and from torture, genocide, and slavery. The economic and social covenant identifies housing and health care as human rights, along with social security, a living wage, equal pay for equal work, and the right to form trade unions. It also calls for paid holidays and protection against unemployment.

Anyone who has followed American politics for the past 30 years can readily understand why there has been no attempt in the Senate to ratify the economic and social covenant since 1989. Even though many of these protections are provided in specific legislation, they are subject to repeal, amendment, and frustration in ways that constitutional rights are not.

An example of frustration is the growing use of “independent contractors” for routine work, which has left millions of Americans without paid holidays or unemployment insurance. The rise of “union-free” consultants and aggressive union-busting tactics has reduced the number of unionized workers to the lowest level since the early 20th century. The result has been 30 years of downward pressure on wages and less cash flowing into the Social Security system.

Americans have recently recognized that economic inequality has grown, so the time would seem right for the Church to press for ratification of the economic and social covenant. But can we do so with integrity? While Episcopalians have taken conscientious and canonical action to eliminate discrimination within the church, our track record on employment issues has never been as good as that of other churches. Recent developments suggest it may be getting worse. The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church has recommended converting program officers at 815 to independent contractors, and General Theological Seminary has recently attempted to dismiss 80 percent of its professors after they went on strike.

If our church seeks to be a credible witness on human rights, it must apply these principles to its internal life. Only then can our common soul stand erect.

Donn Mitchell teaches religion and ethics at Berkeley College in New York. He is writing a book about Frances Perkins and the religious dimension of the New Deal, portions of which appear at AnglicanExaminer.com.

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