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WCC Advocacy Week in New York: Panelists offer sobering assessment and glimmers of hope for human rights

11 November 2003

Cf. WCC Press Release PR-03-33 of 6 November 2003

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"A panel of experts presented a sobering assessment and some glimmers of hope regarding human rights around the globe at a public forum entitled "Human Rights: 10 years after Vienna, " during the World Council of Churches (WCC) International Affairs and Advocacy Week in New York on November 10.

"The great accomplishment of Vienna was to reaffirm the universality of human rights and to reiterate that human rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings," said Dr Bertrand Ramcharan, UN acting high commissioner on Human Rights in Geneva, in prepared remarks for the forum.

Yet Ramcharan contended that despite an emerging consensus around the globe about the formal understanding of human rights and improved mechanisms for monitoring human rights abuses, "on the ground it is a very different matter". "The actual enjoyment of basic human rights remains illusory for large masses of the world’s people. Poverty, the lack of access to the means for a dignified life, governmental violence, and prejudice and discrimination are some of the root causes for this state of affairs."

Litany of horrors

Ramcharan cited a litany of horrors to illustrate his argument. “Arbitrary and summary executions, torture, enforced and involuntary disappearances, arbitrary detention, violence against women, religious intolerance, denial of freedom of expression - all abound in today’s world,” he said. “No one can deny that what we have witnessed over the past decade, and what we continue to witness, are violations of human rights that are shocking to the human conscience.”

Since the meeting in Vienna, there have been some positive developments Ramcharan suggested. For example, the work of UNICEF and the International Convention of the Rights of the Child have “certainly helped to raise awareness of child rights issues in the world, and one could say that this has been one of the positive developments over the past decade," he said. "Nevertheless, the protection of the rights of children leaves so much to be desired in numerous parts of the world, " he added.

Ramcharan also decried what he described as "the institutional and domestic violence against women" around the world. "In today’s world, women face numerous obstacles to the enjoyment of basic human rights, and continue to be the victims of pervasive discrimination and injustice, " he said. "We cannot solve the problem of war and peace without empowering women, because empowering women will empower entire families."

Ramcharan urged participants to explore "ways of taking the human rights cause forward," beginning with the transformation of individual minds and hearts, and then implementing "national mechanisms for protection of human rights in each country".

He insisted that the WCC and individual member churches "must continue to do the job of promoting and preaching human rights around the world". And he suggested that education "is the key" to moving the cause forward. "It is the young people of the world who will vindicate the protection of human rights. That is why it is so important to increase our efforts to provide information and education about human rights to the young people of the world, " he concluded.

A movement toward inclusion

During the past couple of decades, the world has seen a movement from "exclusion towards the inclusion of marginalized peoples," said Theo van Boven, UN special rapporteur on torture, in his remarks to the forum. "This tendency to give voice to human rights victims, the development of international law, and the growth of international tribunals have all led to a greater understanding of human rights," van Boven added.

Yet, he pointed out, other movements have served to weaken human rights. "Globalization has diminished the role of the state, resulting in the privatization of security and prisons, and increasing the role of ‘non-state’ entities, such as transnational corporations, " he said.

"We are seeing a growing violation of human rights by businesses, and some paramilitary and religious groups, and in this new environment, we must strive to make transnational corporations and companies comply with human rights conventions, " he added.

According to van Boven, with globalization and diminished state power, the future of human rights advocacy will increasingly depend on "non-governmental human rights defenders, religious communities and NGOs". In addition, he contended, human rights strategies are only effective when they are conducted "in tandem with strategies of peace".

Continue in solidarity

"We must continue to be in solidarity with those who struggle for human rights and against structures in society that oppose human rights, " said Mia Adjali, executive secretary for Global Concerns in the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. According to Adjali, that solidarity must include "the power of knowing that people can make a difference in their lives because they begin to understand that they have a right to a better life. "

Adjali offered three reminders when advocating for human rights. First, she said, it is important to remember that human rights apply to both individuals and groups. Second, strategies for defining human rights require recourse to political action. "The subject of human rights is often controversial, and usually has a political dimension," she said. Third, "universal human rights apply to our own situation and to the situations encountered by others," she contended.

The final reminder, Adjali said, is "sometimes difficult for people in the United States to remember". As a US citizen, she suggested that "We Americans are expert at pointing out human rights violations around the world, but not so eager to look at such violations within our own country."

Women’s rights are human rights

"One of the most important developments during the meeting in Vienna was the recognition that women’s rights are human rights," said Parvina Nadjibulla, Resources Center specialist in the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. "That recognition was not only for the sake of gender equality, but also an understanding that the elimination of poverty, hunger, disease, and conflict will only happen if women’s rights are upheld," she said.

Nadjibulla also addressed "the complex relationship of human rights and terrorism," contending that "terrorism is violation of human rights, and the violation of human rights is often the origin of terror". And she suggested that improvements for the marginalized might occur "at the expense of the powerful".

In a historical review of human rights around the globe, Nadjibulla identified four steps for activists and advocates to follow. First, advocates must agree on a declaration of universal standards. Second, nations must develop a process to achieve the standards locally. Third, international monitoring bodies and treaty committees must oversee the national standards. And fourth, "The world community must develop mechanisms of enforcement, and so far, those mechanisms are not strong enough."

Nadjibulla and her colleagues agreed that the WCC and the UN should work together in grassroots efforts with academia, other faith communities, businesses, and local governments to press for human rights.

"People of faith are often not loud enough," Nadjibulla concluded.

Free high-resolution photos from the WCC New York Advocacy Week are available on our website:

The complete programme of public seminars of the Advocacy Week and biodata about the key speakers are available at: