Peter Prove is executive director of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, an international network of churches and church-related organizations committed to campaigning on common concerns. He describes how religions are taking up human rights concerns.
Religious communities are communities of teaching and learning. And within their communities and societies, religious institutions have always played a major role in education, both formal and informal, religious and general—for good and, regrettably, sometimes for ill.
The world’s major faith traditions also share a common acknowledgment of and commitment to the value and dignity of every human life. Though this is often more honored in the breach than in the observance, the shared religious valuing of human life and dignity is a powerful foundation for modern legal instruments and processes for the promotion and protection of human rights.
Coupling the educational role and capacities of religious institutions and the faith commitment to human dignity, human rights education has gradually come to assume a more prominent place in the work of faith communities and related organizations.
Within the international ecumenical movement among the Christian churches, this focus emerged visibly in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the work of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and its Commission of the Churches on International Affairs.
In 1980, following a long engagement in addressing specific situations of human rights violations around the world, an ecumenical and international Human Rights Advisory Group recommended that “human rights education” be developed at all levels. It is clear that the potential of the churches and religious organizations to promote human rights education and learning is vast, both within their own communities of faith and in wider society.
It is increasingly common to find human rights included in the curricula of seminaries and theological training institutions, and in church-related schools. From the perspective of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA), a network of 80 churches and church-related organizations committed to collaboration in advocacy for justice, human rights has always been the substratum of our work. Currently, we are promoting campaigns on food security (”Food for Life”) and HIV and AIDS (”Live the Promise”). Regardless of the issue on which we are working, we actively encourage our members to use human rights principles and processes in their advocacy work. Our experience has underlined the importance of treating human rights not as a separate issue or abstract notion, but as a paradigm through which to analyze and respond to all types of injustice, oppression, marginalization and disempowerment.
At the same time, we have perceived a pressing need for religious communities that proclaim justice for the poor and oppressed to equip themselves, and those whose voices and experiences they are seeking to raise, with the human rights tools that will enable and empower them to do so.
Some EAA members are consciously doing this. In one example, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India launched a nationwide campaign on the right to food, providing materials not only on relevant aspects of international human rights law but also relevant orders of the Supreme Court of India, and translating those materials into 10 major languages. Coupled with trainings conducted in 20 out of 30 Indian states, these materials contributed to the empowerment of marginalized people in claiming their inalienable but unfulfilled rights.
Religious communities and their institutions are more present at the grassroots than any other human structure or organization, and have a significant capacity to educate and empower the most marginalized in their societies, as well as exercising a powerful influence on public attitudes and policy. Building on a common respect for human dignity—as the WCC’s Human Rights Advisory Group already recognized 30 years ago—”work for human rights can forge new bonds of unity within and between the churches, and with people of other faiths or those motivated by secular inspiration whom we encounter in the struggle for justice."
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