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Measure of human rights is in actions, not words


Dec. 10 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in response to the atrocities of the Second World War.>

The document represented a high achievement and offered great promise. The declaration sets down the human rights considered fundamental to the dignity and development of every human being. These range from economic rights, such as the right to work and the right to an adequate standard of living, to political rights, such as freedom of opinion, expression and association. They include civil rights, such as equality before the law, and social or cultural rights, such as the right to education and to participate in the cultural life of the community.

In effect, the nations’ leaders promised one another to work toward a world without cruelty and injustice; a world without hunger and ignorance; a world of justice and reconciliation.

Much has been achieved in the last half century. Struggles against colonialism and apartheid have changed the map of the world. Mass movements against race and gender discrimination have transformed societies. The principles enshrined in the declaration have become a rallying cry for activists and ordinary people worldwide.

Unfortunately, for many more millions the declaration remains little more than platitudes. It is, at best, an unfulfilled promise for the 1.3 billion people who struggle to survive on less than one dollar a day; for the 35,000 children who die of malnutrition and preventable diseases every day; for the billion adults who cannot read or write; for jailed prisoners of conscience; for murdered catechists; for torture victims; for inmates lingering on death rows.

Vatican statements have long focused on the essential importance of human dignity. Religious orders have been exemplary in advocating human rights throughout the world. Differences between the Vatican and the United Nations on abortion and population issues have obscured the fact that for 50 years the Vatican and the United Nations have largely advanced the same social and economic agendas.

Ambassadors from the Holy See were present at the adoption of the universal declaration. The Vatican has repeatedly affirmed its support for the subordinate agencies of the United Nations, such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF, UNESCO and the several entities related to refugees.

It has had a close relationship with the Food and Agriculture Organization, based in Rome. It was the fifth nation to sign the U.N. Covenant on the Rights of the Child. It has been a leading advocate of disarmament and Third World debt forgiveness. It has been in the forefront of efforts for a drastic reordering of the world’s economies and, more recently, in urging the abolition of the death penalty.

Meanwhile, the stories of religious and laity struggling on behalf of human rights, whether in Central America, Africa or in some U.S. inner cities, get told each week in the pages of NCR. Indeed, no other theme has emerged more consistently from NCR’s pages during its 34-year history.

Many Catholic religious orders and church organizations have focused their ministries on living out a human rights commitment. Two of these groups are the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men in the United States.

These two organizations will join forces to sponsor an assembly Aug. 20-22 in Milwaukee in connection with the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. The assembly will focus on the roles religious individuals and communities have played in advancing human rights in recent years.

For the leaders of the religious organizations represented in the two conferences, it should be a time to take satisfaction in achievements accomplished. No doubt, it will also be a time to harness creative energies to determine future paths.

In some ways, the story of the Catholic church and its relation to the human rights issues of our time parallels that of the wider human family. Lofty and inspiring words have been written; some have advanced from words to commitment and achievement.

The task that lies ahead is to spread the words and find the means to make them come alive -- to open hearts and minds to the central understanding that when any person falls victim to a rights violation, all of us do.

Readers interested in the full text of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights will find it here on NCR Online. Click on the Documents button.

Tom Fox is publisher of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998