Human Rights – 11 December 2016

In this week’s email:

  • Human Rights
  • Praying for areas where rights are under threat

It’s fitting, as we mark Human Rights Day, that this week’s Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading confronts us with the realities of persecution – in it, we encounter John the Baptist, imprisoned for his criticism of Herod. We remember especially this week all who suffer because of state-sponsored intolerance of their faith in the Christ whom John proclaimed. May they know God’s peace amidst their sufferings, and may we, as fellow followers of Christ, seek to sustain them by our prayers and practical action.

Human Rights

What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

10 December is Human Rights Day – and given that there is much discussion around human rights, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the history of the concepts, as well as praying for areas where people are currently under threat.

December 10 was chosen as Human Rights Day to commemorate the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. The Declaration came in response to the atrocities of World War II and, in the words of the human rights group Liberty, the “realisation that although fundamental rights should be respected as a matter of course, without formal protection human rights concepts are of little use to those facing persecution.”

Drafted by a group chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt with members from China, Lebanon, Australia, Chile, France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, the Declaration’s preamble sets out the aspirations and context that gave it birth. “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” it notes. It then continues: “[D]isregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…  [I]t is essential… that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”

Thirty articles follow: these begin with the foundational statements that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that human rights apply “without distinction” to all people. Twenty further articles enumerate specific civil and political rights:

  • to life, liberty and security of person (Article 3)
  • to freedom from slavery (Article 4) or torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment (Article 5)
  • to recognition as a person before the law, to equal protection and to due process (Articles 6-11),
  • to protection from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence (Article 12),
  • to freedom of movement within states, to leave states (Article 13), to seek and enjoy asylum in case of persecution (Article 14) and to a nationality (Article 15)
  • to enter into consensual marriage (Article 16)
  • to own property (Article 17)
  • to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 18), freedom of opinion and expression (Article 19), and freedom of association (Article 20)
  • to take part in government and access public services (Article 21)

Six subsequent articles enumerate social, cultural and economic rights:

  • to social security (Article 22), to work, free choice of employment, just and
    favourable conditions of work, protection against unemployment, equal pay for equal
    work, just and favourable remuneration ensuring for a person and their family an existence worthy of human dignity, and the right to form and to join trade unions (Article 23), to rest and leisure (Article 24)
  • to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family and to special protection for all mothers and children, regardless of the child’s status (Article 25)
  • to education (Article 26)
  • to participation in cultural and artistic life (Article 27)

Oxford Public International Law has an interesting summary article on the genesis of the document and the influences on what was included – as well on the debates which led to its being a Declaration of the General Assembly, which has moral force but is not binding on member states and does not have treaty status.

In terms of its impact, the human rights organisation Liberty has described the Declaration as “one of the most important agreements in the history of human rights” and former Archbishop Rowan Williams, in a lecture which looks at some of the tensions around human rights, has spoken of it as “a landmark in the history of moral consciousness”.

What conventions support it – and how does it relate to the UK?

The Declaration was quickly followed by other instruments to give it effect in different contexts. Most relevantly for the UK, the newly formed Council of Europe created in 1950 the European Convention on Human Rights, which picks up primarily on the civil/political articles of the Universal Declaration, as well as on the right to education. The European Convention sets out both a series of rights and the extent to which some of them (privacy, freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association) are qualified by considerations such as the interests of the public safety or the rights of others. The UK played a significant role in creating and writing the European Convention and was one of the first to sign it on November 4th 1950. Helpful visual aids for each of the articles of the Convention can be found here.

The European Court of Human Rights followed in 1959, to rule on allegations of violations of the Convention. Other regional conventions and courts have also been adopted – for example the American Convention on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and conventions on specific issues have also been adopted (such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on Torture).

The UK has allowed individuals to apply to the European Court of Human Rights since 1966, but the 1998 Human Rights Act made the European Convention directly enforceable in the UK, meaning that people who feel their rights have been breached can take their case to a British court rather than European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Human Rights Act also requires public bodies, such as local authorities and the police, to respect and protect human rights and, in the words of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, “in practice it means that Parliament will nearly always seek to ensure that new laws are compatible with the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights” (even though Parliament actually remains sovereign).

The current Government is proposing to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. An even more profound change was mooted in April when then Home Secretary Theresa May called for the UK to leave the ECHR, although she later pulled back from this position during her leadership bid, citing a lack of parliamentary support.

This year’s Human Rights Day: Prayer and Action

The theme for this year’s Human Rights day is “Stand up for someone’s rights today!” How might one do that? There are some suggested areas for prayer below – but what other actions might we take?

One clear avenue is to work through a human rights organisation or organisations – supporting them financially, taking actions they highlight and praying for them. Such support matters. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has said, “It means a great deal to those who are oppressed to know that they are not alone. Never let anyone tell you that what you are doing is insignificant.”  Many Christians already support organisations such as Amnesty or Human Rights Watch. Among potentially less-well-known organisations, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Forum 18 (which takes its name from Article 18 of the Universal Declaration) do effective work on religious freedom, with the former having a broad focus on freedom generally and a more specific focus on issues facing Christians, and the latter providing “original reporting and analysis on violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief of all people in an objective, truthful and timely manner … [with a] focus on Central Asia, the South Caucasus, Russia and Belarus” and analyses of the situation in Turkey. The International Justice Mission focuses on a range of rights abuses – such as sex trafficking, modern slavery, police brutality, and citizenship rights – that have a particularly heavy impact in poor communities. You can see the story of their work to free an innocent man from prison in Kenya here; they have also rescued a number of child victims of cybersex trafficking, including “Cassie” whose story is told here. And you can read here about their work with police and politicians in Cambodia to transform systems that put vulnerable people at risk.

For our everyday lives, it can be helpful to get reminders on ways to respond if we witness someone being subjected to abuse or harassment. An article offering helpful advice can be found here.

At a policy level within the UK, the status of human rights and the role of the Human Rights Act is a contentious topic. Some of the discussion engages with serious questions and concerns; some is less well-informed; and all takes place in the current highly-charged context. Some very important issues are at stake. In the immediate present, the Methodist Church has a campaign action to take in support of the Human Rights Act. We propose to explore the subject further in the new year and invite you to share your thoughts and perspectives as we undertake this work. If you would like to contribute, please be in touch with Elizabeth at elizabeth@ccow.org.uk.

Following on from Human Rights Day, please pray:

  • For all whose human rights are being violated today – that they might find redress and know fullness of life.
  • For all involved in the education and formation of young people – that they may instill respect for the dignity and value of every human life
  • That governments will respect human rights in both theory and practice
  • For the individuals and organisations that stand up for human rights, often in difficult circumstances – that they might be given wisdom, discernment, resilience, courage, determination and support in the work that they pursue.
  • For ourselves – for wisdom to know when and how to intervene to stand up for people and policies, and for courage to do so


Praying for areas where rights are under threat

  • Colombia
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Myanmar
  • Global Gender-Based Violence
  • … and an action point

Colombia

While rejoicing in the recent steps towards peace, we continue to be concerned about worryingly high levels of violence against human rights defenders, environmental activists, community leaders and trade unionists.

Please pray for wisdom and discernment, courage and safety  for all those seeking to defend human rights, the rights of poor communities, the environment, and the right to organise into trade unions.  Pray that the government will take action to end the culture of impunity for those who attack members of these groups – and will seek to provide safety for all its citizens.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Earlier this year, we wrote about issues surrounding the elections that should be held this year in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Human Rights Watch noted this week:

“Ten days before the December 19, 2016, deadline marking the end of President Joseph Kabila’s constitutionally mandated two-term limit, he still has not made any clear commitment on when or even if he will step down. At the same time, government repression against pro-democracy activists, the political opposition, largely peaceful protesters, and the media has intensified at an alarming rate.”

Please pray that God will give those in power the wisdom and courage to act for the good of the country, and will give those outside of power who are seeking a fair and just democratic process wisdom and courage as they seek to make their points. Pray, too, for wisdom for EU and US leaders as they consider actions to take in response to the unfolding elections crisis.

Myanmar

Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims have long been regarded as one of the world’s most persecuted people. Effectively rendered stateless by the government of Myanmar, in which they reside, they have been denied adequate access to food and medical care and suffered the destruction of their property as well as violence against individuals, families and communities.

Most recently, Human Rights Watch and others have reported that following an attack – allegedly by Rohingya militants – on police outposts in one of the townships near the Bangladesh border, “government forces declared Maungdaw district an “operation zone” and began sweeps of the area to find the attackers and lost weapons. They severely restricted the freedom of movement of local populations and imposed extended curfews, which remain in place. With the area sealed off to observers, local sources reported that government forces committed serious human rights abuses, including torture, rape, extrajudicial executions, and widespread destruction of buildings, including mosques.” Human Rights Watch has documented the burning of over a thousand structures; many aid workers (the main providers of health care) are not being allowed into the area, and with the exception of one World Food Programme delivery, humanitarian aid has been blocked; as a result, the UN says that 160,000 vulnerable people have been cut off from health care, school feedings and maternal care. And the allegations of torture, rape and murder are harrowing.

The violence against the Rohingya takes place against a wider background of uncertainty in Myanmar, following government offensives and recent counterattacks in other provinces where ethnic conflict exists. It also takes place in a context where the civilian government leadership shares power with the military, which controls the cabinet posts for defence, home affairs and border affairs, and thus the departments in charge of the operations against the Rohingya.

Agencies are calling for an independent inquiry into military abuses, as well as the immediate lifting of restrictions on access for humanitarian aid (CSW, Human Rights Watch). The UN has called for Aung San Suu Kyi to rein in hardliners, unite the country, and address the Rohingya’s  issues of citizenship and status.

Please pray for the safety and protection of the vulnerable Rohingya and other vulnerable ethnic groups in Myanmar. Pray for justice and healing for those who have suffered traumatic losses. Pray that Aung San Suu Kyi can be a unifying force within the country and can help it to overcome traditional divisions. Pray for the lifting of restrictions on aid, and for long-term changes that give permanent access to citizenship, justice and security to the Rohingya and other minorities. Pray for the government of Bangladesh, as it considers how to respond to the refugees fleeing across its border. Pray for international assistance in support of those who have suffered so much.

Global Gender-Based Violence

No woman should have to suffer gender-based violence – but a frequently cited study on the prevalence of violence against women and girls estimated that during their lifetime, over 35% of women globally had experienced either or both of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. Pray for all women who have suffered gender-based violence – that God may give them healing and justice.

We pray particularly at this time for women in areas of conflict. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recently noted how conflict exacerbates extant problems:

“In Syria, where the ongoing conflict has destroyed the fabric of society, 67 per cent of women reported receiving some form of “punishment” from their husbands, 87 per cent of which was physical violence.

Sexual and gender-based violence was already widespread in South Sudan prior to the start of the conflict in December 2013, but it has increased fivefold in recent years. In Leer, Mayendit and Koch counties of Unity, an estimated 1,300 women and girls were raped and 1,600 women and children abducted between April and September 2015.

In Yemen, the reality of violence against women is rooted in gender inequality and discriminatory practices, which are further exacerbated by the current conflict. According to UNFPA, 3.1 million people have been internally displaced since the conflict began, and at least 17,277 GBV incidents have been reported.”

Pray for safety and security from sexual violence for all women and men in conflict zones, for an end to the impunity that often protects perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence, and for healing and justice for those who have already suffered. Pray, too, for the mending of the fabric of relationships within conflict-ridden societies, of which the violence against women is one manifestation.

That issues around understanding gender-based violence are also present closer to home was made starkly apparent in a recent study conducted across Europe by the European Commission. Asked to state whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “Violence against women is often provoked by the victim,” more than a third of the respondents in five countries agreed. Asked whether they thought sexual intercourse without consent was justified by circumstances, more than a fifth of respondents in four countries felt that being drunk or having used drugs justified intercourse without consent; more than 15% of respondents in three countries felt that walking alone at night did so; and all told, across the EU 28, 27% of respondents suggested that at least one of the possible circumstances justified sex without consent.

Pray that in all parts of the world, people may understand that violence against women and sex without consent are always unacceptable – and may do everything in their power to end both.

And an action point

It’s not technically a rights issue, as the people in question weren’t seeking asylum and countries have the right to control entry. But there is strong feeling that the Home Office’s refusal to grant visas for three Orthodox archbishops from Iraq and Syria to attend the consecration of the UK’s new Syrian Orthodox Cathedral was questionable and not particularly supportive of church leaders in the Middle East. Might you write to the Home Secretary to express your concern? If you’d like some guidelines, email us.