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WCC participants discuss human rights on anniversary of declaration

12/11/1998 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

HARARE, Zimbabwe (UMNS) -- The World Council of Churches has a role to play in advancing human rights around the globe, speakers said on the 50th anniversary of the United Nations' adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The anniversary was commemorated Dec. 10 at the WCC's Eighth Assembly at the University of Zimbabwe. A WCC policy committee also will present a detailed
document later in the assembly for the organization to use in its next seven- year period of work. The assembly ends Dec. 14.

The anniversary of the declaration was marked with testimony and challenges from a panel of speakers at a Padare hearing. Visitors and delegates to the assembly are spending five days in a wide range of such hearings, which take their name from the Shona term for "meeting place."

The Padare session, moderated by United Methodist delegate Jan Love of Columbia, S.C., included testimony from speakers from South Korea and Chile, as well as comments from other panelists. The discussion reflected on the past 50 years and examined the challenges that lie ahead in human rights.

Through their ongoing work together, the members of the WCC have a "vast connection" in areas such as human rights, Love said afterward. "What we'll have to increase capacity on is public conversation about our relationships with our own governments."

Accountability among the member churches also presents a challenge.

"For me, the issue is that when one church perceives another church within our fellowship to be violating human rights in some sort of severe way, we have a hard time dealing with that," said Love, who moderates the WCC's international affairs commission. For example, German members asked how the Serbian church was responding to violations in the former Yugoslavia, she said. "That kind of accountability is where we need to press harder."

Thomas Hammarberg, a Padare panelist, said the WCC should take the role of establishing a consensus around the world for the adoption of human rights. Hammarberg, an adviser on humanitarian issues to the Swedish government, said the end of the Cold War had brought hope for such a consensus, but that hasn't materialized.

"We have a role to play in putting an end to the politicized discussion among governments about human rights," he said. A change is needed in what is perceived as the patronizing lecturing by Western countries, including the United States, on human rights issues, he said. That lecturing is combined with insensitivity to violations in the West's own backyard, he said.

The United States and other governments "continue to undermine the consensus on human rights" by rejecting social and economic rights, Hammarberg said. Then President Jimmy Carter signed the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights but the U.S. Senate has not completed the ratification.

Some governments maintain that rights are not universal, he said. In places such as Malaysia and Singapore, for example, nongovernmental people are desperate for help with human rights, he said.

Churches must continue to push governments that haven't ratified the U.N. declaration and that openly violate human rights, said Lois Dauway, a WCC delegate and head of the Section of Christian Social Responsibility for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. Her section deals with human rights issues. "That means the church has to stand with courage, and that's not always an easy thing to do."

One of the church's biggest gifts could be helping people in the pews understand what the declaration means to them, she said. The church needs to educate people about their rights, then stand with them in the fight to exercise those rights, she said.

The Rev. Minerva Carcano of Dallas, a United Methodist delegate who attended the Padare session on human rights, drew several impressions from the discussion. "One of them is a deep sense of sadness that we basically have to legislate human rights, that we are not able to see each other as beings of sacred worth."

She hears few churches speaking about human rights. It is an area that has been left up to governments and political bodies, she said. "We need to speak more about human rights and the church's role."
Churches can address human rights through Sunday school classes, preaching and group conversations, she said. Human rights also are related to Christian formation and should be discussed in seminaries.

Carcano sees human rights as an area in which ecumenical unity can be built.

She would like to see the United Methodist Church take more of a leadership role. "I long for our church to be at the forefront of human rights and not wait until it's politically possible … but rather to challenge the powers to do more."

Carcano said she was moved during the Padare by the testimony from a Chilean man who said he and others were sustained by their Christian brothers and sisters around the world during the brutal military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The recent approval by the British government for Pinochet to be extradited to Spain to stand trial for human rights violations was hailed as a step forward by Love and others. "It's a profound moment for the people of Latin America, who suffered under extreme brutality," Love said.

The case of Pinochet indicates that gross violations of human rights are now seen as an international matter, Hammerberg said. "Human rights violations are now established as an international concern."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the Padare session through a video message.

"It is the universality of human rights that gives them their strength," Annan said. "It endows them with the power to cross any border, climb any wall, defy any force."

Annan, recently honored by the World Methodist Council for his work for peace, noted the role that people of faith have played throughout history in the struggle against tyranny, injustice, slavery, racism and apartheid.

"I ardently hope that you will continue to inspire the world to draw upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an instrument of faith to be enjoyed by people everywhere."
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*Tanton is news editor for United Methodist News Service.

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