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 Global Perspective

September 24, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 26

Rukshan Fernando
Rukshan Fernando, former Asian Coordinator of the International Young Christian Students Movement (IYCSM) works with the Caritas Sri Lanka National Office coordinating the National Peace Program.



"Speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves.Protect the rights of the poor and needy."

-- Proverbs 31:8-9

Asia makes advocacy for poor pastoral priority

By Rukshan Fernando

GENEVA -- "Remember that you are here to represent the victims of human rights violations -- you have to be their voice" was the main message I received from Pax Romana (ICMICA), who facilitated my joining the recently concluded U.N. subcommission on human rights meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. My participation helped me realize the importance of advocacy at the United Nations to promote human rights.

The efforts of the Pakistani church are inspiring examples of advocacy at the United Nations by Asian churches. Consistent advocacy at the United Nations by the Pakistani Catholic bishops' National Justice and Peace Commission has been useful in the church's struggle for minority rights, such as opposition to discriminatory electorate laws and a blasphemy law, according to Peter Jacob, the commission's executive secretary. This year, Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, who is also the chairperson of the National Justice and Peace Commission, visited the U.N. human rights subcommission in Geneva to initiate an informal Pakistan Support Group. By organizing training on U.N. human rights mechanisms and this support group, the Pakistani church is now helping local and national nongovernmental organizations use this key advocacy route.

When the Asian bishops formed the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) in Manila in 1970, they resolved "to have the courage to speak out for the rights of the disadvantaged and powerless against all forms of injustice, no matter from what source such abuse may come." Over the years, local churches, national episcopal conferences and the FABC have reaffirmed these commitments. Asian liberation theologies and Catholic social teachings have enriched these commitments. Meeting in Samphran, Thailand, in January 2000, the Asian bishops affirmed that "advocacy has emerged as a powerful method and means to respond to issues and challenges bishops conferences should take up advocacy for the common good." The Second Asian Laity Meeting in March 2001 similarly declared: "We are particularly challenged to undertake advocacy for the promotion of human rights."

Churches can take credit for many victories in promoting and protecting human rights in Asia. However, Asian church leaders have not adequately taken up advocacy through the United Nations, either due to ignorance or reluctance (I suspect both). Thus, for the most part, the church has not translated its commitment into action. Indeed, a bishop at the FABC's 5th plenary meeting in Bandung, Indonesia, confessed: "We have preached about values which ought to be pursued, but have often failed to follow through with effective action that would help dismantle structures of sin oppressive of our peoples."

On the other hand, Catholic lay movements -- such as Pax Romana, International Young Catholic Students and Pax Christi -- have worked with the United Nations from its inception. These groups have relationships and credibility with the United Nations that few NGOs enjoy. Pax Romana, for example, offers internship programs during U.N. human rights commission meetings, and the Hong Kong-based Asian Center for Progress of Peoples held a training workshop on the U.N. system last year. Religious congregations, such as Dominicans and Franciscans, are also actively using the U.N. systems for advocacy.

These groups make written and oral interventions at U.N. meetings, and also lobby U.N. experts, country delegations and secular NGOs. They monitor U.N. treaties, conventions and country reports. They prepare alternative "shadow" reports and provide information to committee members and U.N. special rapporteurs.

Unfortunately, their long expertise remains untapped by many Asian church leaders.

Regional church bodies that specialize in issues of human rights, development and justice have a special imperative to lead advocacy through the United Nations because they have the unique capacity to advocate at the international level, while at the same time coordinating, animating and training national and local church groups and lay movements in this task. This is of particular importance, as Asia is the only continent without a regional human rights mechanism.

I was among the delegates in Bangkok three years ago at the Consultation on Advocacy for Justice and Peace in the 21st century, organized by the FABC Office of Human Development. We recommended that the Asian bishops begin a Bishops Institute for Christian Advocacy and revive their Bishops Institute for Social Action. We also recommended that the FABC's human development office review its mandate in light of the increasing complexity of advocacy. To my knowledge, no one acted on these recommendations.

Though my focus is on the Asian churches, Western churches and the Holy See have critically important roles at the United Nations. They can advocate for Third World rights before Western governments and transnational corporations whose policies and actions violate human rights in Asia -- from selling arms to repressive Asian states and non-state actors; to violating labor laws, destroying the environment and traditional livelihoods, and displacing indigenous peoples.

The Western churches also have an important contribution to make because Western governments dominate the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization, whose policies and programs hold sway over people of the South.

Despite the weaknesses of the U.N. system, it remains the most credible world body to deal with human rights. It is still the best forum for civil society to engage with policy makers and political leaders, and to bring multilateral institutions into the discourse on human rights.

We are at a unique moment in time. The United Nations has reached a point where it is ready to include in its debates on human rights interventions from civil society.

If local and regional church bodies -- especially those in Asia -- can add their voices to the debate, the cause of the poor will be advanced. The churches will have turned their words into actions.

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