Catholics celebrate, protest Human Rights Day

UNITED NATIONS — The celebrations and protests that mark today’s International Human Rights Day and the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights carry similar messages: As world citizens, we’ve made progress on protecting human rights, but it is a mission yet to be fulfilled.

Catholics took special interest in the celebrations and the protests this year. Vatican officials and Catholic activists found themselves on opposite sides of a U.N. proposal made today that would condemn discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and endorse the decriminalization of homosexuality.

DignityUSA, New Ways Ministry and Call To Action — three U.S. Catholic organizations that support gay equality — planned to hold vigils in five cities today to protest Vatican opposition to a proposed resolution. Vigils were planned in Boston, Dallas, New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

Sixty years ago today, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”

“The challenges we face today are as daunting as those that confronted the Declaration’s drafters,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his message for Human Rights Day, which reflected on the continuing struggle to see the universal human rights included in the Declaration enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.

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Ban said, “We face a food emergency and a global financial crisis. Humankind’s assault on the natural environment continues. There is political repression in too many countries. And as ever, the most vulnerable continue to be on the frontlines of hardship and abuse.”

A U.S. nun who was murdered in 2005 while she worked to defend the rights of poor farmers in the Brazilian Amazon region will receive a prestigious U.N. human rights prize as part of today’s celebrations.

Dorothy Stang, who was a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, is one of seven recipients of the U.N. Prize in the Field of Human Rights, awarded by the General Assembly every five years.

The others are slain Pakistani leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto; Louise Arbour, former U.N. high commissioner for human rights; Ramsey Clark, former U.S. attorney general; Carolyn Gomes, executive director of Jamaicans for Justice; Denis Mukwege, cofounder of the General Referral Hospital of Panzi in Congo; and Human Rights Watch.

Presenting the awards will be the president of the U.N. General Assembly, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann. (D’Escoto is a Los Angeles-born Maryknoll priest. He served as Nicaragua’s foreign minister from 1979-1990, and was elected president of the U.N. General Assembly June 4. He has not been able to exercise his priestly ministry since 1985 because of his political activity.)

The awardees, d’Escoto said, are “symbols of persistence, valor and tenacity in their resistance to public and private authorities that violate human rights. … They are an inspiration to all of us who seek and believe another type of society, another type of political system, another economic model, another world is possible where all persons will be treated as brothers and sisters, without discrimination, exclusion or destruction of life in all its forms.”

Pope John Paul II called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time.”

In the lead-up to the 60th anniversary, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United Nations, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, said in the 60 years since the passage of the Declaration there has been “notable progress ... in a number of areas. Yet still today, individuals are unable to exercise even some of their most basic rights.”

He said, “At the center of these rights is the fundamental right to life, from the moment of conception to natural death.”

Migliore also said concern for human rights must keep a “consistent focus on a human-centered approach to development.”

“The lack of access to basic health care, education, food, water and development prevents people from exercising their fundamental human rights,” he said.

Earlier this month, Migliore opposed a U.N. draft declaration that condemns discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and endorses the decriminalization of homosexuality.

Sponsors of the draft declaration, drawn up by France and endorsed by the European Union, planned to present it to the U.N. General Assembly today.

Later, the Vatican’s spokesman said that the Holy See’s ambassador to the United Nations clearly expressed the church’s and the Vatican’s position on the proposal.

Migliore told French news agency I.Media Dec. 1 that such a proposal was “sad and outrageous” and represented the kind of “modern savagery that will dismantle our society from the inside out.”

The initiative would promote the dismantling of the human-rights system by allowing declarations that are no longer about promoting and protecting fundamental rights but about “personal choices,” he said.

Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said unjust forms of discrimination against homosexuals must be avoided. However, the Vatican does not approve of a formal declaration with political weight that might be used to put pressure on or discriminate against countries that do not recognize same-sex marriage, he said.

Almost 80 countries have laws prohibiting homosexual activity and several nations include the death penalty as a form of punishment for such activity.

“We believe that our pope, our church, with its belief in the sanctity of human life, should be leading efforts to end this most egregious form of oppression. Instead, our leader has chosen to stand with countries that continue to name us as criminals,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA.

“For too long, there has been a terrible conflict between the official Catholic church’s policies and pastoral practices as they relate to gay people,” she said. “Despite the good work being done in so many parishes, Vatican policies lead to our entire church being associated with discrimination and anti-gay violence. It has sad, even tragic consequences for lesbian and gay people and our families.”

Speaking on Vatican Radio Dec. 1, Lombardi said that “obviously nobody wants to defend the death penalty for homosexuals.” The problem with the draft proposal is that it does not just ask for the decriminalization of homosexuality, he said.

It also includes a declaration that might mean communities that “do not put every sexual orientation on exactly the same level can be considered contrary to the respect of human rights,” he said.

Fewer than 50 U.N. member states have endorsed the draft declaration.

“We are so disappointed that the leaders of the Catholic church would object to protecting gay people from the often violent threats they face,” said Frank DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry.

“Our organization is committed to creating dialogue among members of the Catholic church and I know from experience that the statements of the church’s leaders do not reflect the views of the majority of Catholics, who favor protecting gay people from life-threatening violence,” he said.

A full text of the declaration is available on the U.N.’s Web site. It has been translated into 360 languages: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

See related story: UN receives petitions pro, con abortion as 'right'

(Reports from Catholic News Service are included in this article.)

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