The Church and the Rights of Man

Author: LOR



There occurs this year the twentieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10th 1949. In its 30 articles the document tabulates the rights and fundamental liberties which belong to all human beings in every part of the world without any discrimination.

The current year has been designated by the United Nations as International Human Rights Year. Various celebrations have been arranged and attempts will be made to make the Declaration better known and appreciated and to promote the cause of Human Rights in every sector of life, social, economic, moral, educational, cultural, political, and civil.

The Church has always been in the vanguard in affirming, defending and promoting the rights of man. Its work in this regard will be the subject of several articles and commentaries during the current year.

In the meantime we give the salient points of an article "The Church and the Rights of Man " written by Monsignor Alberto Giovannatti, Permanent Observer of the Holy See at the United Nations, and already published in an American review.

1968 has been proclaimed "International Human Rights Year" to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Holy See has announced its intentions of taking part in the various celebrations of the International Year. It will, for example, be represented at the Conference on Human Rights to be held in Teheran during the Summer. The Secretariate of State has invited all catholic organisations to promote with all the means in their power knowledge of and respect for human rights during 1968.

The battle for human rights is old as the history at mankind. Men and women have engaged in a constant struggle against despotism, intolerance, and superstition and in favour of a life both dignified and free.

The institution of the United Nations was an important moment in this struggle. The preamble to the Charter of the UNO, in fact, proclaims the obligation of the member states of the United Nations to reaffirm their faith in the rights of man, in human dignity and in the value of the human person, and in the quality of rights between man and man, as between nations great and small. Article one of the Charter affirms that "the principal scope of the United Nations is international co-operation to promote respect for human rights and for the liberty of all without distinction of race, language or religion.

The Charter of the United Nations not only reaffirms the rights of man, but asks the United Nations to promote them. It imposes a legal obligation upon all to promote a policy both conjointly and apart from that of the Organisation to realise this task. It lays down also the means by which these rights are to be realised.

The first, and certainly the most important step taken by the United Nations in the field of human rights, was the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1947 at Geneva the Commission for the Rights of Man prepared a draft declaration that, on December 10th of the following year, at Paris, came to be approved by the General Assembly. The vote was unanimous (the six members of the Soviet block, Saudi Arabia, and the Union of South Africa abstained.)

The time devoted by the commission to bring this task to a conclusion might appear brief. Nevertheless, many observers, and among them myself, maintain that if the drafting of the declaration had been delayed for at least a year, the historic document might never have been able to see the light. Between 1948 and 1949 the sweet honeymoon of the United Nations was coming to an end and the icy blasts of the cold war were beginning to get up.

The document is a declaration of general principles of the highest moral value. It is not a treaty and does not require any ratification on the part of states. It is not an international agreement. It does not constitute a legal obligation. The value of the Declaration lies in the fact that, though it may not be a binding instrument, it renders more precise the obligations already contracted in the Charter of the UNO. The latter does not define human rights. The Universal Declaration furnishes an authoritative interpretation of the obligation assumed by the member states "to develop action conjointly and separately to promote respect and universal observance of human rights". The reverberation of the Declaration has been very great, both nationally and internationally. The principles are incorporated or cited in numerous constitutions and treaties, have been realised in numerous international conventions, both inside and outside the United Nations, recorded in verdicts of national courts of justice and, finally, adopted as a basis for the programmes of specialised Agencies and of regional intergovernmental organisations.

In brief, the Universal Declaration has become a point of reference for judging the conduct of governments and of individuals. Thanks to its influence people of diverse cultural and religious influences are appreciating ever more clearly that which Pope John called "the links that unite each one of us to others, which derives from the common human nature that all possess".

The Universal Declaration of the UNO is a leaven, a ferment that raises, confounds, transforms diverse influences in our society. The aspiration for human rights that once found its expression in the work of political democracy now extends to a higher and more universal level and encompasses the hopes of the hundreds of millions of men who previously rejected it. The great documents referred to above in their interpretation of such hopes have transformed them into irresistible petitions.

Are such human rights, such principles and affirmations different from those taught and proclaimed by the Church?

The Holy See watched with some perplexity the drawing up of the Declaration. It was not pleased by the absence of a reference to God as first source of human dignity. Besides, some articles seemed wanting in an adequate definition of liberty of religion and of religious teaching. Notwithstanding that the Holy See has recognised that the adoption of the Declaration has constituted a noble exercise, considering the diverse origins and ideologies of the members of the General Assembly. Note how Pope John referred to the Declaration in the Encyclical "Pacem in Terris", An act of the very highest importance carried out by the United Nations is the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, approved by the General Assembly on December 10th 1948. In the preamble of the Declaration there is proclaimed as an ideal to be followed by all peoples and by all nations, the effective recognition of and respect for those rights and their respective liberties. On some particular points of the Declaration objections and reservations were indicated. There is no doubt, however, that the document signified an important point on the way towards the juridico-political development of world communities. In it, in fact, has come to be recognised, in the most solemn fashion, the dignity of personality and of all that is human; and it has came to be recognised as their fundamental right that of moving freely m the search for truth, in finding moral good and justice, and in finding a life of dignity. And there have came to be proclaimed other rights connected with those outlined above. "We send our good wishes, in fact, that the United Nations Organisation may became ever more adequate—in its structures and in its means—to the fulfilment of its vast and noble tasks; and that there may arrive the day in which each single human being may find in it an effective guardian of the rights which spring immediately from his dignity as a person, and which are, for that reason, universal, inviolable and inalienable". The United Nations have adopted 15 such conventions, of which 10 are already in operation; for example, the supplementary convention on slavery, the convention on genocide, the convention on the political rights of women and the convention on the elimination of racial discrimination. All of these have been adopted under the auspices of the United Nations. Another four, on forced labour, on discrimination in employment, on the equitable payment of labour and on freedom of association have been adopted by the International Labour Organisation. UNESCO has encouraged the adoption of the Convention on discrimination in education. Two other conventions, on the elimination of every form of religious intolerance and on freedom of information, are at present under examination by the United Nations General Assembly.

Many of these conventions have been ratified by the Holy See. It has been among the first to deposit instruments of ratification, for example, of the convention on racial discrimination, not withstanding the Holy See’s traditional policy which is to wait until a certain number of states have given their approval to international agreements.

Besides, the Holy See has welcomed the proposal to constitute a United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, and international "ombudsman". The proposal is, as yet, before the General Assembly. It favours, besides, the so-called "rights of petition" that would concede to non-governmental organisations the right to complain about violations of human rights in every country.

The United Nations, none the less, are carrying forward the cause of human rights in diverse directions. At the United Nations—"school of peace"—as Paul VI called it, the lesson of human rights is being learnt slowly and painfully, but it is being learnt. The activity of the United Nations is not enough by itself. The governments of the world must integrate themselves with that work and they can only do it when peoples request an international system of guarantees for the rights of man and when governments and peoples are prepared to accept the limitations of their national sovereignty that this system in some measure requires.

The teaching of the last three pontiffs has underlined this necessity for a superior institution endowed with supranational powers, because only such an institution can solve the problems of contemporary international life. The success of this venture depends upon each man and woman in the world.

In this struggle for the rights of man, in this fundamental "operation for building peace" no one can be neutral, no one can reduce himself to being a spectator; we are all involved in the game. Our objective is far from being reached. Much remains to be done. Personal dignity and human dignity continue to be violated. The myth of the inequality of peoples and of races is still alive. The scandal of apartheid is still with us. The very evident disparity between rich nations and poor nations, hunger, ignorance, misery, discrimination are still obstacles that block the realisation of a better world.

We are faced with a moral obligation and with a great challenge, but difficult obligations cannot be faced without the stimulating hope of bettering the human condition. Our reply to this challenge, as Christians, as Catholics, is awaited and completely vindicated by all the peoples of the world.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
11 April 1968, page 5

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069