The duty of defending the rights of all

By Philippe Lafortune, animator for central and southern Quebec

While public sector unions are striking over labour rights in Quebec and ecological rights were being debated at COP28 in Dubai, it is worth noting that December 10 marked the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While we ought to be able to take them for granted in an ideal world, the reality is that these rights and freedoms are threatened and violated for millions around the world.

This fundamental document, translated into over 500 languages, recognizes that “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.” In fact, it is precisely because these rights are not respected and this dignity is not honoured that one-fourth of the world’s people live in conflict-affected regions.

We “are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” so as to ensure that all human beings can live as they are born: “free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1) that “everyone is entitled to… without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language,” creed or condition (Article 2). We seek no less for ourselves and for each of our fellow human beings.

In reading the thirty articles of the Declaration, we also recognize the principles of Catholic Social Teaching that have guided the mission of Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada for over 55 years, as well as the efforts of our members and of the partners with whom we work in countries and regions where respect for people’s dignity, rights and responsibilities is not always the law.

Universal rights

The Declaration stipulates that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (Article 3). Its authors also specify that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude” (Article 4) or “subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5). Articles 6 to 11 lay things out in more concrete terms, notably recognizing the right “to equal protection of the law” (Article 7).

However, as our partner ERIC-Radio Progreso (see website in Spanish) and our Stand for the Land campaign have reminded us, the case of the Guapinol River is emblematic of chronic injustices rampant in Honduras and around the world. Peaceful community mobilization against an illegal iron mine illegally in a national park was repressed with the prosecution of 32 defenders, the unjust imprisonment of eight and the murder of three.

While everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 18); to information and freedom of opinion and expression (Article 19); to peaceful assembly and association (Article 20); and to participate in the government of their country (Article 21.1), respect for these rights remains a challenge in the countries where we work, particularly for women, Indigenous peoples and minorities.

“Peace and democracy require the inclusion of women,” as one of our programs officers reminds us. Our Electoral Education and Inclusive Governance program is therefore giving a voice to 10 million women who do not want to birth children only to send them off to die in mines or wars. Ultimately, “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government” (Article 21.3).

Expert opinion and our own experience alike confirm the close correlation between the freedom of expression and the protection of other rights such as the right to work (Article 23); rest and leisure (Article 24); and “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of self and of family, “including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services” (Article 25).

In a world where up to 783 million people face hunger, Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada’s agroecology projects in Bolivia, Burundi and Madagascar aim not only to alleviate hunger, but also to train communities to meet their own needs and adapt to climate change.

Our Colombian partner, the Asociación Campesina de Antioquia is filming biodiversity (see Spanish YouTube channel) to enable people not only to better document, discover and defend it, but also “to participate in the cultural life of the community” (Article 27), an exercise as precious as it can be perilous for those who have stayed in or returned to a country where 50 years of a war have killed and displaced over 8 million.

While everyone has the right to a nationality (Article 15); to freedom of movement, to leave and return to their country (Article 13); to seek and enjoy asylum (Article 14), over 100 million people are still forced to flee their homes. Thanks to the generosity of our members, we are able to help provide some safety to and alleviate the plight of some one million of them in Ukraine, Venezuela and Bangladesh.

An individual duty

While a million people constitute a statistic, every person among them represents an individual tragedy. It is therefore important to honor the memory―the names, the actions, the ultimate gifts―of martyred human rights defenders or textile workers who deserve better than to die under bombs, bullets and rubble. Above all, it is important to ensure that their sisters and brothers do not suffer the same unacceptable and avoidable fate.

If violence claims so many human lives, it is because too many women, men and children are deprived of the means of subsistence and full development. When we are no longer subjected to the violence of poverty and war, we can devote ourselves to living, becoming the best we can be and helping co-create a world that truly embodies our values.

If money is the sinews of war, people are the heart of peace. That is why members of the Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada movement mobilize at the heart of their communities―in parishes, schools and seniors’ residences―to raise awareness and inform their fellow citizens about the realities of our less fortunate sisters and brothers, and to involve them in solidarity-based solutions.

In conclusion, World Human Rights Day was therefore a fresh opportunity to:

  • Celebrate the 75th anniversary of a major international moral commitment
  • Commit to ensuring that our sisters and brothers can enjoy it to the full
  • Actively commit to defending the rights of every human being, especially by signing the letter supporting the Guapinol and San Pedro defenders in Honduras as part of our Stand for the Land campaign
  • Remember that this is an ongoing struggle for millions of our sisters and brothers
  • Participate in our events, such as the Call to peace in Gaza on December 16
  • Denounce all forms of injustice and demand that justice be done, here and in the Global South.

More than universal rights, these are individual and collective duties.

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