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Reports 1995-1998 Edited by Dwain C. Epps

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Statement on Human Rights

Adopted by the Eighth Assembly, Harare, Zimbabwe, 3-14 December 1998.


The World Council of Churches has a long history of involvement in the development of international norms and standards, and in the struggle for advancement of human rights. Through its Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, the Council participated in the drafting of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, and contributed the text of Article 18 on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The WCC has since been active in promoting the Declaration’s implementation.

In preparation for its Fifth Assembly [Nairobi, 1975], the WCC engaged in a global process of consultation to review its fundamental policy on human rights. That review led to a “Consultation on Human Rights and Christian Responsibility” in St. Pölten, Austria, 1974, which provided guidelines for the policy statement adopted in Nairobi, 1975, placed human rights at the centre of struggles for liberation from poverty, colonial rule, institutionalized racism, and military dictatorships, and formulated a comprehensive new ecumenical agenda for action on human rights.

Churches in many parts of the world took up the Nairobi Assembly’s challenge, addressing human rights needs in their respective societies more intentionally, engaging often at great risk in costly struggles for human rights under military dictatorships, establishing a global ecumenical network of human rights solidarity and new forms of active cooperation with the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights and other national and international human rights organizations. These strategies significantly increased the effectiveness of the ecumenical witness on human rights and had a substantial impact on the development of new international standards.

Anticipating the Eighth Assembly, the WCC Central Committee, in 1993, called for a new global review of ecumenical human rights policy and practice to draw lessons from two decades of intensive engagement, to assess emerging challenges arising from the radical changes which had occurred in the world since the Nairobi Assembly, and as a means to stimulate new action in churches where human rights had been given a lower priority. Regional consultations and seminars were held, and their reports were drawn together by an international consultation on “Human Rights and the Churches: The New Challenges” in Morges, Switzerland, June 1998.

Previous assemblies and ecumenical consultations have developed a theological basis for the churches’ engagement in the promotion and defense of human rights:

“As Christians, we are called to share in God’s mission of justice, peace and respect for all Creation and to seek for all humanity the abundant life which God intends. Within scripture, through tradition, and from the many ways in which the spirit illumines our hearts today, we discern God’s gift of dignity for each person and their inherent right to acceptance and participation within the community. From this flows the responsibility of the church, as the Body of Christ, to work for universal respect and implementation of human rights,” (Consultation on “Human Rights and the Churches: New Challenges,” Morges, Switzerland, June 1998);

“Our concern for human rights is based on our conviction that God wills a society in which all can exercise full human rights. All human beings are created in the image of God, equal, and infinitely precious in God’s sight and ours. Jesus Christ has bound us to one another by his life, death and resurrection, so that what concerns one concerns us all,” (Fifth Assembly, Nairobi, 1975);

“All human beings, regardless of race, sex or belief have been created by God as individuals and in human community. Yet, the world has been corrupted by sin, which results in the destruction of human relationships. In reconciling humankind and creation with God, Jesus Christ has also reconciled human beings with each other. Love of our neighbor is the essence of obedience to God,” (Sixth Assembly, Vancouver, 1983);

“The spirit of freedom and truth moves us to witness to the justice of the Kingdom of God and to resist injustice in the world. We manifest the life of the Spirit by striving for the release of those who are captive to sin by standing with the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, justice and peace. Liberated by the Spirit, we are empowered to understand the world from the perspective of the poor and vulnerable and to give ourselves to mission, service and the sharing of resources,” (Seventh Assembly, Canberra, 1991).

The Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, 3-14 December 1998, therefore adopts the following statement on human rights:

  1. We give thanks to God for the gift of life and for the dignity God has bestowed on all in Creation.

  2. Costly witness

    1. We recall the engagements and achievements of the churches, ecumenical bodies, and of human rights defense groups to uphold the sanctity of life, and especially for the costly witness of those who suffered and lost their lives in this struggle.

    2. The theme of this Assembly, “Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope,” reinforces our belief in the three-fold structure of Christian faith and life: God turns to us in grace; we respond in faith, acting in love; and we anticipate the coming, final fullness of God’s presence in all of Creation. We have newly experienced God’s call to Jubilee, and this leads us to reaffirm our commitment to human rights, to the dignity and worth of the human person created in God’s image and infinitely precious in God’s sight, and to the equal rights of women and men, of young and old, of all nations and peoples. Deep theological, liturgical, and mystical experience of the broad family of Christian traditions teaches us to develop understanding of human rights and freedom in the spirit of faithfulness to God and responsibility before and for the people of God.

2.3. This we do in a spirit of repentance and humility. We are aware of the many shortcomings of the churches’ actions for human rights; of our unwillingness or inability to act when people were threatened or suffered; of our failure to stand up for people who have experienced violence and discrimination; of our complicity with the principalities, powers, and structures of our time responsible for massive violations of human rights; and of the withdrawal of many churches from work on human rights as a priority of Christian witness. We ask for God to empower us to face the new challenges.

  1. Facing the new challenges

3.1. We thank God for the substantial improvements in international standards achieved since the WCC Fifth Assembly (1975) in such areas as the rights of the child, of women, of indigenous peoples, of minorities, of the uprooted; against discrimination, racial violence, persecution, torture, violence against women, including rape as a weapon of war, forced disappearance, extra-judicial executions and the death penalty; in developing new, “third generation” rights to peace, development, and sustainable communities; and the new recognition of human rights as a component of peace and conflict resolution. In spite of these provisions, major obstacles still exist, hampering the implementation of human rights standards.

3.2. We recognize the vital importance of the international norms, but we reiterate the conviction of the WCC Sixth Assembly (1983) that the most pressing need is for the implementation of these standards. Therefore, once again, we urge governments to ratify international covenants and conventions on human rights, to include their provisions in national and regional legal standards, and to develop effective mechanisms to implement them at all levels. At the same time we call upon the churches to overcome exclusion and marginalization in their own midst and to provide for full participation in their lives and governance.

3.3. Globalization and human rights. This Assembly has addressed the pressing new challenges to human rights of peoples, communities, and individuals resulting from globalization of the economy, culture, and means of communication, including the erosion of the power of the State to defend the rights of persons and groups under its jurisdiction, and the weakening of the authority of the United Nations as a guarantor and promoter of collective approaches to human rights. Globalization threatens the destruction of human community through economic, racial, and other forms of exploitation and repression; and to weaken national sovereignty and peoples’ right to self-determination. It preys especially on the most vulnerable members of society. Children’s rights are often the first to suffer, as seen in the proliferation today of child laborers and the sexual exploitation of minors.

3.4. Globalization also has within it elements which, if effectively used, can counteract its worst effects and provide new opportunities in many spheres of human experience. We urge churches to encourage and participate in strengthened global alliances of people joined in the struggle for human rights as a way to resist and counter the negative trends of globalization. The right of workers to form trade unions, to bargain collectively and to withhold their labor in defense of their interests must be fully guaranteed. Through such means people can forge a future based on respect for human rights, international law, and democratic participation.

3.5. The indivisibility of human rights. The process of globalization has once again re-emphasized civil and political rights, dividing them from economic, social, and cultural rights. We reaffirm the position taken by the WCC Fifth Assembly that human rights are indivisible. No rights are possible without the basic guarantees for life, including the right to work, to participate in decision-making, to adequate food, to health care, to decent housing, to education for the full development of the human potential, and to a safe environment and the conservation of the earth’s resources. At the same time, we reiterate our conviction that the effectiveness of work for collective human rights is to be measured in terms of the relief it gives both to communities and to individual victims of violations, and of the measure of freedom and improvement of the quality of life it offers every person.

3.6. The politicization of human rights. We deplore the re-politicization of the international human rights discourse, especially by the dominant major powers. This practice, common in the East-West confrontation during the Cold War, has now extended to engage nations in a global “clash of cultures” between North and South, and between East and West. It is marked by selective indignation, and the application of double standards which denigrate the fundamental principles of human rights and threaten the competence, neutrality, and credibility of international bodies created under the UN Charter to enforce agreed standards.

3.7. The universality of human rights. We reaffirm the universality of human rights as enunciated in the International Bill of Human Rights and the duty of all States, irrespective of national culture or economic and political system, to promote and defend them. These rights are rooted in the histories of many cultures, religions, and traditions, not just those whose role in the UN was dominant when the Universal Declaration was adopted. We recognize that this Declaration was accepted as a “standard of achievement,” and the application of its principles needs to take into account different historical, cultural, and economic contexts. At the same time we reject any attempt by States, national or ethnic groups, to justify the abrogation of, or derogation from, the full range of human rights on the basis of culture, religion, tradition, special socio-economic or security interests.

    1. Global ethics and values related to human rights. Reaffirming our stance that the church cannot surrender the values of the Gospel to the ambiguities of progress and technology, we welcome the renewed calls from humanistic and religious circles for the elaboration of shared global principles of social ethics and values. Shared principles must be based on a diversity of experiences and convictions that transcend religious beliefs and work toward a greater solidarity for justice and peace.

    2. Human rights and human accountability. We reaffirm the right and duty of the international community to hold all State and non-State actors accountable for violations of human rights which occur within their jurisdiction or control, or for which they are directly responsible. Corrupt practices are a major evil in our societies. We uphold the right of every person to be protected under the law against corrupt practices. We reiterate our appeal for governments and non-governmental bodies to exercise objectivity in addressing human rights concerns, to promote and utilize improved international procedures and multilateral mechanisms for promotion and protection of human rights, and where possible, to pursue a non-confrontational, dialogical approach to the universal realization of human rights.

    3. Impunity for violations of human rights. An essential part of post-conflict healing is the pursuit of truth, justice for victims, forgiveness and reconciliation in societies which have suffered systematic violations of human rights. We support the efforts of churches and human rights groups in such societies in their struggle to overcome impunity for past crimes whose authors have been given official protection from prosecution. Impunity perpetuates injustice, which in turn generates acts of revenge and endless violence, to the extent of genocide, as we have experienced on different occasions throughout this century.

    4. We support and encourage the churches to engage in further theological reflection and action on the relationship between truth, justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness from the perspective of the victims, and to endeavor to replace cultures of impunity with cultures of accountability and justice. Justice for victims must include provisions for reparation, restitution, and for compensation for their losses. In this connection we welcome the agreement to establish the International Criminal Court, which should help the international community in its enforcement of human rights. We urge the churches to promote their governments’ prompt ratification of the Rome agreement, and to incorporate acceptance of its jurisdiction in national legislation.

    5. Elimination of the death penalty. The WCC has long stood against the use of the death penalty, but recourse to this ultimate form of punishment is often sought by victims in societies ridden by crime and violence. The application of the death penalty against young people is especially to be condemned. The churches have a responsibility to promote strict adherence to the international rule of law and international human rights standards related to the treatment of offenders.

    6. Human rights and peacemaking. Human rights are the essential basis for a just and durable peace. Failure to respect them often leads to conflict and warfare, and several times during this century it has led to genocide as a result of uncontrolled ethnic, racial or religious hatred. The international community has time and again shown itself incapable of stopping genocide once it has begun. There is an urgent need to learn the lessons of the past, and to set up mechanisms of early intervention when the danger signs appear. The churches are often most well placed to see the impending danger, but they can only help when they themselves are inclusive communities responding to the Gospel message of love for one’s neighbor, even when the neighbor is one’s enemy.

    1. The inclusion of human rights in efforts to prevent or resolve conflict through peace missions, under UN and other multilateral auspices, is a welcome development. Once conflict has been brought to an end, social and legal structures should be reformed to promote pluralism and peace-building measures among the people. Peace agreements themselves should incorporate standards of international human rights and humanitarian law and their application to such special groups as military forces, law enforcement personnel, and security forces should be ensured.

    2. Human rights and human responsibility. Human rights and human responsibility go together. The Second WCC Assembly, Evanston, 1954, stated that God’s love for humans “lays upon the Christian conscience a special measure of responsibility for the care of those who are victims of world disorder.”

3.16. The first obligation of churches and others concerned about human rights, including States, is to address violations and to improve protections in their own societies. This is the fundamental basis of ecumenical solidarity which moves beyond one’s own situation to offer active support for churches and others engaged in the struggle for human rights in their own countries and regions. An essential form of support is to address the root causes of violations which reside in unjust national and international structures or result from external support for repressive regimes.

3.17. Religious intolerance. Religion, in our contemporary world, increasingly influences socio-political processes. Many churches actively participate in peacemaking activities and calls for justice, bringing a moral dimension to politics. Yet, religion has also become a major contributor to repression and human rights violations, both within and between nations. Religious symbols and idioms have been manipulated to promote narrow nationalist and sectarian interests and objectives, creating divisions and polarized societies. Powers increasingly tend to appeal to churches and other religious groups to support narrow national, racial, or ethnic aims, and to support discriminatory legislation which formalizes religious intolerance. We urge the churches, once again, to give evidence of the universality of the Gospel, and to provide a model of tolerance to their own societies and to the world. Religion can and must be a positive force for justice, harmony, peace, and reconciliation in human society.

3.18. Religious freedom as a human right. We reaffirm the centrality of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. By religious freedom we mean the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice and freedom, either individually or in community with others, and in public or private to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

3.19. This right should never be seen as belonging exclusively to the church. The right to religious liberty is inseparable from other fundamental human rights. No religious community should plead for its own religious liberty without active respect for the faith and basic human rights of others. Religious liberty should never be used to claim privileges. For the church this right is essential so that it can fulfill its responsibility which arises out of the Christian faith. Central to these responsibilities is the obligation to serve the whole community. Religious freedom should also include the right and duty of religious bodies to criticize and confront the ruling powers when necessary on the basis of their religious convictions.

    1. Religious intolerance and persecution is widespread today, causing serious violations of human rights, and often leading to conflict and massive human suffering. Churches must offer prayers and solidarity in all practical ways to Christians and all other victims of religious persecution.

    2. Religious freedom and proselytism. There can be no derogation from the fundamental human right to religious freedom, but neither is religion a “commodity” to be regulated according to the rules of an unrestricted free market. We affirm the necessity of ecumenical discipline, particularly with reference to countries in difficult transition to democracy. We reiterate the opposition of the WCC to the practice of proselytism, and urge member churches to respect the faith and the integrity of sister churches, and to strengthen them in ecumenical fellowship.

3.22. The rights of women. Despite the persistent work by national, regional, and international women’s groups and churches, especially during the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women [1988-1998], progress towards effective protection of women’s human rights is slow and often inadequate, both within and outside the churches. The defense and promotion of women’s rights is not a matter for women alone, but continually requires the active participation of the whole church.

3.23. We affirm that women’s rights are human rights, based on our firm conviction that all human beings are made in the image of God and deserve equal rights, protection and care. Aware that violence against women is on the increase all over the world and ranges from racial, economic, cultural, social, and political discrimination and sexual harassment, to genital mutilation, rape, trafficking, and other inhuman treatment, we call on governments, judicial systems, religious and other institutions to respond with concrete actions to ensure the basic rights of women. The proposed Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women would provide a mechanism, at the international level, where individual complaints of women’s human rights violations could be received. We urge churches to press their governments for ratification of the Protocol.

3.24. The rights of uprooted people. Among the chief victims of economic globalization and of the proliferation of conflicts around the world today are the uprooted: refugees, migrants and the internally displaced. The WCC and its member churches have long been at the forefront of advocacy for improved international standards for the protection of the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, and should continue to share resources and to provide global, regional, and local networking to show vital solidarity. We urge the churches to continue their cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and to seek further improvements in international standards and their implementation, particularly in respect of the protection of the rights of internally displaced persons, where few enforceable norms currently exist.

3.25. We welcome the launching of the Global Campaign for entry into force of the International Convention on the Protection of Rights for All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, and urge the churches to participate in advocacy with their governments for ratification of the Convention.

3.26 Rights of indigenous peoples. We urge the churches to support indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination with regard to their political and economic future, culture, land rights, spirituality, language, tradition, and forms of organization, and to the protection of indigenous peoples’ knowledge including intellectual property rights.

3.27. Racism as a violation of human rights. We acknowledge that racism is a violation of human rights, and recommit ourselves to the struggle to combat racism both individually and institutionally. We urge member churches to strengthen their efforts to remove the scourge of racism from church and society.

3.28. Rights of people with disabilities. We reaffirm the right of persons who have special needs because of physical or mental disabilities to equal opportunity in all aspects of the life and service of the church. The cause of such persons is a human rights issue and should not be understated as charity or a social or health problem, as has often been done. All members and leaders of the churches should respect fully the human rights of persons living with disabilities. This includes full integration into religious activities at all levels and the eradication of physical and psychological barriers which block the way to a full life. Governments at all levels must also eliminate all barriers to free access and full participation of people with disabilities to public facilities and public life. We welcome the creation of the new network of Ecumenical Disability Advocates, and encourage churches to support it.

3.29. Interfaith cooperation for human rights. Violations of human rights and injustice cannot be resolved by Christians alone. Collective interfaith efforts are needed to explore shared or complementary spiritual values and traditions that transcend religious and cultural boundaries in the interests of justice and peace in society. We welcome the progress made by the WCC to pursue such a path through interfaith dialogue in a way which respects the specificity of the Christian witness for human rights and encourages the churches, each in their own place, to continue and deepen inter-faith dialogue and cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights.

4. Safeguarding the rights of future generations. Out of concern for the future of all Creation, we call for the improvement of international norms and standards with regard to the rights of future generations.

4.1. Human rights education. Churches have more often reacted to the situations of human rights violations than to be pro-active agents of prevention. We urge the churches to engage more emphatically in preventive measures by initiating and implementing formal and systematic programmes of awareness building and human rights education.

4.2. Peace Building and Human Rights. Similarly, we urge churches to participate in processes of peace building through public monitoring, discernment of early signs of violations of human rights and by addressing the root causes.

4.3. The future. Central to the WCC’s recommitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a vision of sustainable communities, of a just, moral and ecologically responsible economy. As we look to the future, we recognize that the accomplishment of human rights is only possible through accepting our God-given responsibility to care for one another and the totality of God’s Creation. (Psalm 24)

    1. We affirm the emphasis of the Gospel on the value of all human beings in the sight of God, on the atoning and redeeming work of Christ that has given every person true dignity, on love as the motive for action, and on love for one’s neighbor as the practical expression of active faith in Christ. We are members one of another, and when one suffers all are hurt. This is the responsibility Christians bear to ensure the human rights of every person.

Death Penalty

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