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Promoting human rights

By Leela Ramdeen, Chair, CCSJ ( & Director, CREDI

Saturday, December 9 is International Anti-Corruption Day, and on Sunday, December 10, the world will observe Human Rights Day. This year marks the 69th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The foundation of all Catholic social justice principles is the inherent dignity of the human person—made in God’s image and likeness and the right to life from conception to natural death—the prerequisite of all other rights.

This inherent dignity is referred to in the first sentence of the preamble of the UDHR which states: “Whereas recognition of 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…” Our own T&T Constitution lists our fundamental rights and freedoms.

Today, human rights are in crisis in many parts of the world. Also, relativism seeks to “expand rights”, which, as Neil Levy states, threatens to pull the moral rug from under our feet. Some critics, he says, state that by subscribing to relativism, “we are, willingly or not, complicit in crimes, in abuses of human rights”.

To build inclusive communities, we should heed the words of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis): “Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that creates huge inequalities” (2009).

To build a just society, we must demonstrate that we respect the transcendent dignity of the human person; we must address unfair economic structures that fail to put people at the centre of development. We desperately need effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels.

The Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes (26), reminds us that “the social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person, since the order of things is to be subordinate to the order of persons, not the other way around”.

On September 11, Pope Francis used his visit to Columbia to condemn modern-day slavery and human trafficking and to defend the rights of immigrants. He refers to slavery as a “plague on the body of contemporary humanity”.  Who is not moved by the heart-rending images of hundreds of vulnerable African migrants being sold into slavery at auctions in Libya?

Our world is sorely ill. Let’s play our part in promoting/protecting human rights and in combating corruption. In September 2017, Archbishop Joseph Harris reminded us that in T&T “we have to look at ourselves…it’s easy to point fingers and say ‘Look at them’…when we don’t look at ourselves and ask ourselves ‘Am I contributing to the corruption that is going on in this land of ours?’” Sin diminishes all of us.

On Palm Sunday 2016 the Archbishop said:  “Every murder is a crucifixion of the Lord. Every time we leave a homeless person to die on the streets is a crucifixion of the Lord. Every time someone dies in our hospitals because of poor medical care is a crucifixion of the Lord. Every time there is corruption in Government, it is a crucifixion of the Lord and we take part in it.”

On Ash Wednesday, 2013, His Grace reminded us that if families, which are the bedrock of society, were not well, then society could not be well. “Corrupt leaders do not just drop from the sky…They normally come from corrupt societies,” he said. He urged Catholic and Christian leaders in business, labour and political spheres, to remember they were role models and everything they did and said came under careful scrutiny. “If the Catholic role models are not giving a witness of authentic discipleship, then something is wrong,” he said (Trinidad Guardian)

The UN rightly states that “Corruption undermines democratic institutions, slows economic development and contributes to governmental instability… It harms everyone, but the poor and vulnerable suffer most.” Corruption impacts adversely on efforts to protect and promote human rights.

On December 7, 2016, Pope Francis called for good governance to enhance the promotion of human rights and for the elimination of corruption: “These two realities are closely linked: Corruption is the negative aspect against which we must fight, starting with individual consciences and keeping a watchful eye on areas of civil life, especially on those most exposed to risk; human rights are the positive aspect to staunchly and tirelessly promote, in order that no one be excluded from effective recognition of the fundamental rights of the human person. May the Lord sustain us in this twofold commitment.”