Social Justice and Human Rights

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Mary Ann Glendon delivered the Chair of Social Justice Address on January 30, 1997, at a special convocation for Founder's Week at St. John's University. Professor Glendon encouraged advocates of human rights to seek opportunities to unite the agendas of the political and civil rights activists and of the advocates for economic and social justice. Professor Glendon notes that as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights we will need to draw on the wisdom of our religious traditions to develop the rationale to integrate social justice with political and civil liberties. "Those who have taken the risk of freedom must also take the risk of solidarity."



I am more grateful than I can say for the honor of participating in this special occasion. And I am especially pleased that the current human rights focus of this Social Justice Lectureship provides the occasion for me to talk about a special concern of mine: the way that social justice issues seem to get lost in contemporary debates about human rights.

Talk, of course, is relatively inexpensive--as witness the fact that most human rights documents are full of fancy language about social and economic rights. In fact, if you look at the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the Bills of Rights of most countries, you will notice all sorts of references to housing, education, work, and minimum decent subsistence. Some documents, such as the UN Declaration, speak of these things in the modern language of rights, others in the more biblical language of obligation. Even countries such as the United States that do not have such concepts in their own constitutions have signed UN documents recognizing the basics of subsistence as universal human rights.

The question a Vincentian would ask about all that talk, however, is the same sort of question that Abraham Lincoln raised in his Gettysburg Address about the promise of equality in our Declaration of Independence: when are those parchment promises made so long ago going to be carried into action?

Social Justice: the Neglected Offspring of the Modern Human Rights Movement

An example: 1995 Conference on Women in Beijing

The implementation of prior commitments to social justice was the precise task of the UN's Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing. The 1995 conference was to have been the culmination of a series of women's conferences--the one that developed a plan for putting into practice the principles established at the three previous conferences. The conference title was "Action for equality, development and peace," and the conference document was called a "program of action."

On that basis, one might have assumed that the conference would at least try to boldly go where few had gone before. That is one reason that the Holy See delegation looked forward to the Beijing conference with enthusiasm. For one thing, many of the topics on the conference agenda overlapped with the concerns of over 300,000 education, health care and relief organizations that the Catholic Church maintains in all parts of the world. For another, our team had much to contribute to an action program: its 22 members, mostly women, included many who had firsthand experience in providing services to women in poor countries. We were the most diverse delegation at the conference, with members from 14 countries on five continents. Most importantly, we were all deeply moved and galvanized by the parting words of the Vatican Undersecretary of State, who asked us to try to serve as a voice for the marginalized and voiceless, for women whose concerns are seldom heard in the corridors of power.

We expected that many other delegations, especially from the developing countries, would share that mission. After all, the strife of the Cairo population conference was behind us, and all indications were that the United States would not lead another charge in favor of abortion rights. So our little band left for Beijing in high spirits. With hindsight, I should have remembered the words of my favorite English philosopher, P. G. Wodehouse. As Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster often says, "It's always just when a person is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind you with the old lead pipe."

In this case it was not Fate, but the powerful European Union that, with no advance warning, threw a stick into the spokes of the conference. The 15-country European Union, negotiating as a bloc, stalled negotiations for the entire first week of the two-week conference with its attempts to reopen the compromise on reproductive rights that had been reached in the preceding year's population conference in Cairo. As a result, most of the work scheduled for the women's conference was crammed into one week where many important subjects were given short shrift.

Not that the Beijing document doesn't contain some good language about women's education, employment, and the feminization of poverty. But so did the three previous women's conferences! The whole point of the 1995 conference was to develop a program for putting that language into action! Even if more time had been available, however, that would have required some serious thinking about hard, practical problems to which no one has yet found satisfactory solutions. And even if the conference had yielded creative, constructive ideas, any meaningful action program would have required some commitment to funding. As to funding, however, if there was anything that united the affluent nations who dominated the proceedings at Beijing, it was their determination to keep their pocketbooks firmly closed. And as for serious problem-solving, large, international conferences are obviously not ideal settings for that kind of work, but in any case the prospects were doomed by the fact that so much time and energy were wasted on Europe's special agenda.

Some months after the conference, I received a letter from a young Nigerian law student who said she hadn't been able to afford the trip to China, but she had tried to follow the proceedings closely from afar. She wondered why the conference had paid so little attention to the problems that the majority of the world's women struggle with on a daily basis. She was surprised, for example, that the women's health section was focused almost entirely on women's reproductive systems. She wanted to know why it didn't address the health of the whole woman, particularly the problems of poor nutrition, sanitation, and tropical disease that have a disproportionate impact on the women and girls who compose the bulk of the world's poverty population. She commented that even the treatment of reproductive health was strange, since it concentrated mainly on abortion and birth control--as though reproductive health did not also include pre-natal care and childbirth!

Now, you might be wondering why the representatives of developing nations did not take the initiative on issues of such vital concern to women in their own countries. That is a subject I hope an investigative reporter will pursue someday. All I can say is that it was disheartening to see many third world delegations remain silent on poverty and development issues, yet show up with well-prepared position papers in support of the agenda of the European Union.

An example: The search for the right to assisted suicide

I mention these problems that arose in Beijing just to give one concrete example of how social justice concerns--if by social justice we mean how the least advantaged members of the human family are treated--tend to be the neglected offspring of the international human rights movement. Another recent example, close to home, is the current initiative for a new individual right--the right to assisted suicide--at a time when Americans do not even have the right to basic primary health care, not to mention the right to relief of pain!

Many opinion leaders in political, business, and academic circles think that's just how it should be. They believe that social and economic rights are bastard rights that never should have been added to human rights instruments. They reason that such language is at best ineffective, and at worst an obstacle to the rising tide of economic progress that they say will lift all boats.

Now, as someone who wants to defend the presence of social justice language in the canon of human rights, I have to concede that I can produce no proof that these sorts of rights (or obligations, as I would prefer to think of them) have any effect at all--for good or ill. For one thing, none of the places that has recognized such rights has made them enforceable in the same way as traditional civil and political liberties. Rights to education, shelter, and a decent level of subsistence are mainly what legal theorists call "programmatic" rights--which means they represent a commitment to a set of goals and ideals, in short--to a program whose implementation depends on ordinary politics and available economic resources.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that it counts for something when we make social justice concerns highly visible in constitutions or international declarations--according them pride of place with traditional political and civil liberties. When we do this, even in a programmatic way, we are making a statement about what kind of people we want to be, and what kind of societies we hope to bring into being. Personally, I believe that this language in some countries at least has had some influence on the terms of political deliberations, and thus on legislative action and establishment of national priorities. But this is unprovable--because no one knows what those countries would have done without such language.

So let us return to the question I posed at the outset: why has all this high-minded language so regularly been ignored in the debates that swirl around human rights? One explanation is fairly obvious. Just as many Americans tend to view our Bill of Rights as a menu with some items we like more than others, so the nations of the world have taken a cafeteria approach to the human rights that they all recognized as fundamental when they signed the UN's Declaration of Human Rights way back in 1948. That's not terribly hard to understand. Everyone tends to exalt the virtues that he or she finds easiest to practice.

So let me ask you to try to imagine the scene when the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights has its 50th birthday party next year. No doubt the friends of traditional political and civil liberties will sip their Chardonnay in one corner of the room; the partisans of entrepreneurial rights, cell phones in hand, will gather in another; and the advocates of social and economic rights will cluster in another. You will look long and hard before you will find anyone ready to give three rousing cheers for what all nations on paper have accepted--that all these good things are mutually dependent--and that all are rooted in the human dignity of each and every man and woman.

The Wisdom and Experience of Our Religious Tradition

The fact is that, for the past 30 years, the single most consistent champion of human freedom and solidarity in international settings has been the Catholic Church. The idea that social justice can and must be harmonized with political and civil liberties has been the touchstone of the Holy See's advocacy in the UN, and the social encyclicals of John Paul II. In his speech on the 50th anniversary of the United Nations two years ago, John Paul II took the occasion to stress the essential unity of the human rights corpus. He reminded the nations that the promises they made in the wake of the horrors of World War II are mutually reinforcing. He celebrated the freedoms of which the liberal democracies are rightly proud, saying that humanity has been "inspired by the example of all those who have taken the risk of freedom." But then he asked: "Can we not recommit ourselves also to taking the risk of solidarity--and thus the risk of peace?"

The Challenge of Our Future

That, I submit, will be the challenge at next year's anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is nothing less than the challenge of bringing together the two halves of the divided soul of the modern human rights movement: its dedication to human freedom and its acknowledgment of common responsibility for our fellow human beings.

Now suppose, by some miracle, that the nations of the world were finally persuaded to take a holistic, rather than a cafeteria approach to human rights. Suppose they decided to take "the risk of solidarity." There would still be an equally formidable obstacle to overcome, one that is of special concern to those of us who are engaged in academic work. I am referring to the appallingly primitive state of our practical and empirical knowledge about what kinds of programs and measures,
private or public, do or do not work, and under which circumstances. We know embarrassingly little about what helps and what hurts. To our shame, we've been bogged down for too long in a sterile debate between the partisans of big government programs on the one hand and their laissez-faire critics on the other--a debate, we might say, between the ham-fisted and the hard-hearted.

It is a hopeful sign, however, that policy makers all over the world are beginning to think in a more nuanced way about the appropriate or optimal roles and relationships among government, markets, and the mediating institutions of civil society. They are beginning to ask better questions: What does each institution do best? At what level? How can the harmful tendencies of each be checked without killing the geese that lay nutritious eggs? The Doctrine of Subsidiarity, unknown outside Catholic social thought until a few years ago, has found its way into the most influential circles at all points along the political spectrum.

The bad news is that there's so much work to be done, but the good news is that it seems to be beginning, and that there are so many resources to draw upon--including the wisdom and experience of the world's great religious traditions, not least of which is the rich storehouse of Catholic social teaching. In that connection, I would like to express admiration and gratitude to the Congregation of St. Vincent De Paul for the human and intellectual resources it has contributed to the task of building the civilization of life and love. Vincentian education with its emphasis on social action proves that theory and practice are not opposed, but are in fact two blades of the scissors.

While I'm at it, I must also pay tribute to the broadmindedness of the Vincentians. They invited me to give this talk--even though I spent 18 years teaching in a Jesuit institution! I hope I do not presume too much of that tolerant spirit if I close with some words of the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan. This passage has helped to keep my spirits up over the years, so I pass it on as a parting gift--in thanks for this lovely evening and in hopes it may mean something to you young women and men who are just embarking on your journey through life. Here is what Father Lonergan says about intellectual work in turbulent times:

"There will always be a solid right determined to cling to a past that can never be recaptured, and a scattered left following now this, now that new idea. But what will count is a perhaps not numerous center"

--sufficient numbers of men and women who are knowledgeable enough to be at home in the old as well as the new, imaginative enough to recognize the possibilities in the current situation, and painstaking enough to work out the transitions a step at a time.


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Food for Thought

Catholic universities will be particularly attentive to the poorest and to those who suffer economic, social, cultural or religious injustice. This responsibility begins within the academic community but it also finds application beyond it.

Pope John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (40)