This week began with Human Rights Day, commemorating the signature on 10 December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was also the anniversary of the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1901 to the activists Frédéric Passy and Henri Dunant for their roles in founding the International Peace League and the Red Cross Movement respectively.
The Universal Declaration came after centuries of conflict in Europe for control of power and wealth, people and territory had culminated in a war of such horrific violence and global reach that the world was determined – for a few short years at least – to do things differently. The Declaration recognises explicitly that barbaric acts can be resisted when we protect the dignity of each individual, when we uphold fundamental freedoms, when we refuse to allow “them” and “us” thinking to creep in. In other words, protecting human rights promotes peace.
While the text of the UN resolution establishing Human Rights Day does not mention the Nobel Peace Prize award on whose anniversary it falls, it strikes me as no coincidence. After all, the Peace League and Red Cross had been prompted by the horrors of war, just as was the Declaration. And all recognise in different ways that if we are to thwart war we must learn to respect and value our shared humanity and dignity. Upholding dignity promotes peace. And from a Christian perspective, it is rooted in our each having been made in the image of God.
The Declaration also enshrines the idea that freedom of speech and belief are linked to freedom from fear and want. Once the freedom of belief is denied it is an easy and slippery slope to denying all sorts of other forms of political, economic, social and cultural participation. We begin to erode not only rights, dignity and capital, but the very essence of someone’s identity, of what makes each of us feel valued, of what makes each of us feel that we belong. That eroding slope escalates towards a cliff of violence. But it also keeps people deliberately excluded from the things like land, education and healthcare which would help to lift them out of poverty.
For me this is all intrinsic to the vision of the Community of the Cross of Nails, just as for its member churches and organisations like Cord, for ICON schools and beacons of hope like Ibba Girls’ School. We will only be able to flourish in the future and when a culture of peace is built on protecting and promoting our rights, our dignity, and our fundamental freedoms to engage fully and non-violently in political, economic, social, cultural and spiritual life.