CHIANG MAI: With the conclusion of the two-week-long intensive training programme on human rights, the 25 students of the Christian Conference of Asia’s (CCA) Institute on Human Rights (IHR) made a commitment to “follow in the footsteps of Christ, who incarnated ‘good news to the poor, freedom to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom from oppression, and the year of the Lord’s favour’.”
“Affirming the image of God in every person encountered; and recognising the ‘neighbour’ in the other,” was the point most emphasised by the participants.
Facilitated by renowned human rights defenders, specialists in human rights jurisprudence, social and political scientists, theologians, and UN human rights officials, the IHR was held from 17 to 28 May 2021.
The students who attended the IHR online from across Asia, Latin America, and Europe expressed that they were challenged by the lessons they gleaned from the IHR, which enabled them to broaden their perspectives.
The participants said that they were refreshed in their understanding of the defence of human dignity and human rights as a Christian duty.
The IHR, focused on the theme ‘Being Defenders of Human Rights and Human Dignity’, was a new initiative of the CCA for training young church workers and budding theologians in human rights advocacy as well as in understanding the bases and principles of human rights and human dignity.
The students attended a variety of sessions, studying and reflecting on the Christian and interreligious notions on human rights and human dignity; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other standards of human rights from the global to the local contexts; human rights mechanisms in the United Nations, and regional and national institutions focused on human rights work; victories and challenges for human rights advocacy and action in the Asia-Pacific; prospects for human rights defence in Asia-Pacific; specific rights of women, of children, of the family, of refugees, migrants, and stateless persons, and of minorities and indigenous peoples; and the role of the church and the ecumenical movement in promoting the rights and dignity of all people.
Dr Mathews George Chunakara, the General Secretary of the CCA and a long-term human rights educator, facilitated the sessions on the ‘Indivisibility of Human Rights: Concepts, Principles, Philosophical Bases, Historical and Traditional Perceptions’ and ‘Human Rights and Human Dignity: Interreligious Perspectives’.
He presented a strong foundation for the universality and indivisibility of human rights, and discussed the concept of human dignity from the perspectives of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism.
Sr. Elaine Seow from the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity in Taiwan facilitated the session on ‘Biblical and Theological Bases of Human Rights and Human Dignity: Old Testament Perspectives’.
The story of the covenantal relationship of people with God, the suffering and injustice rooted in the violation of this covenant, and the limits of the human condition were the themes analysed by Sr. Seow from an Old Testament perspective.
Bishop Reuel Norman Marigza, the General Secretary of the National Council of the Churches in the Philippines, facilitated the session on ‘Biblical and Theological Bases of Human Rights and Human Dignity: New Testament Perspectives’.
“The Great Commandment in Matthew 22:36–40 and the Golden Rule in Luke 6:31 form the foundation of the New Testament basis of human rights. The Biblical call is for us to surrender ourselves and our ‘rights’ as exemplified by Jesus in Philippians 2:6–7, while focusing instead on the common good or duty towards all,” explained Bishop Marigza.
Deaconess Norma Dollaga from the United Methodist Church in the Philippines who took the session on ‘Contextual Bible Study: Human Rights and Prophetic Witness’ explained how the Seven of the Ten Commandments became the framework to address the challenges of human rights ministry—“All humans have God-given dignity, but it is distorted by oppression, exploitation, colonisation, and enslavement.”
Dr Reynaldo Racaza Ty from the faculty of Peace and Culture in the Payap University in Chiang Mai outlined the history and background of the socio-economic and geopolitical climate that shaped the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as well as contemporary challenges and dilemmas.
Explaining the nine core human rights treaties and the mechanisms to put them in place once they came into being, Jennifer Philpot-Nissen from the International Affairs of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva shared the steps that human rights defenders can take to engage with the UN review mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review, different treaty bodies, special procedure mechanisms and human rights advocacy at the United Nations.
Basil Fernando from the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, an internationally recognised human rights defender, addressed the group in three sessions on ‘Human Rights Advocacy in Asia: Professional (NGO) and Non-Professional Contexts’, ‘Human Rights in Asia: Struggle for Democratic Governance’, and ‘The Role of Human Rights Defenders’.
Mr Fernando illustrated examples of different peoples’ movements for democratic governance in Asian countries, and he guided the students through the different levels of advocacy to be followed up as well as the importance of documentation and communication in human rights work.
Prof. Dr Vitit Muntarbhorn, Professor Emeritus of Law at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and a UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights conducted a session on ‘Regional Mechanisms of Protection of Human Rights in Asia’.
Prof. Muntarbhorn elucidated upon human rights guidelines, frameworks, and systems in different regions, focusing especially on ASEAN and SAARC which followed a cooperative rather than confrontational approach to human rights.
“Human rights must be understood as a relationship between individuals and communities, who are the rights-holders, and the state, which is the duty-bearer,” said Prof. Muntarbhorn. He added that the state had the “duty to respect, duty to protect, and duty to fulfill” human rights.
Nicholas Booth from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) facilitated the session on ‘The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Human Rights’.
Mr Booth highlighted the usefulness of the complementarity of the SDGs and human rights frameworks—“Human rights frameworks are not bound by time pressures, are more focused and specific, and have strong accountability mechanisms to highlight shortcomings and violations. The SDGs are time-bound, more measurable, and are meant to be achieved by all.”
He also focused on human rights that were compromised because of COVID-19.
Doreen Buettner from UN Women facilitated a session on ‘Gender Equality within a Rights-based Framework’.
Ms Buettner focused on women’s human rights and access to justice in Asia and the Pacific. She explained that although the articles of international conventions were substantive, there were shortcomings in their actualisation, especially in the justice procedures to address gender-based violence.
Prof. Dr. Faizan Mustafa, Vice-Chancellor of the NALSAR in Hyderabad India, facilitated the session on ‘Right to Freedom of Religion and Belief in Asia’.
Prof. Mustafa highlighted the issues of conflating religion and politics, and the different challenges it posed in terms of persecution and oppression in several Asian countries.
Introducing the topic on the ‘Rights of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless People’, Dr Matthias Reuss from the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reminded the students, “In all areas there are major gaps regarding the respect, protection, and fulfilment of the different and specific rights of migrants, refugees, and stateless persons. Challenges of xenophobia, racism, and disrespect for minorities or religious groups impede the full realisation of their rights.”
Beverly Longid, Global Coordinator of the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self Determination and Liberation facilitated a session on ‘Rights of Indigenous People and Ethnic Minorities’ and gave an account of the manner in which minority groups and indigenous peoples suffer multiple layers and forms of discrimination.
She further stressed the need of putting in place affirmative action measures for accelerated access to institutions.
Prof. Dr Sarasu Esther Thomas, who heads the Centre for Women and Law at the National Law School University in India, lectured on the theme ‘Right to Family Life and International Law’.
Prof. Sarasu Thomas described the differences between the ‘social family’ and the ‘legal family’, and also the changing nature of the family as well as the rights of the family, the international standards that impacted the rights of individuals within the family, and provided critiques of international human rights law.
John Pattiwael, a human rights lawyer from Indonesia and the Coordinator of the CCA’s Asia Advocacy Network on the Dignity and Rights of Children (AANDROC), facilitated the session on ‘Rights of Children’.
Attorney Pattiwael highlighted the different responsibilities of all stakeholders invested in the wellbeing of children. He further illustrated models of cooperation between churches, ecumenical bodies, and faith-based organisations aimed at ensuring the holistic protection of children.
Towards the end of the training course, Dr Mathews George Chunakara stated that in a world where the rights of the voiceless needed to be defended more vigorously, the Institute on Human Rights initiated by CCA was a unique opportunity to empower and equip prospective human rights defenders with adequate knowledge and skills.
The CCA General Secretary added that the CCA will facilitate the IHR annually for a longer duration in future.