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Alexander Foitzik

Human Rights: The Church's Advocacy for Social Standards


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2/2010, P. 63-65
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The global financial and economic crisis with its serious consequences for the developing countries demonstrates again the importance of the social human rights. A conference of experts in the responsibility of the German Bishops' Conference examined the Church's contribution to their observance.


The Churches have early pointed out that the so-called transition, emerging and especially developing countries are - albeit rather indirectly - particularly affected by the global economic and financial crisis: e.g. by the sudden and massive outflow of capital, foreign companies' declining willingness to invest, the collapse of exports into the developed countries, or by the lack of remittances back home - due to the fact that many migrant workers have become unemployed. According to experts decades of development efforts are partly endangered (see, HK, January 2010, 39 et seq.)

Also in their most recent opinion, published at the end of last year and programmatically entitled „Auf dem Weg aus der Krise" [On the Way out of the Crisis], the German bishops deal inter alia with the spread of the crisis to the developing countries. And they admonish the rich industrialized countries to assume their responsibilities. "Both from the perspective of global justice and from a judicious self-interest of the rich countries everything possible has to be done to limit the harmful effects of the crisis in developing countries, and to get quickly a positive economic development going there." The opinion, which decidedly opposes a currently already visible return to "business as usual" and therefore admonishes to pause to draw the right conclusions from the crisis, was commissioned by the Commission for Society and Social Affairs of the Bishops' Conference and worked out, among others by the Mainz expert in social ethics Gerhard Kruip.


Social Human Rights as Legal Entitlements

The global food and poverty crisis, which is increasingly aggravated by the financial and economic crisis - the number of hungry people has now reached the billion mark despite all the political promises and development efforts -, draws also the attention to the so-called social rights. And it gave particular topicality to a long-planned meeting of experts, which was also in the responsibility of the German bishops. In early December the "Research Group on the Universal Tasks of the Church" of the German Bishops' Conference had invited ethicists, lawyers and representatives of church aid organizations to a conference on "Social Human Rights and Catholic Social Teaching."

It was necessary to examine which contribution the churches can make in their socio-ethical reflection and social teachings, but also through the worldwide commitment of their aid organizations for the recognition and implementation of economic, social and cultural rights; and how they can help globally to overcome their blatant marginalization in the political practice.

Up to the nineties of the last century, the social human rights were always overshadowed by the civil and political rights, were fraught with a lot of prejudices and misunderstandings, and worn down in the ideological confrontations of the East-West conflict. The West focused on the political and civil (liberty) rights, whereas in the socialist states the economic, social and cultural rights had priority.



Thus, the experts see this inauspicious separation only overcome by the Vienna UN Conference on Human Rights in 1993 - combined with a definite revaluation of the social human rights.

The Catholic Church's long process of conversion towards a globally recognized advocate for the observance and implementation of human rights - above all John Paul II has insistently established this role - was reverse here. Partly up to this day, the social human rights have the first place in her social teachings.


Advocacy for Transsectoral Issues

The economic, social and cultural rights include, among others, the right to work, including fair working conditions, prohibition of child and forced labour, and the right to form trade unions, the right to access to education for all, the right to health in the sense of a right to healthy living conditions or equal access to health facilities for all, the right to access to sufficient and good water, the right to social security and finally the right to adequate housing, including protection against forced relocation.

Up to this day it is considered to be one of the main difficulties for the implementation of these social and human rights that not all countries have equal opportunities and resources to implement these rights. How can the states nevertheless fulfil certain minimum standards and prevent discrimination, when they in concrete terms implement laws, regulations or political measures? Partly because of such issues, the economic, social and cultural human rights have in the course of the nineties increasingly gained in significance in development work and theory.

Also the Hamburg social ethicist Thomas Hoppe, initiator of the conference and in charge of the Wissenschaftlichen Arbeitsgruppe für Menschenrechtsfragen [scientific working group on human rights issues], emphasized preliminarily the essential connection between civil rights and liberties and social human rights as legal entitlements, as it not least becomes apparent in the issues of global peacekeeping. The obvious temptation for many people to escape by force from political and social conditions that are felt by them as unbearable, could only be countered if they could experience a gradual reduction in their poverty and the gradual improvement in their personal life perspective in everyday life.

Hoppe described thus also the task and role of the churches in this matter. Since the in politics usual partialisation of departmental responsibilities often prevents that such interdependences and the weight that has to be attached to them are adequately noticed, "civil-society actors, including not least the churches can and must therefore assume a publicly effective advocacy for these transsectoral issues."


A Revolution in International Law

At the Cologne symposium the lawyers undertook it to describe the opportunities and limitations of such an advocacy - encouragement and warning against exaggerated wishful thinking rolled into one. Thus, the Cologne expert in international law Angelika Nußberger, inter alia a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, once again reminded of the fact that social human rights standards meant a "revolution" in international law. In the classical international law the States interacted as "black boxes", and were protected by the rigid, impenetrable armour of sovereignty. In modern international law, which is placed under the banner of human rights protection, these black boxes have been opened, and now it is just about the question of what happens in them.

But Nußberger asked critically whether the now hardly manageable lots of standards that define the obligations of States towards their citizens means also, quasi automatically, an increase in effective human rights protection in the social sector; nowadays there are nearly 200 conventions on social rights. Nussberger belongs for several years to a group of experts within the International Labour Organization (ILO). This special UN organization, which was already founded in 1919 for the implementation of international labour and social standards, is according to the expert in international law the "most bureaucratic" UN institution at all.

Christoph Scherrer, Head of the department "Globalization and Politics" at the University of Kassel, emphasized the growing importance of social rights in the negotiation processes of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the increasingly important role of internationally operating companies in the implementation of human rights for the protection of labour rights and social standards in a globalized economy.

At this symposium in Cologne Valentin Aichele, Head of the CRPD national monitoring mechanism at the German Institute for Human Rights, drew the attention of the representatives of church organizations and relevant facilities to the ever-increasing opportunities for participation of internationally operating NGOs, both for development and implementation of the social human rights within the UN system. Thus, for example, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities of 2006, which in Germany had developed such an enormous momentum, was brought about with great participation of international civil-society organizations - an absolute novelty.



Aichele sees growing influence of NGOs also in the practice of the so-called Examination of State Reports, as he illustrated by the example of the UN Women's Rights Convention (CEDAW). The monopoly of legislation remains of course with the states as the subjects of international law, where with regard to the social human rights partly completely different legal conceptions existed.


Lobbying for the Poor

The second part of the meeting was devoted to the exchange of views on the specifically human-rights-oriented work in the church aid agencies Misereor, Brot für die Welt and Caritas International, but also e.g. on the project work of the German Commission for Justice and Peace, which is jointly managed by the German Bishops' Conference and the Central Committee of German Catholics. What can be done by church organizations for the implementation of the standards of social human rights? How does the dialogue about such standards with the partners in the South, not least with the local hierarchies succeed? What does it mean for Misereor and for its Protestant counterpart Brot für die Welt when they support partners in particularly poor, weak or even failing states, in corrupt and clientelist structures with their human-rights-oriented approach to development? Where is the risk that such states feel freed from their obligations by the help from outside?

Michael Windfuhr, human rights expert at 'Brot für die Welt', described the efficiency of the human rights approach for the development work; he also underlined that it should not replace but complement existing concepts. Elisabeth Strohscheidt, human rights advisor at Misereor, outlined the course of the German bishops' relief agency taken in the dialogue with partners in the South from providing assistance in directly satisfying basic needs towards referring in concrete terms to human rights. She illustrated this approach with reports on the concrete work in advocacy for the poor: for example, the slave labourers on the Brazilian sugar plantations for biofuel production, the male and female workers in Chinese toy factories, or the migrant workers who are living in two square meter cages in Hong Kong.

Jörg Kaiser, responsible officer for Central and Eastern Europe at Caritas International, the relief agency of the German Caritas Association abroad, described the "home nursing programs" of the Caritas partner agencies in Central and Eastern Europe as a successful contribution to the promotion and implementation of social rights. However, the human rights debate in the Western sense had still not really arrived there, this applied also to the churches and their leaderships.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'