Cardinal Parolin's Address at the International Conference on Human Rights

Human Rights in the Contemporary World: Achievements, Omissions, Negations,

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

Here is a translation of the address that Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin gave December 10, 2018, during the opening session of the International Conference on the theme Human Rights in the Contemporary World: Achievements, Omissions, Negations, organized by the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development and by the Pontifical Gregorian University, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and the 25th anniversary of the Declaration and the Program of Action of Vienna, being held in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University on December 10-11, 2018.
* * *
Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s Address
Reverend Father Rector,
Academic Authorities,
Dear Docents and Students,
1 – I am particularly happy about the invitation that was addressed to me, and I thank the organizers of this time of reflection and study, in particular, Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development, and Father Nuno da Silva Goncalves, SJ, Rector of the Gregorian University.
I believe that to question ourselves on the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, seventy years after its adoption, and on the conclusions of the World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna twenty-five years ago, is a way to underscore again the importance that the recognition and protection of fundamental rights has for the Church and for the academic world.
In this celebratory context as well as one of further reflection, I was asked to identify the reference and the consideration that the diplomatic action of the Holy See holds for the rights of man. An action ordered first of all to make known, in relations with individual States as well as in the context of Institutions and multilateral Conferences, what the Church’s concern is in the procedure and the circumstances that touch the person and communities in their fundamental rights as well as their most profound aspirations. As is known, it’s about an attention that goes beyond the sole condition of Christians, because it is oriented to safeguarding the basic values of human coexistence, those values that are proper to the different religious and cultural experiences. And what more do human rights need other than that certain values and shared fundamentals not to be reduced to sole proclamations or annihilated by uncertain behaviors and procedures?
2 – Looking at the Universal Declaration of 1948, as well as the Declaration and the Plan of Action adopted by the Conference of Vienna on June 25, 1993, the role assigned to diplomacy is very clear: to foster respect for human rights through the systematic activity of States and Institutions of the International Community, so that the rights are affirmed among the basic conditions of internal coexistence in States and of the international order. To be realized, such activity, as the practice of the last decades has confirmed, presupposes a necessary cohesion among peoples and countries.
If this objective is to be pursued also by the diplomatic action of the Holy See that, although with different ways and ends, joins the other protagonists of international life, questions and doubts are not lacking.
A first issue can be easily summarized in the question: What does the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man represent for papal diplomacy? I would say that in the necessary harmony with the vision of the Church, the Declaration is considered in its nature as an instrument of convergence between different cultural, religious and juridical traditions. However, it must be realistically clear that not all were equally represented at the moment of the redaction of the same Declaration. The essential fact remains, then as today, that the text has the indisputable merit of identifying in the person the immediate end and ultimate objective in every action of Institutions, of apparatuses and of legislative procedures. In sum, we are before a proclamation of rights that unites the historical dimension with the transcendent, because it bases rights on human dignity. It is  an aspect that the Holy See highlights in every intervention or negotiation when it stresses that the protection of the person and, therefore, of his rights can never be confused with a desire, but must be translated into reality.
These indicators are sufficient to understand that what is entrusted to the diplomatic action of the Holy See is the task to translate into the language of international relations the Church’s Doctrine on the person and his rights, to avoid that patrimony being excluded from international relations because of pragmatic choices or <choices> limited to technical data that, although necessary and important, are not exclusive. On the occasion of his first visit to the UN, Saint John Paul II explained this passage very clearly, describing the Universal Declaration as an instrument to measure “humanity’s progress not only with the progress of science and technology, in which all of man’s singularity stands out in his relations with nature, but contemporaneously and even more so with the primacy of spiritual values and with the progress of the moral life: (Address to the UN, October 2, 1979). It is a reading that conjugates fully human rights internationally proclaimed with the Christian conception, a reading rendered even more explicit by the present Magisterium of Pope Francis, who identifies in the work of the drafters of the Declaration a “significant relation between the evangelical message and the recognition of human rights” (Address to the Diplomatic Corps, June 8, 2018).
A second question merits consideration: what did they wish to express in 1948 with the Universal Declaration? The answer is yet another strong concept that papal diplomacy never ceases to stress: the structure of the Declaration can’t be reduced toa catalogue of rights, or to a static proclamation. Moreover, only by anchoring human rights in an anthropological dimension is it possible to recognize them as the “foundation of freedom, of justice and of peace” (Universal Declaration, Preamble), which <highlights> man’s legitimate aspirations.
It’s easy to intuit that it’s not about theoretical argumentations and terms, even deprived of effectiveness, or simply linked to historical episodes or epochs. In fact, the pre-eminence of freedom over oppression, the equality of the person despite the differences of race, sex, language, religion or opinion, derives from those aspirations, as the right to education, to medical care, to freedom from hunger, to integral development also find space.
The Declaration was desired to combine humanity’s values with the formulations of rights so as to fill that dark fact of policies and laws that claim victims or condemn innocents and thus also to avert violence in its various forms or to eliminate inequalities. That act is a way of affirming universally a renewed idea of justice, which is realized in the relationship between persons that “are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Declaration, Article 1)and which uses the democratic method (Cf. Declaration, Article 28), understood not only as political theory but as ensemble of rules, institutions and structures able to express and convey values. This is what the Holy See keeps present when, speaking of human rights in different contexts of the International Community, it asks to operate in order to guarantee a future worthy of man, exalting the primacy of life, freedom in its different articulations, freedom from poverty and integral growth, which correspond to the common human family.
3 – Coming to today, seventy years having passed, there is a fact we can’t ignore: diplomats and non-diplomats are called to ask themselves if all this is still valid. A realistic reading of our small and great daily world imposes on us a reference to the profound crisis of values, which first of all attacks the human person and, therefore, touches the foundation of the contents of the Universal Declaration. We cannot dispense from this crisis of the foundation because, as Pope Francis points out, “a reductive vision of the human person opens the way to the spread of injustice, social inequality and corruption” (Address to the Diplomatic Corps, January 8, 2018).
In this historical moment the values-rights automatism seems ignored or is even not held to be valid, as the so-called transversal approach evidences, used in the language and the acts of international organs to anchor the fundamental rights to contingent situations, thus thinking to give authority and to render effective internal or international forms of action and support. However, this orientation, which causes a clear separation of the values that inspire the rights, transforms the system that guarantees the right to operate at the international level only in a technical artifice and neglects not only to consider the indivisibility between the classic categories of rights — civil and political or economic, social and cultural — but especially the character of universality and interdependence that makes of the Universal Declaration and of all the acts following it a system of superior rules, reference for <norms> and laws produced within the States. For the Holy See, to neglect the foundation of rights means to deprive them of their essential content and to consent that they be dispersed in the mare magnum of proclamations or of programs adopted under the stimulus of sensations, emotions, ideologies and even of foreign factors to the international context. It’s what the extreme case demonstrates registered last October 30 when, in the framework of the UN organs operating in the matter of human rights, they stopped, first of all, of considering human life as a value, to reduce it to a simple interpretable right according to particular moments, tendencies and ideologies. Rene Cassin, who was one of the Fathers of the Universal Declaration, liked to describe the rights inserted in it as a “corollary” of the right to life of every individual. It’s the demonstration that the right to life demands a commitment able to protect the person in all the phases of existence, also in face of the debate linked at the beginning and the end of life, in which the role of scientific research is ever more distant from the idea of connecting oneself with the ethical-moral dimension, sometimes even in an involuntary way.
Well, in the General Comment N. 36 (2018), the Committee of the Rights of Man, called to interpret the right to life provided by Article 6 of the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights, put back into it recourse to abortion (General Comment No. 36 paragraph 8) and the practices of euthanasia (Cf. Ibid., paragraph 9). <It is> a license of lawfulness, which, in fact, is ethically a dangerous precedent and weakens the whole system of protection and promotion of human rights, affirming the prevalence of the juridical technique over the dimension of values.  There comes to mind again the question whether the lawmaker’s work, is called — also in the international dimension –, to deal with: ius quia iustum or ius quia iussum?  It’s clear in this case that human rights lose their source in human dignity, to derive simply from the law and from interpretative procedures.
4 – Such an orientation risks multiplying itself if the debates and negotiations continue at the international level. And diplomats know this well, from the moment that it is their task to take up tendencies and signs of change of the status quo. However, if diplomacy is called to scrutinize the signs of the times rather than to pursue the everyday reality, it was precisely in the Vienna Conference of 1992 that the Holy See matured the conviction that everything was changing in regard to human rights.
That session, in fact, convoked when the world was still divided between East and West — the original headquarters of the Conference was Berlin with its “wall,” a symbol that in the meantime had failed — made contrasts emerge between groups of countries, beginning with divergence on the order of the day to be discussed. No longer were the different visions between the States opposed, on the necessity and manner of guaranteeing the rights of man, but there was a different conception about values from which the very same draw their origin, beginning with the pillar of human dignity.
In essence, papal diplomacy witnessed the will to exclude from the final document any reference to the foundation of human rights, leaving space only to a hasty claim to the titular “subject” and beneficiary of such rights. <It was> a limited consideration, motivated by an exclusively individualistic approach to rights followed at the UN headquarters already at the end of the 80s of the last century and synthesized with the expression a “people centred approach.” The latter was presented as a choice linked in appearance to a linguistic profile, but in fact was a doctrinal and cultural position that sank its roots up to the phase of the elaboration of the Universal Declaration in 1947, with the debate on the use of the terms “individual,” “human being,” “person.” In the Vienna context, only a closed discussion, initiated and pursued in the negotiations immediately against from the beginning of the Conference, enabled the Holy See to surmount the only individual dimension of rights and to insert a claim for the value of the dignity and of the person in the Preamble of the final Declaration, which recognizes and affirms  “that all human rights stem from the dignity and value inherent in the human person, and that the human person is the central subject of human rights  and of fundamental freedoms, and, therefore, should be the principal beneficiary and should participate actively in the realization of these rights and freedoms.”
The decisions assumed at Vienna were interpreted as a radical change of course of the Holy See and led its Delegation to express at the end of the works some concerns in  a Statement of Interpretation (UNITED NATIONS, Doc.A/CONF. 157/24, Part II, Annex IX), which put on guard from the exclusively pragmatic approach printed in human rights. <It was> an orientation that substituted the principle of equality between human beings with a right to non-discrimination, and interpreted the concept of freedom also as the possibility to enunciate rights without limits, arriving at reducing the concept of justice to the only justifiableness of rights before a judiciary organ. The Holy See also pointed out the dangerous nature of the compromise reached in the so-called “cultural clause,” contained in paragraph 5 of the Vienna Declaration, considering as a potential cause of conflicts the opposition between the universality of human rights and the different cultural and religious conceptions of rights. A conflict that, as we well know, has marked the beginning of this 21st century and on which Benedict XVI intervened, when speaking to the UN on the occasion of the sixty years of the Universal Declaration, specifying that “not only are the rights universal, but so is the human person subject of these rights” (Address to the UN on April 18, 2008). A conflict not appeased, as Pope Francis explains today, stressing that the universality is essential to avoid that “in the name of these same human rights, modern forms of ideological colonizations are established of the stronger and the richer to the detriment of the poorest and weakest. At the same time, it’s good to keep present that the traditions of individual peoples can’t be invoked as a pretext to neglect the proper respect of the fundamental rights enunciated in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man” (address to the Diplomatic Corps, January 7, 2018).
Permit me to close this point recalling Sacred Scripture that, as is known, always imposes the distinction between the prophetic and the royal dimension. It attributes the sceptre to the King, but it entrusts perseverance to the prophet: it’s this that, without too much overexposure, papal diplomacy proposes in speaking of the rights of man. And it does so by reason of its unique but profound expertise “in humanity,” as Saint Pope Paul VI said to the United Nations (Cf. Address to the UN General Assembly, October 4, 1965).
5 – In face if these situations and looking to the future of the fundamental rights what commitment can be made? The recurrent word in the language of diplomacy is dialogue, but what are its margins today on human rights? Can hoping simply for new forms and new structures be the way to stem the violations and interpretations of the rights? In the light of my personal commitment in diplomatic activity, I will also seek to give answers, perhaps coordinating them with further lines of action.
Specified first of all is that diplomacy will have failed in its role if it addresses the subject of rights taking recourse only to facts, limiting itself to follow the alternating of political visions and of overt ideological readings, forgetting that  in its nature lies the capacity to distinguish. Therefore, the method of analyses with which papal diplomacy operates, binds every address on man’s rights not only to official contexts, but also to the knowledge of the objective data. Data, often disconcerting or downright painful, which expresses violence, injustice, exclusion, the negation of the identities to the most degrading forms of the violation of rights. It’s the case, for instance, of religious intolerance, which continues to produce an array of new martyrs for the faith. However, this aspect is even more evident in the inhuman methods applied to the civil population during armed conflicts.  In face of such situations diplomacy must unite the authority of discernment with the capacity to stem the violations or the improbable interpretations of rights,  so that the guarantee of rights is not limited to a generic prevention or to the recourse to arms, but foresees a priori ways of transitional justice to avoid, also in the post-conflict, violations taking place. It turns out to be the task of diplomacy to activate forms of preventive justice given that the great part of conflicts is almost always anticipated by the violation of human rights.
Often we diplomats forget this discernment. Yet looking at the Universal Declaration, we know that the lack of protection of human dignity is born of prolonged contrasts, without a precise beginning or a certain end. The question for diplomacy is to go beyond the normality, namely, the simple repetition of traditional cliches or of taking recourse to preordained formulas that are expressed today by multi-lateral organizations, although knowing that their work is often blocked by a cross-fire of vetoes, or at least by the logic of not denouncing or condemning behaviours to avoid enduring the same effect. I think that, on the subject of human rights, the creative daring is essential of which Pope Francis speaks, to make it possible for the diplomatic instrument to return to be the “art of the possible” (Address on the Occasion of the Meeting with the Authorities in Korea, August 14, 2014). However, how can this be realized in relation to human rights? I think that in a University, it calls for putting “to the test of the classroom” some of the proposals on the initiate that necessary discussion, which is typical of teaching, but which is also a method for diplomacy.
A first proposal is that which I will describe as preventive cohesion among all those that have the responsibility to operate in the matter of rights, even if they manifest opposite opinions and different visions. Moreover, at the moment of the drawing up of the Universal Declaration, the group of relators saw as the unifying element the horror of war that had violated every possible right and subjected the subject of rights — the human being — to every barbarity. As for the rest, the opinions were diverse also because of the fruit of cultural visions, ideals and, not least, different religions. A fact that today is further accentuated in an even wider way and divided in relation to 1948, but in which, paradoxically, the element that appears unitary, at least in the language, is human rights although diversely declined and interpreted.
For papal diplomacy, preventive cohesion means to work to annul opposing positions or to stop violations in act, not only with possible interpretations of rights, which have all the flavour of those truces that are reached during a conflict, but which to govern must be “armed truces.” The objective is, rather, to unite, beginning by listening to all the positions. It’s not a theoretical approach: how often in the activities of organizations competent in the matter of human rights the positions not homologized to fashionable interests and ideologies are rejected a priori, becoming as the weakest that don’t risk to express their point of view? How many parties concerned — the stakeholders as they are indicated today — are excluded from the table of negotiations and of discussions or, in any case, from the debate on human rights for reasons of vaster equilibriums? In the matter of rights, dialogue also presupposes the presence of one who is uncomfortable or does not seem to have — according to the dominant views — legitimacy in terms of proposals and actors.
A second proposal regards the formulation of values and their coherent interpretation. When some seventy hears ago the Universal Declaration was adopted, the slogan was: “to avoid man being constrained to take recourse, in the last instance, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression” (Preamble). A solid point, built on structural values of the international order and understood as a  factor guaranteeing world stability and not only of rights. It was an intuition rendered possible by the fact that between the relators of the text and between the States there were elements of strong sharing of objectives, such as peace and security. I think we are in need of recovering that spirit and of not limiting ourselves to delineate individual interests, which are often egotistical. However, we must be aware that in 1948 the violations of human dignity were first of all material; today they also have to do with values or at least with that common table of shared values, which as made possible he anointing of rays of many goals.
Here is, then, another possible dialogue that papal diplomacy holds as essential: <the dialogue> on values. Words like dignity, freedom, responsibility are already in the language and in the aspirations of the human family, what is more, in their absence it’s not possible to speak of human rights, or to consider consequent situations such as peace, security, development and cooperation. But, what meaning do we attribute to these words? The occasion of today’s Conference has imposed reflection on two events and, as we have seen, the meeting in Vienna represented a clear break between the preceding and the present way of understanding human rights and, hence, the Universal Declaration. Therefore, we must have the courage to rewrite normative acts and their contents to bring back values to the center, though knowing how enormous the difficulties are. The alternative is represented by immobility in regard to violations and interpretations with a shock effect, but ever more distant from the defense of human dignity.
6 – So much for the proposals, but to give them the necessary consistency and to render them operative a contribution is indispensable that gives different perspectives in view of the elaboration of proposals that the Holy See could submit to countries and to multi-lateral Institutions. What does papal diplomacy need to do this?
Perhaps the moment has arrived to start an broad reflection and consultation in the Church regarding human rights, rather I would almost say on the future of man, being conscious that the classical question: “man, who are you?” has been substituted by that strongly insidious: “man, what rights do you want to have?” <It is> a reflection to be developed in the light of the Doctrine and Magisterium of the Church, edited in its method and language in order to be able to be presented to inter-governmental, universal and regional Institutions, so that they are worried about man’s rights and not only are concerned about them.
The realities and organizations to involve in this initiative could be diverse, which I am certain will not fail to draw the attention of multi-lateral structures, as well as of individual States. The question should be addressed first of all in relation to processes of formation that in different levels go across the ecclesial structure.
The International Theological Commission, for instance, concluded its work of reflection and research in 1983 with the document Dignity and Rights of the Human Person, having as reference two realms: the “natural law of people” and the “theology of the history of salvation.” The changes brought about in these years and the criticalities pointed out and those that could develop, call for theological reflection to define again, in light of the new situations, what vision of the person and of his rights can be expressed according to the Doctrine of the Church. A result that the Holy See can propose in the context of the technical/juridical mechanisms that produce, at the international level,  normative acts and establish interpretations of the rights of man.
Such a reflection would also become essential to respond to another need: to insert in courses of priestly formation, and to the religious life, an area to reflect further, in a systematic way, the matter of human rights. A choice that would reveal itself strategic in face of the question that issues daily from the people of God, often disoriented or seeking in its Pastors that essential light  for a formed conscience, able to bring about the necessary discernment. The Congregations for the Clergy and for Consecrated Life could foster and direct this effort in seminaries and houses of formation respectively, but also in the initiatives for the permanent formation of the clergy, <and> of consecrated women and men.
Analogously, the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life could have the work emerge of many forms of lay aggregations, which in several countries and also on the global plane already operate in the sector of man’s rights, furnishing them with those doctrinal elements that become necessary for the layman’s mission in the ecclesial realm and in that of the political Community.
 Also, the Universities that depend on the Holy See  — which is our context today — are called to this process, cultivating in their curricula an inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary reflection  — expressions of Veritatis Gaudium with which Pope Francis recently reformed the studies of our Universities — on the rights of man. And here the Congregation for Catholic Education could bring together what is concretely and scientifically produced, also with reference to the innumerable structures of the Catholic school in the world, so that it can offer not only to the International Community but also to those contexts where there is talk of human rights but only in terms of claims and of great proclamations.
The Dicastery for Integral Human Development would assume the task not only of continuing to operate in different sectors of the rights — institutions, health, development, migrations and human mobility — but also in close connection with the local Episcopates, in order to gather the results of the different initiatives to be able to elaborate the data and predispose a work that the Holy See, through its diplomacy, will be able to bring to the knowledge of countries, governments and international organizations.
7 – Ladies and Gentlemen,
The fruits of such a consultation, once concluded, would become not only the premise for the idea of preventive cohesion or for rewriting the normative acts on rights to give back the just place to values, but would be the tangible sign  of all the attention that the Catholic Church gives to rights and to activities in favour of their promotion and protection. This would give a due scientific nature and the value of concreteness to the proposals that papal diplomacy would bring in international instances, inserting itself in the debates underway and in future ones.
The Holy See is convinced that in regard to fundamental rights, in the absence of shared readings on the values that inspire their content, every instance, be it an individual, a group, a State or even a multi-lateral organization, tends only to legitimize its own vision or to respond ideologically, with the danger of creating conflicts, perhaps to claim stabilizing positions or to legitimize pressures and interpretations. And it is on values that the International Community stakes the aspirations of the present and future generations. It’s not only about defining rights by reason of an abstract peaceful coexistence or of environmental or climatic sustainability, but of reflecting on the basic criteria for the coexistence between persons and between peoples, as well as on the coexistence of persons in States and the coexistence between States.
A course that is certainly not easy, but not impossible.
[Original text: Italian]  [ZENIT’s translation by Virginia M. Forrester]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation