7.3.6 Taking action against human rights abuses

Back to 7.3.5

Unit 7 Contents


The concept of rights fills what would otherwise be a logical gap in any language.  If I have a specific duty to do something for you, or a duty not to do something to you, what do you have?  You have a right.  You have, respectively, a ‘benefit right’ or a ‘freedom right’.  The word ‘right’ is simply the one we use to refer to what the beneficiary of a specific duty has.

This gives a very useful terminology.  At the start of the unit, I distinguished ‘legal rights’ and ‘moral rights’.  Talk of rights is useful legally, to denote benefits and freedoms that existing laws establish for people.  To find out what legal rights and legal duties people have, you need to look at the law of the land.

Talk of rights is also useful morally, to denote the freedoms and benefits that ought to be secured for people, whether or not they are at the moment, or if they are in theory but not in practice.

So rights discourse is useful in these ways.  But beyond this, it can also be very powerful rhetorically.  This is especially true of ‘human rights’, which are moral rights that all humans have just by being human.  Given how God has created you, in God’s image with the dignity and the special responsibility – the “lofty vocation” – in the world which that gives you, there are some things no-one ever ought to do to you, and some goods to which you always ought to have access.

To appeal to human rights can be a rhetorically effective way to draw attention to the stark reality of specific injustices against people.  At the same time, the emotive power of this language also makes it very easy to abuse.  But this danger is not a reason to avoid it.  On the contrary, it is a reason for taking care to use it well – truthfully.

What can this mean in practice?  There are human rights relating both to the specific topics covered in earlier units in this module and to those you can study in Module B.  As this unit has brought out, there are basic liberties, including religious freedom.  There are participation rights – rights to take part in political life.  There are various social and economic rights.  Communities and groups have certain rights.

This range means that there are many ways to take action for human rights.  None of us can be involved in all of them, so we each need to discern what we should do.  The rest of this screen gives some different ways of being involved in taking action for human rights.  Many of these can quickly involve us in controversy, but this is inevitable: abuse of human rights is an evil, so working for them means facing up to those who are, whether by action or inaction, responsible for this.

To conclude this unit, look at the websites of some of the bodies given below, and see what sparks a special interest.

Major human rights campaigning bodies

As we noted earlier in the unit, Amnesty International was founded by a Catholic after he had prayed in an Anglican church.  Many Christians have been and continue to be involved in it.  For most of the 50 years since it was established, it has focused specifically on ‘prisoners of conscience’ – people locked up simply because of their political or religious beliefs.  Since about 2000, it has broadened the range of human rights on which it campaigns.

Extremely controversially in the view of many Catholics, in 2007 Amnesty reached a conclusion, after widespread use of rape as a weapon in a terrible conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, that it would support women who are pregnant following rape in war having the possibility of an abortion.  This led to much criticism from Christians, including the Catholic hierarchy, and prompted some to end their support for Amnesty.

Nevertheless, Amnesty continues to campaign for human rights in many ways that are consistent with CST, so Catholics have to make their own decision about whether to participate in its work.

The other large international human rights campaigning organization is Human Rights Watch.1.  On these see:

Amnesty International

Human Rights Watch

Religious freedom for Christians

Christian Solidarity Worldwide: http://www.csw.org.uk/home.htm

Jubilee Campaign: Originally founded in Britain by the Catholic Parliamentarian David Alton, the British body now focuses on the rights of children, while the sister organization in the US continues to work on religious freedom.  See: http://www.jubileecampaign.org/.

Country-specific campaign groups

For most countries in which human rights abuses are especially acute, there is a campaigning body (or more than one) focusing just on that country.  You have already read about some in Latin America in the article by Mateo Garr.  Here are a few current examples:

Eritrea: ‘Release Eritrea’


Iran: ‘Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre’


Burma: ‘Burma Campaign UK’


Workers’ rights

As you know from Unit 4, support for the rights of workers has been central in CST since Rerum Novarum.  The main international body inspired especially by CST in this area is the Movement of Christian Workers (MCW).


See also the websites of the trade unions, accessible through that of the TUC: http://www.tuc.org.uk/.  You might wish to look again at the campaign by Citizens UK for a ‘living wage’ (which also came up in Unit 4: 4.1.4, 4.4.3): http://www.citizensuk.org/campaigns/living-wage-campaign/.

Topics that can be studied in Module B

Some of the other main areas of human rights work, notably for participation rights and for the economic rights of people in the poorest countries, are covered in Module B on ‘Public Responsibilities’.

In relation to the second of these areas, the main two Catholic organizations in England and Wales are CAFOD and Progressio.  Both of these are committed to putting CST into practice in their area of work.  Here are their websites:



We shall look at Progressio’s website again in Unit 8.  But we don’t give further space here to this large and vital area of human rights work because you can do so in Module B.

Looking at some of these websites should give you much food for thought about how it is possible to be involved in taking action to uphold human rights.  If it has sparked a particular interest, you can of course pursue this further by investigating what is on the web.



What is there in your life – whether because of where you live, your family history, perhaps your own experience of human rights abuses, the activities of people in your local church, or anything else – that might suggest a direction or focus for participation in human rights campaigning work?



End 7.3.6

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  1. It should be added that controversial for many Catholics too is the way that both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have come in recent years to interpret Article 16 of the UN Universal Declaration on the human right to marry.  This is a freedom right – that is, a right to freedom from being coerced either to marry or not to marry.  It is upheld if there are effective legal guarantees of freedom from coercion in relation to entering a marriage. Of course what it entails in practice depends on what ‘marriage’ refers to – i.e. what the word means.  It is safe to say that the writers of the Declaration assumed that ‘marriage’ refers to a certain kind of male-female relationship, as this is what the word uncontroversially meant in the 1940s.  However this is only one of the two main meanings that have been at issue in recent debate about same-sex marriage (see the all too brief comments on this in 6.3.5 n. 2).  In the second, relatively new meaning, marriage refers, roughly speaking, to ‘a committed relationship between two (non-biologically related) people, regardless of sex/gender’. Clearly it is possible to work to secure the human right to marry on the basis of either of these meanings: as this is a freedom right, it is secured by absence of coercion in relation to ‘marriage’, whatever this is.  Hence which meaning someone holds does not indicate whether he or she recognizes that right, so that both those who hold to the traditional understanding of marriage – including not least the Catholic Church – and those who embrace the new meaning of the word can be just as committed to upholding Article 16. For the former, the stance of Amnesty and Human Rights Watch has become controversial because both bodies have adopted the new meaning and their campaigning is based on this. (The note referenced above, 6.3.5 n. 2, shows why the claim in some advocacy of same-sex marriage that the traditional meaning is inherently discriminatory against same-sex couples is not right.).