Advocates International Convocation October 29th 2004.
Extracts from an Address by Lord Alton of Liverpool
There is a story about an argument that ensues between three men who all believe that theirs is the oldest profession. There is a doctor, a lawyer and a politician.
The doctor insists that his is the oldest profession: “because a doctor took a rib out of Adam in order to make Eve.”
“No,” says the lawyer, mine is the oldest profession because a lawyer created order out of the chaos that existed in the firmament before time began.”
“No”, insisted the politician, “mine is the oldest profession, because we created the chaos.”
In reality, both the politicians and the lawyers can take some of the credit, and the blame, for many examples of order and of chaos. The link between the making of law and its administration hardly needs stating – and perhaps that’s why, down the generations, so many lawyers have been attracted into politics. It’s a particular pleasure for me, therefore, to trespass both across the pond and into an American Lawyers conference. Before I begin I had better make a pre-emptive strike and apologise for any linguistic nuances. They have a point when they say that the English and Americans are divided by a common language.
You have asked me to address the question of Human Rights and Religious Freedom.
I should like to begin with a references to the Book of Genesis.
It reminds us that we are each “Imago Dei” – made in
the image of God Himself.
If we truly believe this: that every man and woman –
regardless of their abilities, their race, their creed,
their origins or their individual idiosyncrasies and
characteristics – is made in the image of our Maker –
then it places upon us a non-negotiable duty to
uphold the sanctity and the dignity of that person’s
life: at every stage, from the womb to the tomb.
The two other texts to which I wish to refer link the
Old and the New Testaments. The first is taken from
the Prophet Isaiah and the second is Jesus’ first
public proclamation in the synagogue in Nazareth –
where he draws down on Isaiah’s words.
Isaiah’s text challenges us to act collectively and
radically in working for the common good of God’s
people. It is not a text for quietism or personal
religiosity but a wake-up call. It roots practical civic
and political action in religious belief. It reminds us of
the Jewish belief in both justice and mercy. It doesn’t
call for theocratic forms of government but is a text
that urges us to transform the world around us: a
thought that Jesus returns to when he tells us to be
salt –preventing the body politic from rotting – and to
be light: shining His light into the darker places.
The Semitic tradition was to declare a time of jubilee
when past debts would be wiped away, when fields
would be left fallow so that they might regain their
goodness, and when prisoners might be freed. It is a
text that demands an opportunity for human flourishing and fulfilment: a text driven by our Maker’s injunction to see His image in the men and women we treat with.
In the third text, in the gospel of Luke, Jesus picks up the scroll and finds Isaiah’s text. He invokes it and tells us that He has come to declare the year of the Lord’s favour. He wants this time of Jubilee to be a time of personal change. The challenge is to change ourselves and then to change the world around us. It’s worth noting for anyone who intends to do as Jesus bid that His audience is so outraged that they then tried to throw Him over the edge of a cliff.
What does all this say to us?
It tells us that defending the man made in the image of God is not one of a series of options: it is an imperative; a solemn and profound duty placed upon each of us. It surely tells us that we must be on the side of the weak, the vulnerable, those without power and those who have no-one else to speak for them.
It is also telling us that however reasonable such a proclamation of the rights of the man made in the image of God may seem, there will be powerful interests that will oppose you.
At the minimum this may result in misunderstanding, rejection, and a hostile confrontation. Ultimately, taking a stand may even cost you your life.
What then is the implication of these texts for us today?
I think they represent a call to each of us to proclaim a contemporary year of the Lord’s favour – a time of jubilee for those who are enslaved and even imprisoned by ideologies based on tyranny, enslavement, brutality and fear.
The words of Jesus are a call to us to combat exploitation and subjugation. These texts are a command to see the image of God in every person: to insist on the sanctity of every life and the upholding of their human dignity. These texts represent a call for us to engage with an oppressive culture, a culture that too often takes the side of death against a culture that should celebrate God’s gift of life. And they are a repudiation that religious belief is a private matter that makes no call upon us to understand or engage in political life.
A consistent pro-life ethic – that sees the face of God in the face of every man, and demands respect for the sanctity of his life and dignity in the way he lives it – would recognise that every life is sacred: from the womb to the tomb.
A society that surrenders a belief in the sanctity of human life rapidly becomes wholly utilitarian.
In 1990 The United Kingdom was seduced by the beguiling argument that if only Parliament would allow a little destructive experimentation on human embryos every illness known to man – from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s – would be cured. Since then more than two million human embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon; and subsequently the same specious argument was used to justify the use of embryonic stem cells for therapeutic cloning. In any event, where are the cures? – and ironically the most encouraging advances have been coming from the ethical use of adult stem cells – but even if such illicit procedures were efficacious, what kind of society permits the creation of an embryo which, if left to develop may graduate through every other stage of human development, only then to disembowel it, destroy it and then discard it?
In contemporary society over the first few days and weeks of its life the unborn child may well face an attack on its very right to life. More than 40 million in the US and more than 7 million in the UK have lost their lives before or during birth because we enshrined the belief that ending a life is just a matter of choice. There are about 45 million abortions worldwide each year.
Analyse the rhetoric for a moment: my right to choose. It puts me and my interests first – not you; it demands a right but disavows responsibility or duty; and it elevates choice to a principle which supplants life itself.
Every choice carries a consequence; and if the unborn are not made in God’s image, in whose image are they made? Freedom for the pike is death for the minnow; freedom for the hunter is death for the hunted. We have to decide on whose side we stand. It’s a stand that may well cost you something.
Let me give other examples of where a “womb to the tomb” insistence on the sanctity of human life and the cherishing of human dignity might lead.
What happens to the 800 million people in the world who are wracked by starvation or despair, living below any rational definition of human decency, if we simply insist on our right to choose to consume all the good things with which God has endowed our earth?
Two weeks ago I was in Africa – in Congo, Rwanda and Darfur.
I visited the general hospital in Congo’s capital city, Kinshasa. In the premature baby unity just two out of nine incubators were working. Yet there were babies in each of them. In this broke incubator there were two babies – tragically, both subsequently died. For 30 years Congo had corrupt government and it has been followed by 10 years of violence. In the past decade more than 3 million have been killed – deaths have been running at about 2,000 a day. Choices have been made by local war lords, by armaments manufactures, by corporations who have stripped the country’s assets and by the international community – and none of those choices have been on the side of life.
Earlier this year I was in Brazil’s favelas. Some of you will have seen the movie, “City of God”, which is set in Rio de Janeiro. It accurately paints a picture of a society in which between 4 and 5 children and adolescents are murdered every day. Children as young as four of five tote guns and are sucked into drugs-driven mafia gangs. This is a photograph that I took on the street outside the church of Candelaria. It is the memorial to eight children who were gunned down by the police. When a brave journalist, Tim Lopez, who worked for Global Television Network, tried to shine a light into this darkness, he was tortured and shot dead.
Life is cheap in Brazil. If you look closely enough at this picture of some rubbish tipped onto a Brazilian beach you will see the feet of a small child. The chance of a child dying in Brazil is eight to nine times greater than a child dying in the Middle East.
As I think of the things we permit – in our own nations and in others – I am reminded of the choice given to Moses. He is challenged with the ultimate choice, the one that we must each make: “I have laid before you a blessing and a curse, life and death” and he is admonished and encouraged to “choose life.” The prince of paradox, GK Chesterton, well understood the definitive nature of the choice between life and death, good and evil, when he wrote that “to admire mere choice is to refuse to choose” (Orthodoxy, 1906).
Our culture of death – and our failure to uphold the sanctity of human life – is evidenced in the killing of our unborn children, in indifference to the plight of children caught up in conflict, poverty, or abandonment. It is to be seen in the pursuit of eugenics – the weeding out of those not judged to be socially useful – and now, in countries such as Holland and Belgium, through the killing of the sick and disabled people and the terminally ill by the act of euthanasia.
Only a consistently driven pro-life ethic, championing the man made in the image of God, can act as an antidote. As Alasdair Macintyre says in “After Virtue”: “…a morality of virtues requires as its counterpart a conception of moral law. Its requirements too have to be met by practices.”
This is the antithesis of the depressing nihilism – that is, the rejection of all values and beliefs – and the defeatism that argues for disinterest and disengagement. The father of the modern age was the late nineteenth century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche who maintained that the one great freedom was the freedom from God. For him everything that heightened mankind’s feeling of power was good; and every feeling of weakness was bad. Nietzsche wanted his disciples to raze to the ground every inherited structure of moral belief – based on the natural law of Aquinas and the virtues of Aristotle – and his effectiveness in achieving that objective hardly needs comment.
The lethal combination of indifferent individualism and nihilism has left a landscape littered with human casualties. When you delete God from the picture it’s far harder to see the man made in his image.
The modern liberal frequently draws a line between law and morality. This is in sharp contrast with the polis of Aristotle or the impulses of European Christendom. In both, men in company are expected to pursue the human good and not simply to provide an arena in which every individual seeks his or her own private good. A Christian has to carry their communal role with them as part of their defining characteristics.
Aristotle, the father of democracy, wrote in his great work “Politics” that we “are not solitary pieces in a game of chequers” and he said that aidos – shame – would attach to the man who refused to play his part. Cicero -in his work “On Duty” – said that we each become more virtuous, simply by accepting the duty to be engaged in civic and public affairs. These are sentiments summed up well by Nelson Mandela’s belief in umbuntu – brotherhood: “a person is a person because of other people.” The Irish, fleeing the British Isles during the great starvation when 1 million died, never lost sight of a similar belief that “it is in the shelter of each other’s lives that the people live.”
Sometimes when we move from our private “hobbit holes” and engage with the culture of death it will lead to a clash with the secular powers or, in a modern democracy, to pitting yourself against the consensus. In 12th century England it led, for instance, to Archbishop Thomas a Becket having to distinguish between the obedience he owed to the secular power of Henry II and the obedience he owed to a higher order. Four hundred years later Henry VIII and the Lord Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, had to resolve the same issue, with the lawyer, More, famously declaring “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Two hundred years after this, another Christian, William Wilberforce, pitted himself against a consensus that held that it was merely a matter of private choice to own another man as a slave. For 40 years Wilberforce campaigned to end slavery. He took seriously St.Augustine’s maxim: to “pray as if the entire outcome depends upon God and work as if the entire outcome depends upon you.”
Estimates of the numbers of Africans sold into slavery vary but over nearly four centuries about 12 million people were forcibly transported into bondage. Between 1701 and 1810 around 5.7 million people were taken into slavery, 2 million coming from the Slave Coast, where Benin is situated. Around 39% went to the Caribbean, 38% to Brazil, 17% to South America and 6% to North America.
Many of the slaves shipped out of Africa from the Bight of Benin were taken to the port of Ouidah, which is situated near Cotonou, the present capital and which I visited with Congressman Frank Wolf. Not since I visited the holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem in Israel had I experienced such harrowing emotions.
In the total Atlantic trade, British ships are estimated to have made 12,000 voyages and to have carried 2.6 million slaves. The trade before 1730 was dominated by London but was overtaken by Bristol in the 1730s, only to be eclipsed by Liverpool in the 1750s. In 1797, 1 in 4 ships leaving Liverpool was a slaver. Liverpool merchants handled five eighths of the English slave trade and three sevenths of the slave trade in Europe. In his Journal of a Slave-trader, John Newton – who would later become a Christian and composed the great hymn, Amazing Grace, wrote: “I have no sufficient data to warrant calculation but I suppose not less than one hundred thousand slaves are exported annually from all parts of Africa, and that more than one half of these are exported in English ships.”
In 1792, on introducing his first Bill for Abolition, Wilberforce began his speech with this cry from the heart: “Africa, Africa, your sufferings have been the theme that has arrested and engages my heart, your sufferings no tongue can express, no language impart.”
Thank God that one just man could be found who challenged this evil, unjust law. Thank God for one man who saw the image of His maker in the face of his African brother.
On the occasion of Wilberforce’s first major legislative victory, in 1807, his friend and supporter, Josiah Wedgwood had struck a piece of Wedgwood pottery depicting an African breaking his chains and bearing the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” In our generation should we not also dare to call all men our brothers – and act accordingly? But not everyone cared for Wilberforce and he was regularly vilified by his opponents and had to overcome powerful vested interests.
The reality is that when faced with such forces we often collaborate or retreat. One of the men I most admire is Maximillian Kolbe. A Polish Christian, he was given the chance by the Nazis to continue publishing his religious magazine so long as he made no social comment. He immediately responded with this editorial:
“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can and should do is to seek Truth and serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is within. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of the extermination camps, two irreconcilable enemies lie in the depths of every soul. And of what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are defeated in our innermost personal selves.”
The Gestapo immediately arrested Fr Kolbe. He was herded into a cattle truck and transported, along with 300 others, to Auschwitz. Father Kolbe was branded with the number 16670. At the beginning of August 1941 a group of three prisoners escaped. The Nazis killed ten men for every one who escaped. Death was by long and slow starvation. The condemned men were simply buried alive in an airless underground concrete bunker. The Deputy Camp Commandant, Karl Fritzsch, accompanied by the Gestapo chief, Gerhardt Palitzsch, passed down the lines of prisoners. Fritzsch selected his victims. As the ninth man was chosen he cried out: “My wife, my children, I shall never see them again”.
It was at this moment that the unexpected and the unprecedented happened. A man stepped forward and stood before Fritzsch and calmly asked, in correct German, if he might take the place of the condemned man. The reprieved man, Franciszek Gajowniczek, was ordered to return to his place in the line. The condemned men were then sent to be stripped of their rags and to be buried alive. Kolbe died at Auschwitz because he was prepared to pay the ultimate price. Generally speaking a lot less heroism is thankfully required of each of us.
But we should not be deterred by the notion that a price may have to be paid…that we might be figuratively if not literally thrown over the cliff. This applies as much to great nations as it does to individuals.
When we decide to engage in an interventionist rather than an isolationist foreign policy it inevitably carries significant implications. Take, for instance, the genocide currently taking place in Darfur.
Ten years ago genocide in another African country, Rwanda, claimed 800,000 lives. At the time, the US and UK declined to call events in Rwanda genocide because the 1949 Geneva Convention Against Genocide, and Article 51 of the UN Charter, requires coherent a practical response. There is a legal duty to “prevent and protect” and subsequently to prosecute and bring to justice those responsible for crimes against humanity.
The Clinton Administration had recently beaten a hasty retreat from their imbroglio in Somalia and decided that Rwanda could be safely ignored. The consequence? Three quarters of a million deaths.
I visited the Murambi genocide site near the Rwanda city of Butari. It’s about 30 miles from the border with Burundi.
It was the location of a technical college. 58,000 Tutsis took refuge there, believing that the French soldiers who had been flown in would protect them. Their mandate did not require their intervention. Those who took me to Murambi told me that the soldiers subsequently played volleyball on the levelled ground covering the mass graves.
At Murambi I saw some of the hundreds of bodies that have been disinterred. I saw pregnant women with their babies in their wombs; I saw women still clutching their rosary beads. I saw the remains of countless children; of men whose heads had been smashed by mallets or broken by machetes. I saw women whose violated bodies were still in the rape position.
A decade later President Clinton admitted that the failure to act in Rwanda was the worst foreign policy mistake he had made. It is also a timely reminder – especially as the mass graves are uncovered in Iraq – of how easily a country can be “damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t.”
Difficulties in Iraq should give us cause to ask some hard questions about how we go about things – for instance the failure to act on any of the State Department’s 135 suggestions for post war reconstruction in Iraq, and also some hard thinking about the nature of the enemy – but it would be a disaster if a tough situation in Iraq led to a universal loss of nerve.
Our championing of human rights must be universal. Global civil society is under threat. Above all else, whatever happens next week, the world needs America and it needs America to be sharply focused, not to lose its nerve, and people in places like Darfur can’t afford “attention disorder” in the US.
If you tire or get bored, the tragedy of Rwanda will be repeated in places like Darfur and elsewhere. And, be clear, that this will not only costs millions their lives it will also be a defeat for the values on which this country and other western democracies have been founded, and for which millions paid with their own lives in two World Wars.
Let me return for a moment to Darfur. You have to put what is happening there into the context of what has happened elsewhere in Sudan. Two years ago I went into Southern Sudan with the SPLA – into an area where 2 million have died over two decades as attempts have been made to forcibly impose Sharia law; and daily aerial bombardment has been used to try and intimidate and subjugate a whole people. Among those I met was bishop, Akio Johnson, who has had nine attempts on his life. The Sudanese dropped 73 bombs on his compound and the neighbouring primary school. His story is recorded in Jubilee Campaign’s book “Passion and Pain – the story of the Persecuted Church”. Our failure to act over these past two decades has lulled the Sudanese regime into believing that it can do whatever it wants with impunity.
Certainly that has been the case in Darfur.
Last month, in a sombre report to the UN Security Council Kofi Annan, said that the government of Sudan had reneged on its promise to disarm the Janjaweed militias who have now killed 70,000 people and displaced 1.7 million others. What is the point in passing Chapter VII resolutions – mandatory on the governments to which they refer – if they are not enforced. The UN told Sudan to disband the Janjaweed by the end of August – and they have failed to do so. Instead, they have continued to arm them.
This further entrenches the belief that your actions carry no consequences.
Last July the UN described the horrific situation in Darfur as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” and nothing much has changed.
Two weeks ago I was in Geneina in West Darfur at the Ardamata refugee camp where 30,000 terrified people are sheltering. My full report is on the Jubilee Campaign web site.
While I was there it was reported that Government helicopters had been seen that day flying in arms for the Janjaweed. We collected evidence from tribal leaders who testified to a systematic campaign of killings, rape, burnings and looting.
It is hard to overstate the scale of the continuing suffering of the Black African women and girls in Darfur. At Ardamata Camp, outside Geneina, where 30,000 people live, we talked to families who had fled from Abhasla, a village eight days’ walk to the west.
In February 2004 heavily armed Janjaweed on horseback swept into the village and killed every man and boy they could find. Their cattle were looted and their homes were burned down.
Thirty five year old Hawry told us that the men “harassed and beat” the women and girls before they rode off. It soon emerged that these are euphemisms for rape, but in their traditional society it is an unmentionable subject, bringing shame and humiliation on the victim and her family.
We were told that the “Arabs” carried razor blades and sharp knives with them to cut open the atrophied vaginas of old women before they raped them. They also raped girls as young as 10. When the Janjaweed had gone, Hawry told us, the women abandoned the village. “My family once had 88 head of cattle, but I put one baby around my neck and another child on my back, and I started walking.” Her other three children had to walk for the next eight days, hiding in empty houses when they could.
Be clear, this is a campaign with the sole objective of eradicating the African tribe’s people and installing the Arab militias in their place. I agree with Colin Powell, this is genocide. If it isn’t genocide it is difficult to imagine what is.
No doubt, an American intervention in 1994 in Rwanda or a 2004 intervention in Darfur would have been denounced by some as American imperialism and interventionism. But if the international community had had the will to act then many people who died in Rwanda would be alive today.
In the introduction to the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy, it states: “Freedom is the non-negotiable demand of human dignity; the birthright of every person – in every civilisation.” It goes on to say that “the United States will use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.” In that objective, all countries that cherish those same values should assist in that task.
Niall Ferguson has recently written about the difference between trying to create a territorial empire and the objective of spread values in which you yourself believe. And although I disagree with Ferguson’s unhelpful description of such an approach as “the Americanizing” of the world, I believe America should be commended and supported when it sets out to help others to achieve the universal law of freedom for themselves.
The fundamental clash today is between tyranny and oppression – often fuelled by nationalism and terrorism – against the goal of spreading democracy, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms of religious and political belief.
A Liverpool lawyer, Hartley Shawcross, was British Attorney General and at the end of World War Two he was Chief Prosecutor for the War Crimes Trials at Nuremburg.
In his closing speech at Nuremburg Shawcross remarked, “In all our countries, when perhaps in the heat of passion or for other motives which impair restraint, some individual is killed, the murder becomes a sensation. Our compassion is roused, nor do we rest until the criminal is punished and the rule of law vindicated. Shall we do less when not one but 12 million men and women and children are done to death, not in battle, not in passion, but in a cold calculated deliberate attempt to destroy nations and races.”
Shawcross reminded his generation that such tyranny and brutality could only be resisted in the future not simply be “military alliances but firmly on the rules of law.”
This passionate belief in the upholding of law and in the administration of justice is central to the upholding of civilised values; to the maintenance of human rights and hard won liberties. The rule of law determines the way in which we govern ourselves. It is the bedrock of the parliamentary system and the corner stone of our democratic institutions. Without it we all descend into chaos.
And are we going to settle for less in other nations?
Last year I visited North Korea, China, and the refuges camps on the Burma border. In North Korea, they enjoy few political or religious liberties. I heard of a group of believers whose church was destroyed by the communists 55 years ago but who have continued to meet in the rubble ever since. The Hawk Report – authored by David Hawk – documents the suffering of countless detainees held in North Korean gulags. There have been arbitrary arrests, detentions and murders. I went there because 18 months ago I met a Korean refugee who had seen his wife and child shot dead and then saw his other child die as he made the perilous journey out of the country. As Chairman of the British North Korean Parliamentary Group I have been able to encourage our Government to build bridges with Pyongyang but to ensure that along with vital security issues we have opened a serious dialogue with the North Koreans about their abuse of human rights.
With Pennsylvania’s Congressman, Joseph Pitts I went to the Burma border – where, again, there has been genocide in the strict meaning of that word. A campaign of attrition has been carried out against the Karen people by the Burmese military junta. About 40% of the Karen are Christians, evangelised by American Baptist missionaries.
On the border I met a child whose parents had both been shot by the military junta; he had been sold over the border to a Thai family and then run away to the camp at Mela, where I me him. All this before the age of 8. Around 130,000 people live in those camps and in the Karen state there are literally hundreds of thousands of displaced people. Their story is detailed in “Passion and Pain”
On hearing these accounts, from Rwanda and Darfur, from the Congo, North Korea and Burma, you could be forgiven for feeling pretty inadequate.
When I was at the genocide site in Rwanda I picked up a small stone. Let me use it to remind you that this is what we are too – small stones who, when we start to move can cause a landslide. We needn’t be daunted by the odds and, in any event, we need no guarantees of success in this life time. Our reward will be a different one. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once told me and I believe her, that “you are not called upon to be successful; you are called upon to be faithful.”
Through engagement and political action – working with groups like the DC based Jubilee Campaign – we can use advocacy, practical action, and dialogue to be agents for change. At let me end with just two last thoughts.
The first is the evidence given by Pastor Martin Niemoller when he appeared before a congressional committee in the early 1950s. He was asked how, in a country where there were nominally so many Protestant and Catholic Christians it had been possible for Nazism to become so firmly established. He famously responded by stating that “first they came for the Jews and because I was not a Jew I did nothing…and then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” Failure to take a stand for our belief that all men are our brothers and that each is made in the image of God may buy us some time in the short term but what will it cost the next generation?
And, to end, twenty years ago, with some friends I helped found the Jubilee Campaign in the British Parliament.
It was supported by Catholics and Protestants together, and given political endorsement by all our political leaders, including the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Since then it has tirelessly campaigned for religious liberties all over the world, but it has also spawned Jubilee Action, a charity that works for exploited children a foundation that champions conflict resolution, dialogue and engagement. Jubilee’s founding impulse and continuing mandate is a profound belief in the dignity of every person and in the sanctity of every life: that each of usn is made in God’s image; and that in every generation we must resolve again to declare a year of jubilee.
Lord Alton is an Independent Crossbench Peer who served for 18 years in the House of Commons. Author of 11 books, he is one of the founders of Jubilee Campaign and is professor of citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University. www.davidalton.net
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