As a lawyer by profession and having worked for human rights for more than 20 years, my instinctive first point of reference – beyond the Scriptures – is the legal framework, the ‘rule of law’.
It seems to have been the same for the ecumenical movement as a whole. One of the very first actions by the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) following its formation in 1946 was engagement in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – to support the establishment of an international legal framework for the promotion and protection of human dignity and rights, following a period in which moral frameworks obviously had failed catastrophically.
However, despite the general presumption that legal frameworks of accountability are stronger than moral frameworks, this may not be entirely correct. At least in the field of international law, recent events have shown how weak treaties and international legal commitments by themselves are, in the face of contrary political developments – e.g.
- withdrawals from the International Criminal Court/Rome Statute;
- US and Russian withdrawals from Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty;
- ‘Brexit’ impulses based on opposition to free movement of people commitments;
- lack of respect or implementation in practice of international refugee and human rights law in the context of the ‘migrant crisis’ in Europe
We also have to acknowledge that there can be counterproductive effects of ‘successful’ appeals for application of international law, when those appeals are not supported by general public sentiment. Indeed, they can be – and frequently are – used as a basis for generating increased populist nationalist opinion against international legal obligations/commitments, and against multilateralism in general.
Moreover, there seems to be an increasing disconnect, aloofness or even antagonism between general public sentiment and international legal (especially human rights) frameworks. We see this even – perhaps especially – in religious communities, where human rights law isn’t necessarily seen as reflecting, or even being consistent with, fundamental faith-based moral or ethical principles.
Accordingly, WCC efforts in the context of responses to the global displacement crisis and to the situation of refugees and migrants have focused on trying to appeal to fundamental moral, ethical and faith principles and to reconnect those fundamental principles with the relevant international legal obligations/commitments.
The Joint WCC-Vatican Conference on Xenophobia, Racism and Populist Nationalism in the Context of Global Migration, held in Sept 2018 in Rome, is one of the most visible and significant efforts we have undertaken in this context. The outcome document from that conference contains many important and challenging messages, including:
- “the common basis for our reflections is the conviction that all human beings are equal in dignity and rights and equally to be respected and protected… While we seek and promote dialogue for the resolution of differences on any of the issues raised in this message, this core conviction is fixed and permanent.”
- “While recognizing the right of refugees to return to their country of origin and live there in dignity and security, we affirm and uphold the institution of asylum for those fleeing from armed conflicts, persecution or natural disaster. We also invoke respect for the rights of all people on the move, regardless of their status.”
- “to refuse to receive and help those in need is contrary to the example and calling of Jesus Christ. Claiming to protect Christian values or communities by shutting out those who seek safe refuge from violence and suffering is unacceptable, undermines Christian witness in the world, and raises up national boundaries as idols.”
- “We call on all Christians and all those who support fundamental human rights to reject such populist initiatives incompatible with Gospel values.”
- “The biblical narrative is one of people on the move. And they discover, in their journey, that God accompanies them. The duty of hospitality, common to all the sons and daughters of Abraham, is evoked in the reception of the “strangers” by Sarah and Abraham (Genesis 18, 1 – 16), in the teaching of the prophets, and by Jesus himself who identifies with the stranger (Matthew 25:35-40) and calls all believers to welcome the stranger as an act of love inspired by faith.”
- “We commit ourselves to work together for the transformation of unjust structures and systems which perpetuate themselves on the grounds of stability and security, and which create cultures and conditions which exclude others and deny the equal dignity and rights of all.”
In conclusion, by itself and without moral and political substantiation at the community level, international law is a thin fabric without sufficient inherent force to ensure compliance and just outcomes, especially in such a context as the current wave of populist nationalism. But without a legal framework for accountability, morality by itself is an inconsistent and unreliable force (as demonstrated both by history and currently by the ‘moral’ arguments mounted by populist forces). Both law and morality must be brought into mutually supporting alignment.
Share this blog!
Peter Prove is the director of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs since 2014. Before, he was the executive director of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance.
A Lutheran lawyer from Australia, Peter Prove Peter has almost two decades of experience in the international policy arena. He has served in numerous leadership roles in UN and civil society contexts, including as president of the NGO Special Committee on Human Rights (Geneva).