UN Resolutions and Conventions
Advocating for Human Rights
From the very beginnings of the UN, Lutherans have been present. During the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1940’s, the Rev. O. Frederick Nolde, a professor of education at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, participated under the auspices of the World Council of Churches. He collaborated closely with Eleanor Roosevelt to draft Article 18 on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Lutherans have been represented at UN headquarters in New York since the early 1960s. Initially volunteers did the work under the auspices of the National Lutheran Council, but in 1973 the first director of LOWC, the Rev. Edward C. May, was hired by the Lutheran Council in the USA and the USA National Committee for the LWF to undertake representation on a full-time and compensated basis.1
During his eleven-year tenure, Dr. May focused his efforts on advancing the cause of Namibia’s independence, but also took up other human rights situations and the promotion of economic justice. He did this at a time when few others did so and many did not even know where Namibia was. However, his efforts as well as those of his successor, Ralston H. Deffenbaugh, Jr. (1985-90) (now President of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services), were instrumental in raising awareness of the illegal occupation and apartheid policies of the South Africa government among Lutherans in the U.S. and beyond.
One would be remiss, however, not to acknowledge several other areas where Lutherans made major contributions to advancement of human rights within the United States. Beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s, U.S. Lutherans cooperated with the LWF in resettling post-war refugees within the U.S. (This work evolved into the present-day Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.) Some Lutherans, such as the Rev. Will Herzfeld, were deeply involved in the civil rights movement, starting in the late 1950s and 1960s, to end racial discrimination and related economic oppression of African-Americans.
Often these involvements in defending human rights proved quite controversial within and outside the Lutheran church. One noteworthy example was that of the Rev. Paul Boe, a Lutheran pastor, who was invited by the leaders of the American Indian Movement to join them at Wounded Knee, SD, in 1973 during their standoff with federal authorities at the Indian reservation. His solidarity with Native Americans and maintenance of clergy confidentiality in a subsequent federal judicial proceeding led to his resignation the following year from the national staff of the American Lutheran Church.
The wars in Central America during the 1980s were also instances where Lutherans became human rights defenders. Bishop Medardo Gomez of the Lutheran Synod of El Salvador provided refuge and pastoral support to hundred of persons displaced during that nation’s civil war. His courageous stands resulted in death threats and disruption of his work. That work continued, however, supported by LWF staff persons, Mary Solberg and Phil Anderson, who persevered under difficult personal circumstances as well on behalf of the Salvadoran people.
The LWF subsequently became involved in bringing together the warring parties in Guatemala, the opposition Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and the government, into indirect and later direct contacts that ultimately led to the signing of the Peace Accords of December 1996. The LWF General Secretary, the Rev. Gunnar Stålsett and the Assistant General Secretary, the Rev. Paul Wee, persisted in keeping the parties talking with one another and helped them develop sufficient mutual trust so that negotiations were possible and the peace agreements reached, ending more than 30 years of civil war. (See also From Federation to Communion, Jens Holger Schjørring, Prasanna Kumari and Norman A. Hjelm, editors, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, 1997, pages 342-343).2
In the late 1970s and into the next two decades, Lutheran churches and their cooperative entities, such as the USA National Committee, promoted the ratification by the U.S. of most of the major UN human rights covenants and conventions. There was involvement with other Christian bodies, such as the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA and the United States Catholic Conference, as well as pan-Jewish organizations and human rights groups in advocacy on behalf of the U.S. becoming a state party to these important documents such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This work was affirmed with the adoption in 1995 of the ELCA social statement "For Peace in God’s World", which drew attention to the importance of the promotion and protection of human rights to world peace. Over the years, Lutherans have been encouraged to both support ratification of these treaties as well as write to their elected officials on behalf of persons held in detention by oppressive regimes. In addition, U.S. Lutherans participated in the LWF delegation that attended the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 in Vienna.
Today, LOWC continues to collaborate with other Lutheran church offices, such as the Washington (DC) Office of the ELCA in making appeals to the Department of State on behalf of detainees and prisoners, the LWF Office for International Affairs and Human Rights (IAHR) in Geneva in monitoring the compliance of states parties to international human rights conventions, and the ELCA Corporate Social Responsibility program as it advocates for the protection of human rights in the context of major companies and corporations working worldwide. LOWC also has been assisting the IAHR in monitoring discussions in New York under the umbrella of UN reform, including the creation of the Human Rights Council and the Peacebuilding Commission.
All of these activities indicate both adjustments within a shifting international context and sustained commitment to maintaining international human rights standards and norms routed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948.
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Monitoring Human Rights Mechanisms
In partnership with Lutheran World Federation (Geneva), LOWC monitors human rights treaty bodies at the UN in New York, such as the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Human Rights Committee. LWF recently scaled up its international human rights reporting in partnerships with local churches and programs, launching the website: http://www.lwf-humanrights.org/ .
Over ninety percent of the members of the United Nations -185 countries- are party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Typically, the CEDAW committee meets two or three times a year, whereupon countries that have ratified the conventions submit periodic reports providing evidence of positive movement in human rights. After the country presents its report, unofficial or "shadow" reports are presented by NGOs, and independent experts ask questions directly to the government. The questions might be about the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, status of ethnic groups, levels of violence, or access to education. The CEDAW and the Human Rights Committee are unique within the UN processes, because countries must answer direct questions from experts on the spot -- a stark contrast to UN meetings replete with prepared speeches.
In February 2006, Venezuela was reviewed by the CEDAW committee, and the government presented a glowing report on the increased access for women to social services. Based on reports from Virginia Iváñez, a Venezuelan committee member of the LWF Program Committee for International Affairs & Human Rights, LOWC submitted a shadow report on behalf of LWF. According to her report, there are many laws protecting women from violence, however they are rarely enforced. Using the evidence of the LWF report, one of the independent experts asked the government to comment on how many actual arrests were made of women abusers. The government responded that a sexual harassment lawsuit was a pending example of eliminating employment discrimination against women. However, the unanswered question remains on the UN record.
After a treaty body committee session concludes, LOWC sends reports on the meeting’s conclusions to churches and field service programs which work in that country. By sharing the commitments the governments have made at the UN, national churches and programs can use them in advocacy efforts to hold governments accountable for their promises.
1 Rev. Philip A. Johnson, "Lutheran Advocacy at the International Level" in The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Public Policy Advocacy: Papers from a Consultation, 1990.2
For an overview of LWF involvement in human rights from the First to the Eighth Assemblies see LWF Today,
1/94, March 1994, pp. 7-8.