By Erich Weingartner

* This article was originally published in the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (2002), p. 550f. Published on this site with kind permission of the World Council of Churches

The ecumenical movement has accompanied and at times led the human rights movement at local, national and international levels. O. Frederick Nolde, the first director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), served as a consultant on religious liberty and freedom of conscience to the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1946 to 1948. The WCC’s inaugural assembly in Amsterdam (1948 ) issued a declaration on religious liberty and underlined the importance of the churches’ work for human rights. For 40 years the WCC continued to sharpen its concern, highlighting particular violations, e.g. racism (1968), torture (1977), and extra-judicial executions (1982).

While statements were being made regularly over the years in international ecumenical circles, it was the local churches living in situations of oppression which pioneered the methods of effective church activities and underlined the need for international solidarity. At the international level, the churches underwent a learning process, that took several decades before a consensus could be reached on the meaning of human rights, the nature of the churches’ responsibilities and the strategies for effective action to combat violations.

Highlights in this history are the creation of the Programme to Combat Racism“` following the WCC’s Uppsala assembly in 1968, the consensus on an ecumenical understanding of human rights arrived at during the Nairobi assembly in 1975, the creation of a WCC Human Rights Resources Office for Latin America following a number of coups in that continent in the mid-1970s, the creation of a Human Rights Advisory Group within the CCIA in 1978, and the creation of numerous regional ecumenical human rights programmes. Along with increased awareness of the extent and sophistication of contemporary human rights violations, ecumenical engagement at all levels in monitoring, advocacy and public education for human rights increased markedly in the 1980s. Christians of all confessions have suffered imprisonment, torture, disappearance and martyrdom as a result of their human rights activities. The right to be engaged in the struggle for justice and human dignity has itself become a component of religious liberty.

By the end of the 1980s, the realization that effective human rights work requires international ecumenical solidarity was put into practice through inter-regional exchange programmes among churches and human rights organizations; These experiences showed that the ecumenical community had to achieve far greater political sophistication in dealing with the root causes of human rights abuse, causes which are international in scope and cannot be dealt with by humanitarian approaches within offending countries alone.

During the 1990s, globalization and increasing interdependence of national economies had a negative impact on the social rights of workers, especially migrants. The rising importance of the economic and communal rights of peoples gained prominence at the 1993 UN conference on human rights in Vienna. Rights to a healthy environment, land access and land security were increasingly acknowledged as essential to the enjoyment of other recognized human rights. Fresh challenges from Asian and Islamic countries to Western interpretations of the universality of human rights encouraged critical dialogue in the international human rights community. The present conflict of views may intensify — or it may lead to genuine dialogue resulting in understanding of and consensus on the importance and dynamics of shared values and structures within regional societies, while discouraging exclusive cultural claims to exemption from human rights norms and practices.

Finally, the impunity from justice enjoyed by perpetrators of crimes against humanity, such as torture and the forced disappearance of persons in many regions of the world, has been sharply challenged by victims and their families, by advocates of international law and by the ecumenical community, particularly in Latin America. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission created after the fall of the apartheid regime provided a significant model of how to deal with the question of past crimes in a way that could contribute to the post-conflict healing of societies. The programme of the WCC on impunity, truth and reconciliation created in 1993 has furthered legal, theological and pastoral thought and practice in this field.

2 Responses to “Erich Weingartner: Ecumenical Activities and Human Rights”


  1. 1 A Free Spirit October 21, 2009 at 20:24

    It occurs to me that globalization may bring with it more uniformity. I wonder if this would be like doctinal uniformity, which historically has been assumed to be necessary for Christian unity. I’ve just posted on the latter question…your post has me thinking about how globalization impacts the relationship.

    • 2 Carlos I Sanchez May 27, 2016 at 1:22

      Greetings to Eric from Carlos Sanchez from El Salvador. This article came to my memory this day after the death of Carles Harper in France


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