Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Human rights have come to have a definite meaning to the people of the world, which we must not allow any nation to so change that they are made synonymous with suppression.”
She herself chaired the drafting committee of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirmed the “freedom of thought, conscience or religion” as among the most important of human rights, and served as a delegate to the fledgling body formed to protect the rights of people everywhere.
Sadly, today, the United Nations is increasingly becoming a platform for turning human-rights language and treaty bodies into vehicles for intolerance and religious oppression, aimed with particular zeal at the Catholic Church. And our own government is party to it.
Since the start of 2014, the Church has come under attack at the United Nations not once, but twice. Catholics were shocked and caught off guard when the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a report in February, which, for example, simultaneously called on the Church to enact greater protections for children from all forms of violence while demanding that she change her Code of Canon Law when it comes to abortion.
That same report accused the Church of doing absolutely nothing to deal with the clergy sex-abuse crisis, which seemed almost laughable, coming weeks after Pope Francis formed a sex-abuse commission to make sure that the last decade of reform continued to move forward.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, responsible for cleaning up one of America’s most beleaguered dioceses, heads the commission, which includes a sex-abuse victim and more than one psychologist. Of its formation, Pope Francis said, “We do not want to take one step backward in dealing with this problem and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, I believe that we have to be very firm.”
Fast-forward a few months, and the Holy See was back and being grilled by the U.N. Committee Against Torture on the issue of sex abuse and abortion once more. This time, the suggestion was that to be pro-life and oppose all forms of abortion is to support a form of psychological and physical torture for women.
The United States’ own representative to this committee, Felice Gaer, led the charge. And, amazingly, she is someone who made a name in the human-rights world for her religious-liberty advocacy, even once serving as the chair of the U.S. Commission of International Religious Liberty. She has repeatedly, throughout her career, affirmed religious freedom, having said that “the right [to freedom of thought, conscience and religion] includes the freedom of every person to hold, or not to hold, any religion or belief and to manifest his or her religion or belief, either individually or in community with others,” and that “no one should be subject to coercion” that might “impair” his or her freedom to hold and profess religious views.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t hold the belief that human life begins at conception and is worthy of legal protection without discrimination on the basis of age, race, gender or physical disability.
Gaer was not alone in suggesting that to be pro-life was to be pro-torture. Those of us in the room sat and watched in amazement as an arm of the United Nations used the language of human rights to violate human rights. In a Roosevelt redux, the very thing that Roosevelt had worked to end, the altering of the definition of human rights in order to suppress the rights of others, was happening before our eyes in the beating heart of the United Nations in Geneva.
Both the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee Against Torture were being goaded by outside groups that work tirelessly to attack and undermine the Church. I testified in defense of the Holy See immediately after a woman from the Center for Reproductive Rights attempted to intimidate the Holy See delegation by arguing that to be pro-life is to be pro-torture.
These same groups framed both incidents as the Holy See being “dragged” before these committees, when in fact the Holy See was simply complying with required periodic country reviews that any and all signatories to these treaty bodies must go through.
Thankfully, the concluding observations of the Committee Against Torture backed away from the extremist argument that to stand for life is to stand for torture and even affirmed much of the reforms and progress that has made the Church the global model for defending and protecting children from abuse.
But both committee hearings were a wake-up call for Catholics: There are a lot of intolerant people and many willing collaborators within the United Nations who are unafraid to use it as a vehicle to attack and intimidate the Church.
In the same speech in which Eleanor Roosevelt proclaimed that no longer could anyone deform human rights for the purpose of oppression, she said:
"We must not be confused about what freedom is. Basic human rights are simple and easily understood: freedom of speech and a free press; freedom of religion and worship; freedom of assembly and the right of petition; the right of men to be secure in their homes and free from unreasonable search and seizure and from arbitrary arrest and punishment."
What is scary about what is beginning to happen at the United Nations with people like Felice Gaer is that they are not confused about what freedom is. They are well-educated and accomplished people who know exactly what they are doing when they manipulate the steel of human-rights language into a weapon and point and aim. And they will keep getting away with it as long as Catholics don’t pay attention or stay silent.
Ashley E. McGuire is a senior fellow at The Catholic Association.