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On human rights

17 dicembre 2010

When will we learn the rights lesson?

Published Date: December 15, 2010 (

By Valai na Pombejr

All religions have a respect for human rights at their core. Buddhism teaches kindness, compassion, sympathy and equanimity while Christianity teaches love for others and oneself.

But paradoxically, we seldom use religious teaching to educate people to appreciate human rights values. When we do, it seems to be ignored.

Human rights abuses can be found everywhere. They include the obvious – child labor, violence against women, trafficking of refugees and forced evictions, torture, arbitrary detentions and unlawful killings.

But to that we might also add poverty, unfair wages, work that involves risks to life and the absence of welfare – even corruption and the growing wealth gap. What are these if not violations of the human right to a decent life?

Sometimes it seems little is achieved in the fight for the protection of rights.

Thailand has ratified numerous treaties and conventions but that has not meant an end to rights violations and abuses. And with politicians seemingly more focused on political games rather than the people’s welfare, serious efforts to address the issue are few and far between.

Human rights organizations meanwhile have become politically divided – weakening them and their ability to respond.

Even the Church has provided a lukewarm response.

The pope, for example, each year issues a message on Human Rights Day. He has tried to conscientize Catholics on human rights violations and to call for coordinated efforts to promote and protect the people’s human rights.

These messages have been sent to all Catholic churches, schools and institutions in Thailand. But very few people have read them seriously and even Religious congregations do not study them carefully.

Priests rarely share about human rights situations in their homilies. The faithful only touch the surface of the concept of “loving each other.”

Sure some organizations receive plenty of cash donations, but how much concern do we really show for human dignity? It’s easier to donate money for poor children than to be concerned with the difficulties they face and how to solve the root causes. Advocacy work to stop child labor will help poor children more in the long run than simply giving money today.

This won’t do. Christians are called to do more than live a life peacefully minding their own business.

How do we change this?

The Church has to teach and conscientize people about injustices in society and collaborate with others in addressing these issues. As a first step, a human rights education must be introduced to Catholic schools as well as important instututions such as Saengtham College, the country’s major seminary.

The Thai church’s Justice and Peace Commission has for the past 12 years provided human rights education to 150 Catholic schools out of the total of 300 in the country. My experience with the commission over the last 12 years suggests the way to start is by providing training for school administrators. Let them understand human rights principle – to respect others’ opinions no matter what their station in life and for people of different religions and opinions to live together peacefully.

Only when school administrators understand this are they likely to invite us to start training their teachers.

We have proven this works.

Evaluations of teachers show that this process does bring a change in attitudes. After a workshop with us teachers tend to pay more attention to the students’ needs and feelings and try to help students with their problems problems. This, in turn, builds respect and closer relations between the teacher and student.

After a workshop in one school, Buddhist and Catholic teachers urged the school to provide room for Muslim teachers to pray, such an important requirement of their faith.

These experiences show change is possible. But it will require educationalists to stop looking on a human rights education as part of the social science curriculum but part of learning to be a better Christian and a better person.

Valai na Pombejr, 73, a Catholic laywoman, has been a human rights advocate in Thailand for more than 30 years. She is the former chairperson of Amnesty International Thailand. She currently heads the Education for Human Rights and Peace Committee of the Thai bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission.

She also heads the Human Rights Education Sub-committee of the National Human Right Commission of Thailand and is guest lecturer on human rights in various universities and also the police academy.

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