Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
June 8th, 2012

The Role of Religion in Human Rights, Transitional Justice and Peacemaking


Religion and faith have always played an important role in my life, shaping my views of the world and informing my career path in human rights and peacemaking. Attending religious education as a child and young adult exposed me to the views and teachings of the Church. There, I learned the importance of loving your neighbor as yourself and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. The emphasis on loving all of God’s creatures and respecting humanity significantly shaped my view of the world. Little did I know, the solid foundation of peace and justice in Catholic social teaching would contribute so much to my future career and passion for human rights and peacemaking.

As a child, I wanted to be a writer and was always curious about history, specifically World War II and the Holocaust. How could such atrocities occur? Where was the humanity and respect for human dignity? As a teenager and young adult, I volunteered with various social justice projects in my neighborhood, which stemmed primarily from involvement in my local church. In high school, I joined Amnesty International, a global human rights organization.

In college, I pursued a double major in political science and classics, which allowed me to combine my religious background and knowledge of ancient traditions with my interest in human rights. I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and joined the campus Catholic community where we discussed challenges young adult Catholics face, particularly on campus, and ways we could make a difference in the community.

Based on my interest in social justice, I established a chapter of Pax Christi, a Catholic peace organization, on campus. Through Catholic social teaching, I learned about the dignity of the human person, the emphasis on community participation, and the importance of respect for all God’s creatures, as well as the role of forgiveness and reconciliation. The value placed on the inherent rights and dignity afforded to each of us coincided directly with what I was learning in my human rights classes. I was beginning to understand the link between these two seemingly separate yet inextricably bound parts of my life — my faith and my work.

Making links

Through Catholic social teaching, I learned about the dignity of the human person, the emphasis on community participation, and the importance of respect for all God’s creatures, as well as the role of forgiveness and reconciliation. The value placed on the inherent rights and dignity afforded to each of us coincided directly with what I was learning in my human rights classes.

The connection between religion and peacemaking can be traced to the roots and origins of modern human rights discourse. The idea of human rights being inalienable and universal harkens back to the principle of inherent dignity afforded to all human beings. Much of the modern study of human rights is based upon Judeo-Christian ethical and moral principles, which can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman concepts of justice and natural law found in the texts of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most central documents to the study of human rights to date, was drafted with significant input from the religious community.

Similarly, Catholicism has drawn from the field of human rights in its modern social teachings. In his seminal work Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (1983), Harvard legal scholar Harold Berman highlights this link between Christianity and Western legal discourse. He argues that the roots of modern Western legal institutions and concepts, such as human rights, can be traced back to the papal revolution (1075-1122), during which time the Western church established its political and legal unity as independent from emperors, kings, and feudal lords. This apparent influence of religious humanism and ancient traditions over the development and study of modern human rights has directly informed my own work in the field.

Transitional justice — a response to human rights violations

Throughout history, there have been countless examples of injustice and grave violations of human rights that have plagued the consciousness of humanity. The trials at Nuremberg and subsequent formation of the international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, followed by the creation of the International Criminal Court and emergence of hybrid tribunals, illustrate a push towards accountability and justice for the victims of these crimes.

The emergence of truth commissions in Chile, Argentina, South Africa and around the world emphasizes the need for a holistic approach to justice that includes elements of truth-telling and reconciliation between conflicting parties, a concept central to Christianity as highlighted by scholars and theologians such as Walter Wink, former professor of biblical interpretation and Peace Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. Alex Boraine, former president of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and deputy chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), highlights accountability, truth recovery, reconciliation, institutional reform and reparations as the five key pillars of transitional justice.

Transitional justice generally refers to the set of judicial and non-judicial measures that have been implemented in order to redress legacies of massive human rights abuses. The role of non-violent conflict resolution as part of transitional justice efforts to address human rights violations was supported during the South African TRC by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and others, and continues to be a central part of peacemaking today.

It was through my own work with civil society organizations in the Great Lakes region of Africa that I have seen the impact of transitional justice processes in addressing human rights violations and working towards peace and reconciliation. At moments like those, I experience firsthand the way that the Catholic teachings of brotherly love and universal humanity have contributed to my faith and my work in the field of human rights, transitional justice, and peacemaking.

On June 3, 2012, Carla received a Young Adult Peacemaker Award from Pax Christi Metro New York for her work for human rights, transitional justice and nonviolent conflict resolution in Africa.

The Author : Carla De Ycaza
Carla De Ycaza is a Ph.D. candidate in international human rights Law at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, focusing on post-conflict transitional justice in Africa, and holds an M.A. in human rights studies from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science and classics from Vassar College. She is a lecturer at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. She also currently serves as Editor in Chief of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Human Rights Law. 
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  • Alison Feuer Pascuzzi

    Your work and ideas excite me. How can I learn more?

  • madeline labriola

    congratulations Carla on your award at Pax christi Metro NY. I’m sorry i missed the event. Family responsibilities made it impossible on that day. Please know that you were in my prayers and thoughts. I remember when we meet a few years ago when you were at Vassar and I was coordinating Pax Christi Hudson Valley. You are doing wonderful work, keep it up and keep in touch.
    God bless you with peace,

  • James Leo Oliver

    God bless you and your work.

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