23 May 2019
In this image from 2017, Pope Francis at the Vatican addresses participants at an encounter marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The death penalty is "contrary to the Gospel," the pope said in his speech — echoing sentiments long expressed by Amnesty International. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
In CNEWA’s world, human rights are a constant concern. Freedom of religion, minority and women’s rights are constantly being challenged, if not violated, in one way or another throughout the world where we work and, indeed, the world in general.
Thus, an observance next week — which is fairly unheralded — is important for CNEWA and all people who are concerned with human rights. On Tuesday 28 May, the world observes Amnesty International Day. Most people have heard about Amnesty International and it is probably the largest and most active non-governmental human rights advocacy group in the world.
Amnesty, as it is commonly known, was founded in London in 1961 by Peter Benenson who had read about two students in Portugal who had been imprisoned for making a toast to freedom—something that did not sit well with the government of Antonio Salazar, Portugal’s dictator. Benenson and Eric Baker of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) published an article entitled “The Forgotten Prisoners” in The Observer in May of 1961 and Amnesty International was born.
From the outset, Amnesty has seen itself as advocate for the human rights enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Amnesty has been a particularly effective advocate for “prisoners of conscience,” i.e. those who are imprisoned for their faith or political beliefs. In 1977, Amnesty was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Long before it became an important point of discussion, Amnesty opposed capital punishment, which is considered the ultimate violation of human rights. Dictatorships and authoritarian governments often used capital punishment as a way of permanently silencing their opponents. In far too many places in the world, people the government finds unacceptable are executed without even having had a trial. Amnesty is constantly calling out countries for extrajudicial executions. Opposed in principle to capital punishment, Amnesty is always alert for situations in which people are not even granted a fair trial before they are killed.
The developing social teaching of the Catholic Church under the last three popes — John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis — has evolved to a point where the Catholic Church’s position of capital punishment is similar to that of Amnesty. On 11 October 2017 Pope Francis declared the death penalty to be “contrary to the Gospel.” He added that, “However grave the crime that may be committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” The following year, he revised the catechism to reflect that teaching. Using a slightly different theological hermeneutic, the pope closely approached the position of Amnesty.
After 50 years — and with over 7 million supporters —Amnesty International may very well be the largest and best- known human advocacy group in the world. However, its work is far from done. All over the world there remain prisoners of conscience and authoritarian governments who still find ways to kill people they find dangerous or inconvenient.
Amnesty Day may not be an observance of which many people are aware. However, for those working for peace and justice — not only in CNEWA’s world but in the entire world — it is a very important day.
Attention must be paid.
Tags: Pope Francis United Nations