Thursday, March 5, 2015

Human Rights: Dignity and Justice for All (10-26-08)

Human Rights:  Dignity and Justice for All
October 26, 2008
Rev. Jane Page
 
 
Thursday, October 23, 2008 – 6:20 a.m. 
Before beginning the first draft of this sermon, I check the news on my Yahoo news page.  The top story begins this way:
 
HONG KONG:  Asian stocks fell Thursday, with South Korea's market sinking more than 7 percent.
 
The Asian Stock Market was our top news story.  Why?
Our recent global financial crisis reinforces the fact that we really are living in an interdependent world.  We read with interest and concern news of markets in Asia and Europe, knowing that we will rise together or fall together. 
 
Even our current president has recognized that fact and is hosting the first in a series of summits of world leaders on financial reforms on November 15.
 
Hopefully, this renewed understanding of our financial interdependence will promote the acceptance of efforts to work with the rest of the world on other vital concerns including issues related to hunger, healthcare, global warming, conflict resolution, and human rights. 
 
We are fortunate that we have an organization that has facilitated this good work for 63 years. The United Nations officially came into existence on October 24, 1945, when the UN Charter was ratified by China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and by a majority of other signatories. United Nations Day is celebrated on October 24 each year.  And on the Sunday closest to that, we have United Nations Sunday.
 
Now many people believe that the organizational structure of the United Nations is flawed and that the implementation of some UN activities could be more successful.  Certainly, there is room for improvement.  Yet, it is currently our best hope for ameliorating the world’s problems.  We must cooperate with other nations to improve living conditions, fight diseases, resolve conflicts, and save our planet for future generations.  The United Nations provides a structure for that cooperation. 
Sixty-three years after its founding, most of us take the UN for granted. We observe its failures far more than its successes. Yet the UN has accomplished many good things for humankind: the UN’s  World Health Organization has wiped out smallpox; eradicated polio from all but four countries, and hundreds of millions of people have access to safe drinking water for the first time in their lives. They have also made family planning widely available to an overpopulated world.
 
This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The commission that did the majority of the work leading up to this document was chaired by one of my heroes – Eleanor Roosevelt. 
 
Eleanor Roosevelt was a great woman, and as you may know, was almost like a co-president with her husband.  After FDR’s death, many urged her to run for the presidency.  She was smart enough not to waste her time.  But I’m wondering what a difference she could have made if the nation had been ready for a woman president then. 
 
In any case, her work on this committee was not an honorary one.  She was the real chair.   And the work was not easy.  She’s left notes detailing some of the discussions and the compromises that needed to be made.  For one thing, there had to be an agreement on the kind of language that would best convey the ideals they were declaring.  In discussing this Roosevelt stated:
Perhaps one of the things that some of us learned was that in an international document you must try to find words that can be accepted by the greatest number of people. Not the words you would choose as the perfect words, but the words that most people can say and that will accomplish the ends you desire, and will be acceptable to practically everyone sitting round the table, no matter what their background, no matter what their beliefs may be. So that's what happened to us.
 
And for folks with language differences and cultural differences this was not easy.  Here’s a joke I found that conveys that problem. 
 
A pollster was taking opinions outside the United Nations building in New York City. He approached four men waiting to cross the street: a Saudi, a Russian, a North Korean and a resident New Yorker. He asked, "Excuse me, I would like to ask you your opinion on the current meat shortage?" The Saudi replied, "What is a shortage?" The Russian said, “What is meat?" The North Korean replied, "What is an opinion?" And the New Yorker asked, "What is 'excuse me?'"
 
If you read the Human Rights Declaration, it starts out sounding a lot like our own Bill or Rights.  But there is one very important language difference.  Instead of “All men…”  It says “All Human Beings…” and uses other non-sexist language like “Everyone” throughout the document.   We have Eleanor Roosevelt and other women on the committee to thank for that. 
 
Roosevelt considered her work on this document to be her greatest achievement.  She worked so diligently and kept long hours with the committee while doing this work.  One of the delegates is said to have complained that his own human rights were being denied by the long hours.  They completed the document at 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 10, 1948.  And today it is lifted up time and time again as we continue to work toward its goals.  Yet we have far to go.
 
 
From the UN Works Website:
           
7:35 pm, London, UK: a man in a wheelchair is refused entry to a restaurant. 9:14 am, Salasaca, Ecuador: two Quechua (ketch’oowa) children are chastised for speaking their native language at school. 12:57 am, Madrid, Spain: a 12-year-old Romanian girl is trafficked through customs with a man posing as her “uncle”. These incidents differ wildly in their circumstance and severity, yet relate to one another in a fundamental way. According to the UN, all are human rights violations.
 
(While) trafficking a child is a crime that attracts harsh punishment, the police are not going to charge an intolerant waiter for violating the rights of a disabled man. Human dignity cannot be enforced by laws and jail time alone. The battle is fought through education and empowerment. As important as legislators and law-enforcement are, it’s educators, activists and ordinary citizens who nurture human rights from the grass roots.
 
Eleanor Roosevelt stated:
Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.
Thus we believe that the destiny of human rights is in the hands of all our citizens in all our communities.
 
Indeed, while we work with the UN to end human rights violations world wide, we do have work to do close to home.  This fact is especially relevant as I prepare this sermon – for soon we may see the full extent of the denial of human rights, the taking of an innocent life by our own state government. 
I don’t know if you’ve followed the story of Troy Davis from Savannah, Ga.  Let me share a little of it with you in his own words.
 
Where is the Justice for me? A plea from Troy Davis
Where is the Justice for me? In 1989 I surrendered myself to the police for crimes I knew I was innocent of in an effort to seek justice through the court system in Savannah, Georgia USA. But like so many death penalty cases, that was not my fate and I have been denied justice. During my imprisonment I have lost more than my freedom, I lost my father and my family has suffered terribly, many times being treated as less than human and even as criminals. In the past I have had lawyers who refused my input, and would not represent me in the manner that I wanted to be represented. I have had witnesses against me threatened into making false statements to seal my death sentence and witnesses who wanted to tell the truth were vilified in court.

For the entire two years I was in jail awaiting trial I wore a handmade cross around my neck, it gave me peace and when a news reporter made a statement in the local news, "Cop-killer wears cross to court," the cross was immediately taken as if I was unworthy to believe in God or him in me. The only time my family was allowed to enter the courtroom on my behalf was during the sentencing phase where my mother and sister had to beg for my life and the prosecutor simply said, "I was only fit for killing." Where is the Justice for me, when the courts have refused to allow me relief when multiple witnesses have recanted their testimonies that they lied against me?

Because of the Anti-Terrorism Bill, the blatant racism and bias in the U.S. Court System, I remain on death row in spite of a compelling case of my innocence. Finally I have a private law firm trying to help save my life in the court system, but it is like no one wants to admit the system made another grave mistake. Am I to be made an example of to save face? Does anyone care about my family who has been victimized by this death sentence for over 16 years? Does anyone care that my family has the fate of knowing the time and manner by which I may be killed by the state of Georgia?

I truly understand a life has been lost and I have prayed for that family just as I pray for mine, but I am Innocent and all I ask for is a True Day in a Just Court. If I am so guilty why do the courts deny me that? The truth is that they have no real case; the truth is I am Innocent. Where is the Justice for me?
 
In March 2008, the Georgia Supreme Court denied Troy Davis a new trial or a court hearing in which postconviction evidence could be presented. The Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, joined by two other Justices, dissented from this decision, arguing that “In this case, nearly every witness who identified Davis as the shooter at trial has now disclaimed his or her ability to do so reliably. Three persons have stated that Sylvester Coles confessed to being the shooter. Two witnesses have stated that Sylvester Coles, contrary to his trial testimony, possessed a handgun immediately after the murder. Another witness has provided a description of the crimes that might indicate that Sylvester Coles was the shooter.” The Chief Justice stated that “the collective effect of all of Davis’s new testimony, if it were to be found credible by the trial court in a hearing, would show the probability that a new jury would find reasonable doubt of Davis’s guilt or a least sufficient residual doubt to decline to impose the death penalty”.  He was scheduled to be executed on September 23, but the US Supreme Court issues a stay of execution till they could determine whether or not to take the case.  On October 14 the Supreme Court announced their decision not to take the case and a new date for execution was set.  That date was October 27 – tomorrow.
 
As I was preparing for this sermon on Human Rights, I couldn’t get into the denial of rights around the world.  This situation was just too close to home and too current.  I could not get Troy Davis to move out of my focus so that I could explore and share a lot of the other world concerns. 
 
So I emailed the governor.  I also emailed the board of pardon and paroles and asked them to PLEASE reconsider.  But what does my voice amount to.  After all, they have already heard pleas from tens of thousands of people from around the world including US President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Pope Benedict XVI; the European Union, the European Parliament, and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe; former FBI Director William Sessions, and former and current members of US Congress Bob Barr, Carol Moseley Braun and John Lewis.  They already know that the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution late last year calling for a global moratorium on executions.  So what, there have already been 26 other executions in the U.S. this year. 
 
So why bother.  I’m a strong believer in the serenity prayer.  I’m always asking for the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  I am only one voice and not a very big voice.  But the only thing I CAN do is speak up.   Then I will just have to accept what happens.
 
I just found out that Troy turned 40 recently.  His birthday was October 9 – same as mine.  But I’ve had 18 years more of life than he has and all of mine have been in freedom while Troy has spent all of his adult life on death row.  Where is the justice in that?
 
Now I also know that though seven of nine witnesses have recanted their testimony, Troy may be guilty.  There is no way to be sure of his guilt or innocence.  We can only be sure of his life or death.  And as Ghandi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
 
Hold the Presses!  Friday night after Michelle picked up JD and Thomas I checked my email and discovered HOPE.  Troy received another stay of execution from a federal appeals court.  Amnesty International reminded supporters that Troy still faced the very real possibility of execution.  But there is hope!  And isn’t hope grand.
 
Folks, I’m a very place centered person.  I do love this country and I love my state.  I’m just frustrated.  And while I feel extremely frustrated about the decision our government may make, I am thankful that the United Nations seems to have higher moral goals than its member states.  Perhaps that means that together we are better. 
 
You may be saying – Hey Jane, what’s the United Nations doing about rights for the LGBT folks?  And I say – it’s coming.  Our own UU –UNO office is working with others on this and they are reporting good progress from a UN Conference held last month reaffirming rights for all in Paris.  As an outcome of this conference, France plans to introduce a motion at the General Assembly to end homophobia.  It will most likely not pass this year.  But it will be introduced this year.  And that’s a start.
 
As Unitarian Universalists we will continue to work for those rights and others because we believe in:
 
Dignity and Justice for ALL.
 

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