On Monday in Geneva, the United Nations Committee Against Torture will consider the Holy See’s initial report relating to its compliance with the Convention Against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Though focusing significantly on the tragic and, in the words of Pope Francis, “evil,” sexual abuse of children by a relatively small number of Catholic priests, the committee’s review of the Holy See’s initial report under the Convention Against Torture is part of a much larger debate over whether the U.N. should be actively promoting social and cultural rights that conflict with the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church and other religions.
Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the U.N. and its various agencies have identified a variety of social and cultural rights. In many cases, these human rights were inspired by Christian teachings and the writings of great Catholic scholars. More recently, U.N. staff, nongovernmental organizations, academics and transnational courts have re-interpreted these rights or invented new rights in a manner that conflicts with Christian teachings and practices.
Unless U.N. human rights treaty bodies, including the Committee Against Torture, respect due process and the rule of law, millions of people around the world will view the U.N. as attempting to unilaterally establish global moral and ethical norms that are religious in nature. These people will view the U.N.’s undemocratic attempt to govern human rights globally as a violation of the fundamental right to religious freedom. Ongoing recommendations by U.N. human rights treaty bodies challenging the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church will only aggravate this perception.
Unfortunately, the Committee Against Torture is conducting its review of the Holy See’s initial report in the shadow of disturbing actions taken against the Holy See earlier this year by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child. Rather than limit its concluding observations and recommendations to specific matters relating to the Holy See’s governance of the Vatican City State, the Committee on the Rights of the Child exceeded its mandate and the rule of law to criticize a range of Catholic moral and social teachings.
Remarkably, the Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended that the Holy See “undertake a comprehensive review of its normative framework, in particular Canon Law, with a view to ensuring its full compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
It is apparent that the U.N. and its human rights treaty body system are developing and demanding adherence to norms relating to the following fundamental moral, social, and religious questions:
What, if any, legal limits should be placed on the ability of a woman to secure an abortion?
Is one’s sexual orientation a matter of nature or a personal choice deserving of equal treatment before the law in all cases?
Should the definition of marriage be changed to include unions other those between one man and one woman?
To what extent can the government lawfully interfere with the right of parents to provide for the moral, religious, social and sexual education of their children?
Theoretically, the Committee Against Torture could interpret as a form of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment any teaching or practice of the Catholic Church that conflicts with what the committee deems to be a person’s right in one or more of these areas.
If the U.N. and its human rights treaty bodies continue to promote norms that conflict with Catholic teachings and practices, in doing so, they should respect due process and rule of law. The shadow report submitted to the Committee Against Torture by Solidarity Center for Law and Justice, to which 53 pro-life and pro-family organizations from throughout Europe, South America and North America added their signatures, details the steps the committee should take to promote due process and the rule of law during its consideration of the Holy See’s initial report and overall state party reporting process. These include:
Respect the religious freedom of the Holy See and the Catholic Church, resisting the urge to impose the U.N.’s “evolving” views on human rights; respect the very limited powers of the committee under the convention, resisting the urge to use the state party reporting process to create “soft law” and publicly shame the Holy See and other state parties; respect the “separation of powers” principle, resisting the urge to serve as the sole body responsible for interpreting the convention, hearing evidence about a state party’s compliance, judging whether a state party is in compliance, and recommending how a state party can become compliant; respect the committee’s requirement to act independently and impartially, resisting the urge, either due to financial, time or knowledge constraints, to rely on U.N. staff and nongovernmental organizations to perform the committee’s work; and, respect existing international standards for interpreting the convention, resisting the urge to treat the convention as a “living document,” the terms of which the committee changes at will without securing the required agreement of state parties.
Throughout history, other than the family itself, the Catholic Church has arguably done more than any other global institution to protect and promote peaceful and just societies and the health, education, moral formation and overall well-being of individuals. Though the U.N., its various agencies, nongovernmental organizations and academics may have different ideas from the Catholic Church about these matters, they should not use the U.N. human rights treaty body system to establish the U.N. as the global authority on them. Rather, the Committee Against Torture and other U.N. treaty bodies should use the state party reporting process to facilitate transparent and democratic debates about the protection and promotion of human rights at the national level.
James P. Kelly III is president of the Solidarity Center for Law and Justice, P.C., and former chairman of the Social and Human Sciences Committee of the U.S. National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization from 2005 to 2008.