Dominican Father Philippe LeBlanc is putting together the history of the order’s efforts on human rights at the UN. Photo by Michael Swan

Dominicans set bar high on human rights

  • January 23, 2012

Dominicans have a long history of being rather dissatisfied with this world. But they have never merely complained.

Canadian Dominican Father Philippe LeBlanc has complained, but never aimlessly. He pioneered a Dominican presence at the United Nations in Geneva. Beginning in 1996, in partnership with Franciscans International, LeBlanc and a band of Dominicans have been standing up at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights to point out where the world has failed, where power and blind arrogance has injured the poor, where dignity has been forgotten.

“This was a religious order going to the UN, which freaked people out,” LeBlanc told The Catholic Register.

LeBlanc did more than freak out the diplomatic corps. He and his brothers saved lives.

Beginning in 1997 the Dominicans began pointing out the deteriorating human rights situation in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas — where the federal government had mounted an outsized, blundering military response to the Zapatista protest movement. By the end of 1997 the army stood by in Acteal while a paramilitary group called the Red Mask murdered 45 indigenous people. Many accused the Mexican Army and the then ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party of complicity in the massacre that killed people inside the village church.

Dominican agitation at the United Nations put the situation on the UN human rights agenda. In 1999, after Leblanc had made another speech to the Geneva Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, a resolution was on the floor calling Mexico to account.

At the same time, the Mexican military was preparing an operation in Oaxaca, just north of Chiapas — a town with strong Zapatista sympathies. LeBlanc walked out of the assembly and gave an interview to a journalist.

“When (the story) came out in Mexico, all hell broke loose,” recalls LeBlanc. “Never, never had Mexico been charged with human rights violations.”

In the end, the attack on Oaxaca never happened.

The key to Dominican success at the United Nations was authenticity, said LeBlanc.

“They knew that what we were saying came from the field, and not from some newspaper article, because we had people in more than 100 countries,” said LeBlanc.

The most valuable thing LeBlanc brought to his 12 years at the United Nations was not so much his ability to complain as his ability to encourage, said Jesuit Father Jack Costello of the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice. In LeBlanc’s world idealism trumps cynicism and despair.

“It could be that the people in the UN get out of bed with more conviction, more freedom, more desire to serve beyond self-interest because of knowing Philippe Leblanc,” Costello said. “He contributes to formation of a community at the UN, and it would be a community of light, of wanting to do the right thing, believing it.”

As a religious working on development issues in the United Nations in New York, Augustinian Father Christian Emeka Obiezu is very aware of how LeBlanc and the Dominicans blazed a trail.

“It was a success not so much quantified by what has been achieved and what has not been achieved, but a success in the sense that it has taken seriously the Vatican II call that religious communities be open to the signs of the times and respond appropriately through their various vocations,” Obiezu said.

The Dominicans in Geneva and Franciscans in New York work at the United Nations as an officially accredited NGO. They have a freedom that the Holy See’s ambassadorial contingent does not.

“(The Holy See) couldn’t make any criticism of a country. How could they?” said LeBlanc. “But they would say to us, ‘Go for it.’ ”

Since the assassination of Pakistan’s Christian minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti in 2011 there has been some world attention paid to the oppression of Christian minorities in Pakistan. But LeBlanc and the Dominicans were campaigning on the issue as early as 2003. Before the Iraq War the Dominicans put the fate of poor Iraqi children under U.S.-enforced UN sanctions on the agenda. The Dominicans took on the U.S. government and military over the tiny island of Vieques, which for generations was used for target practice. In the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, the Dominicans documented human rights abuses throughout the African Great Lakes region. The Dominicans continue to campaign for the abolition of the death penalty around the world.

In all these campaigns LeBlanc could point to Dominican heritage. The very concept of human rights first appeared in an Advent sermon by Dominican Father Antonio de Montesinos in the Dominican Republic in 1511. Montesinos asked by what right were the Spanish enslaving and killing aboriginal Taino people on the island. Another Dominican, Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas, heard that sermon and dedicated the rest of his life to stopping the endless slavery of native people in the Americas.

Those efforts brought about the Laws of Burgos in 1512, the Leyes Nuevos of 1542 and the Laws of the Indies codified in 1680 — the world’s first human rights legislation. The ceiling of the chamber where the UN Human Rights Commission meets is painted with a huge mural of Bartolomé de las Casas preaching to the Indians.

The 16th-century Dominicans didn’t win. The Taino people, their language and culture were eventually wiped out. Enslaved aboriginal people in the Caribbean and South America were replaced with African slaves. But the idea that we have rights by virtue of being human has outlived the Spanish empire.

As LeBlanc now assembles a history of the first decade and a half of Dominicans at the United Nations, he knows human rights have not triumphed universally.

“It didn’t change the world,” said a modest LeBlanc.

Perhaps. But LeBlanc and the Dominicans know whose side they’re on.

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