Statement on Human Rights
by the United States Catholic Conference
Division of Justice and Peace
July 26, 1973
For twenty-five years the world has paid lip-service to one of the noblest documents to issue from the terrible cataclysm of World War II, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Leaders of nations strove in 1948 to ensure that the world would never again witness the genocide, the destruction of human rights and the brutality that engulfed humanity in the barbarism of the war years. And yet acts of brutality, flagrant violations of each of the articles of the Universal Declaration, have continued throughout this quarter century, marking our era as one of the most violent in recorded history.
During this anniversary year, which also marks the tenth anniversary of one of the Church's great human rights documents, Pope John's Pacem in Terris, many groups throughout the world will examine anew the state of human rights in their respective areas. Anniversaries are here not so much occasions for celebration, still less for self-congratulation, but for stock-taking, critical evaluation, and action.
The Division for Justice and Peace of the USCC, created "to arouse the people of God to full awareness of its mission at the present time" (Catholicam Christi Ecclesiam), seeks to observe these anniversaries in the fullest manner possible. We seek to draw attention particularly to those instances where basic human rights are today most routinely violated.
Unfortunately, the list of nations in which such violations abound, whether perpetrated or merely tolerated by the governing authorities, is long and does not exclude our own country. At this time, however, we wish to focus attention on one particular situation, the systematic, long-standing and violent repression of human rights in the Republic of Bolivia. The reasons, apart from the fundamental one that as Christians we are all responsible in love and service to one another, are these: little attention has been paid by world opinion to the documented atrocities that have occurred in Bolivia over the past two years; reports of such atrocities, despite recent conciliatory statements by the Bolivian Government, have in fact increased during the past year; and finally, we have been asked by our sister Commission for Justice and Peace in Bolivia to help them in their courageous search for peace and justice in their own country.
The situation, in broadest outline, is the following: After the rightist military coup of August 1971 which placed General (then Colonel) Hugo Banzer Suarez in power, a reign of terror ensued, directed not only against known communists and members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) but quite indiscriminately against anyone engaged in progressive social action programs. This included numerous priests and religious, many of whom were expelled or exiled in the early months. It is conservatively estimated that some 400 people were killed during or immediately after the coup, including whole groups, such as some 40 students in Santa Cruz, who were simply rounded up and executed.
In the month following the coup, the Bishops of Bolivia issued a pastoral calling for an end to acts of vengeance and abuses of power and warning that the wave of arrests and expulsions are "deepening divisions among the people and fostering hatred and reprisals." In October of that year, the Auxiliary Bishop of La Paz, Mons. Adhemar Esquivel, noted that the repressive policies of the Interior Ministry continued unchecked and that "far from diminishing, new acts confirm a contradiction in the program of a government that has accepted Christian principles."
Now, almost two years later, the situation is essentially unchanged; several prominent political figures including the extreme right-wing former Minister of the Interior, Andres Selich, as well as numerous lesser known activists, have been tortured and killed, some 5,000 persons have been exiled or forced to flee the country, and more than 300 suspected political dissidents (some reports say 1,500) are presently being held in prisons and "security houses" under conditions of extreme brutality.
In January of this year a group of 99 priests and religious signed a major statement tracing the violence that has beset modern Bolivian history over the past forty years culminating in the present crisis. Calling this statement “The Gospel and Violence,” they spoke to the demands of the Christian Gospel in these days, a call echoed by the Bolivian Bishops Conference the following month. In a statement endorsing the report of the 99, the Bishops' Conference Steering Committee called for prompt and fair trial for persons arrested as subversives, for recognition of the tradition of religious asylum (a custom which, only a few years ago, had protected the lives of some of the very people now responsible for invading religious convents, rectories and even bishops' houses) and for an immediate end of "moral and physical torture and all other acts contrary to human dignity.
Statements alone do not change history. But statements such as those of the church in Bolivia and our own effort to express solidarity with that church are means of focusing concern which, if vigorous and widespread enough, can effect significant change.
Expressions of concern -- from the churches, from U. S. Senators and Congressmen and others -- succeeded in securing the release in January of Mary Elizabeth Harding, an American citizen and former Maryknoll nun; such concern was apparently responsible also for the release of Sra Delfina Burgoa, a much respected woman in her 60s, and of a very few other individuals.
But the Bolivian Justice and Peace Commission insists on more than piecemeal justice. They call for an end of arrest on mere suspicion, for investigation and reform of the inhuman jail conditions, particularly as they involve the treatment of women prisoners, for total abolition of torture as a means of interrogation, for a speedy and fair trial for any charged with civil crime and immediate amnesty for the vast majority who are guilty of no crime except that of holding dissident political views.
"The hour has come," the Commission declared in a letter to Gen. Banzer on May 18, "to revise that entire system which is based on repression and persecution … the hour has come to issue the call, with deeds rather than words, for national reconciliation."
We echo that call and join with our fellow Christians in Bolivia in asking others to express their solidarity with them and all who suffer persecution for justice's sake.