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September 23, 2004

Success Stories in Fighting for Human Rights

To get a flavor of how successive faith-based initiatives are transforming the politics of human rights, consider the stories of four individuals:

Baroness Carolyn Cox is a nurse, social scientist, grandmother, and member of the British House of Lords. As head of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, she personally ferries relief supplies to forbidden places where war, famine, and ethnic violence make relief efforts dangerous. Christian audiences, from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles to Midland, Texas, are riveted by her accounts of the courage of believers amidst horrible suffering. Her documentation of religious persecution, especially of Christians in forgotten places, helped move congress to pass the International Religious Freedom Act (1998).

Gary Haugen is a human rights lawyer who served as UN genocide investigator for the Rwanda war crimes tribunal. This experience moved him, as an evangelical Christian, to create the International Justice Mission, an organization that intervenes on behalf of exploited people. On his desk is a busted padlock, a vivid symbol of the need for action against the global sex trafficking industry. During an investigation of a notorious Asian brothel, Haugen personnally wielded bolt cutters to bust the lock that imprisoned young girls inside, who were in wretched shape after weeks of repeated rapes. It was this kind of documentation that led Congress to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2002).

Charles Jacobs created the American Anti-Slavery Group when he discovered that secular human rights groups were largely ignoring widespread slavery in Sudan and Mauritania. As a Jew he feels profound kinship with people whose stories of captivity and deliverance echo Hebrew scripture. He has traveled to the Sudanese bush to redeem slaves, sponsored Sudanese exiles to tell their stories across the country, pressed major investment managers to divest stock in Sudanese oil, and enlisted the participation of African American preachers in the coalition that lobbied for the Sudan Peace Act (2002).

Norbert Vollertson is a German doctor who spent 18 months working in North Korea for a medical aid group. In hospitals he saw children who looked like Nazi concentration camp victims, operations with no anesthesia, horrific conditions. But he was also shocked by the shameless lives of the party elite, who enjoyed sumptuous banquets, posh hotels, casinos, and luxury cars in a nation of famine and torture. Vollertsonís expose of this outrage was met with indiffernece in Europe but was quickly embraced by the American faith-based community. He was featured in Christian publications, cited in congressional hearings, consulted for commission recommendations, and invited to speak at religious conferences. As a result of this exposure, congressional legislation was introduced in 2003 to promote human rights in North Korea and facilitate asylum for refugees.

These profiles capture something of the spirit and range of the faith-based quest for human rights. A sense of religious calling has drawn these people to places where they become witnesses to injustice ó injustice often overlooked by others. Religious networks, in turn, enable them to fulfill those voids by mobilizing for initiatives in American foreign policy. Taken together, these vignettes illustrate how struggles that seem disparate can be part of a wider movement.