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Engaged in the public square

The International Social Justice Commission works to achieve basic human rights for all.

by Christin Davis –

Next door to the Hungarian Embassy in Manhattan’s Midtown East, The Salvation Army’s redbrick International Social Justice Commission (ISJC) headquarters once housed a Scandinavian corps. Now, striking portraits of faces from the developing world fill the walls—a constant reminder of who this commission toils for. The images, it turns out, were taken by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry and used on a massive poster at the United Nations (UN) headquarters, which fills the shoreline of the East River just half a mile away.

Though The Salvation Army has been present at the UN since 1947, General Shaw Clifton spearheaded the creation of the ISJC in 2007, prioritizing the Army’s involvement in international law, security, economic development, social progress, human rights and achieving world peace—areas the UN aims to facilitate worldwide cooperation within.

“We are not called to be politicians or to endorse one party over another, but we are called to speak in Christ’s name for the underdog and the downtrodden,” Clifton said in an e-mail to New Frontier Publications. “My dream in bringing into being the ISJC is to enhance and strengthen this aspect of our work with a dedicated and specialized unit that can encourage us all and better coordinate our many initiatives country by country.”

Directed by Commissioner M. Christine MacMillan, the eight-member ISJC team is administratively connected to International Headquarters and is the Army’s voice in global deliberations on social justice matters. The commission conducts research and evaluates systemic issues in an effort to promote community development, peace and the achievement of basic human rights throughout the world.

“Booth [founder of The Salvation Army] dreamt of having a department that would have a pulse on the world—an intelligence department,” MacMillan said. “I feel we have become Booth’s intelligence department. We’re challenging the Army to create an expression that is concerned with the world.”

Yet, MacMillan acknowledges, research is not the overarching priority.

“Jesus was creative in his compassion and how he engaged with injustice,” MacMillan said. “The ISJC is not about just research and facts, but about passion. We acknowledge that the freshness of injustice is always before us. We don’t analyze the pain; we sense it. The immediacy of the issues drives us.”

What is social justice?
“Social services is what we do; it’s in our background,” said Lt. Col. Geanette Seymour, ISJC senior policy analyst and intern program coordinator. “Social justice is the how and the why we do the services. We commit to a provision of services through grace and mercy. We choose to engage in something consistent with what we believe.”

The ISJC developed a brochure, “Singing the Songs of Justice,” to promote an understanding of the concept.
“Driven by informed conviction and creative compassion, justice challenges human inequity and reaches out from the intelligence of the heart to touch human need,” the brochure reads. “Justice means working for the dignity, respect and God-given rights of all people. Justice listens carefully to those who are being overwhelmed by life’s demands and seeks their counsel. Justice addresses causes of injustice. Justice restores. Justice rebuilds people’s lives. Justice makes it possible for people to begin again.”

Dr. James Read, ISJC senior policy analyst, acknowledges some apprehension around the topic.

“We often think of providing works from a standpoint of compassion and caring; there is some tension with the language of justice,” Read said. “Social justice is not only about generosity on the frontlines; we should see people as entitled to what is fitting of human dignity.

“The Salvation Army needs to reclaim our voice in the public square and indicate to the world that we have something to contribute,” he said. “The Army does not need to rebrand itself, but to see social justice as part of our vocation.”

Inside the United Nations
The UN is an international organization founded in 1945 by 51 countries “committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights,” according to its website.

It provides the current 192 member nations a forum to discuss and act on issues through its three administrative bodies: the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council; The Salvation Army holds “special” status in the latter. By invitation, members of the ISJC sit on 12 different committees within the Economic and Social Council—in New York, and the UN offices in Geneva, Nairobi and Vienna.

Major Victoria Edmonds, the ISJC representative to the UN in New York, is involved with a number of committees that deal with gender equality and the rights of children. As the co-chair of the Beijing Platform, organized by the Commission on the Status of Women, Edmonds is helping to coordinate the March 2010 event that will draw together thousands of women to review the outcomes of the 1995 conference. Painted on the walls of one location for the event—the Army’s Centennial Memorial Temple at 14th Street in Beijing—are the appropriate words, “While women weep.”

Many of the committees Edmonds is involved in pushed for Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) —a resolution to end sexual violence against women and children in conflict-related situations. When the issue was slated for a Security Council meeting in late September, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited Edmonds to attend.

During the closed-door assembly, the 15-member Security Council voted unanimously to adopt the draft resolution 1888 (2009), “Women and peace and security,” submitted by 65 nations. The resolution calls for a special representative to lead, coordinate and advocate for efforts to end sexual violence, a team of experts to work with governments to strengthen the rule of law and enhance accountability, and new and renewed peacekeeping mandates that include language condemning sexual violence and guidance on working with local authorities to end it.

“Even though women and children are rarely responsible for initiating armed conflict, they are often war’s most vulnerable and violated victims,” Clinton said in a statement during the meeting. “The resolution we passed today represents a step forward in our global efforts to end violence perpetrated against women and children in conflict zones. The dehumanizing nature of sexual violence doesn’t just harm a single individual or a single family or even a single village or a single group. It shreds the fabric that weaves us together as human beings.”

Representatives from each member nation also made statements, along with the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“With its resolution today, the Security Council is sending an unequivocal message—a call to action,” he said. Ban also expressed regret that previous responses to sexual violence had not been able to stem the scourge and pledged to continue to ensure effective follow-up by the UN system.

Eight goals to eradicate poverty
Much of the ISJC’s work centers on the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were signed by 189 Heads of State and governments in 2000. The goals were renewed in 2008 with an achievement date set for 2015.

Broadly, the goal is to eradicate poverty and achieve basic human rights for all people in areas like education, maternal and child health and environmental sustainability (see endpoverty2015.org for more information). To measure the goals, nations report progress to the UN and the Secretary General reports on international progress to the General Assembly.

When General Shaw Clifton met with Secretary-General Ban in August 2009, he provided a report on The Salvation Army’s work around the world in conjunction with the MDGs.

“Our profile at the United Nations has never been higher,” Clifton said. “This was clear to me in my recent visit to meet the Secretary-General who spoke warmly of our contribution.”

Clifton told Ban stories of Salvation Army work to help achieve the MDGs. For example, the Army in Ukraine is working toward goal one: to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. In a city dump outside Novi Poselak, a number of people spend their days foraging for food in piles of rotten and decaying food scraps; pieces of metal, iron and wood; putrid water; rats and flies. Some even live there. When Captain Alexander Onishenko of the nearby Kirovograd Corps saw people gathering trash at the dump in the freezing weather, he found a cook and along with another officer, Captain Konstantin Svab, the Army now delivers and serves food at the dump six months out of the year (because of budget constraints).

Ten to 15 people from the dump now attend a weekly Army service at an apartment area nearby. The Army also brings cold medicine and clothing when possible, and refers people to hospitals, tuberculosis clinics and rehabilitation centers.

“Many people were surprised at our work at the dump and didn’t want to get involved at all,” Svab said. “But we couldn’t abandon these people; they have so many medical, emotional and spiritual problems. They have become our friends.”

ISJC strategic goals
Following its creation, the ISJC put together a survey for The Salvation Army world asking every territory what social issues they are dealing with and how the commission could be of support; the responses helped develop strategic goals for the commission.

“We recognized that our commission would only be strengthened if we knew where we were going,” MacMillan said. “We developed five goals—not just to help establish the commission, but to create momentum to bring about change in the world.”

Through the survey, the ISJC found that the Army world needed training materials on the concept of social justice in relation to the Gospel. In response, the ISJC developed “Jesus and Justice,” a complete guide on social justice as evidenced in the life of Jesus, to be released this year.

“We understand that The Salvation Army is a faith-based people of God and need a Scriptural foundation for why justice is important,” MacMillan said. “Action comes out of a conviction of faith.”

To help achieve its goals, MacMillan and other ISJC team members frequently speak and facilitate discussion with Salvation Army audiences.

In October, MacMillan traveled to Kenya to speak at the All Africa Congress, meet with local personnel and teach on the social justice paradigm to territorial staff in Kenya and South Africa. She recently returned from Moscow, having met with the Army leaders on developing a national moral and social issues council and positional statements.

Read also traveled to Brazil to speak at the Americas Zonal Conference of territorial leaders, meet with the national Moral and Social Issues Council and speak at the Southern Conference for South American leadership.

To better equip its staff and grassroots Salvationists, the ISJC is soon to begin its policy intern program using four qualified and experienced individuals from throughout the world to conduct research for the commission.

The ISJC is also looking to fill a full-time research position with a Salvationist who holds a Ph.D.

“Our purpose is to know what is going on and to influence what is going on,” Seymour said. “We aim to educate ourselves and in turn educate The Salvation Army. We want to become a part of activity for change and get involved in issues of change while letting the UN and the world know about the Army’s international involvement.”

Credible collateral
“The Army has incredible potential because of its spread across 118 countries,” said Dr. Don Posterski, ISJC global affairs consultant. “Though post-modernism is winning and secularism is high in the world, the ‘Salvation’ in our title is still credible and accepted. Credibility is like collateral; my question is how will we spend the collateral?”

The spring 2010 issue of Caring, “Intelligence Department,” will feature an exclusive look into the International Social Justice Commission—both its work at the United Nations and its interaction with the global Salvation Army. Look for the issue in March or contact caring@usw.salvationarmy.org to subscribe today.


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