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UU-UNO Director’s Letter

The Borgia Pope and the Doctrine of Discovery

Justice GA was an amazing event and the UU-UNO added its unique contribution to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s stand for justice. The focus was clearly on immigration and the rights of indigenous people. The UU-UNO was invited to provide its own views on the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Only about 50 nations have signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and, of course, the United States is not among those 50. It has, however, signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. How did Indigenous people lose their rights in the first place? 

I am a history nut. I love reading about history and watching movies and TV series about historical subjects. One of my recent favorites is the HBO series, “The Borgias,” which centers on the life and career of Rodrigo Borgia who became Pope Alexander VI. This Pope is generally considered the most corrupt and violent pope of them all. It was this Pope Alexander VI that issued a papal bull in 1493 that said that any Christian (Catholic) kingdom could claim the land of any non-Christian people and to dominate the people and exploit the resources. This doctrine was referred to in an early U.S. Supreme Court decision Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823. Chief Justice John Marshall justified the way in which colonial powers laid claim to lands belonging to sovereign indigenous nations during the Age of Discovery.  Under it, title to lands lay with the government whose subjects explored and occupied a territory whose inhabitants were not subjects of a European Christian monarch. The doctrine has been primarily used to support decisions invalidating or ignoring indigenous possession of land in favor of colonial or post-colonial governments. This decision (never overruled) made it clear that while indigenous Americans could reside on land given to them by the government, they didn’t have full ownership of the land, which ultimately rested with the U.S. Government. 

In May 2012 the UN Permanent Forum on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples called on the current Pope to repudiate the papal bulls of Popes Nicholas V's Romanus Pontifex in 1452 which basically gave Africa to Portugal and Alexander VI’s Inter Caetera in 1493 which basically gave the New World to Spain. Spain had begun its conquest the year before in 1492. So far, Pope Benedict XVI has not repudiated the papal bulls issued by his predecessors in 1452 and 1493.

Closer to home, as a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People we need to push our government to fulfill the commitments to sovereignty of indigenous peoples and fair compensation for what has been taken from them. Canada has, at least, begun the process of renegotiating its treaties with its First Nations peoples. This could result in better, more equitable agreements. However, some indigenous people fear this process in Canada will only be used to take even more from Canada’s first nations. We Americans need to begin the process of dialog with our indigenous Americans and come to fair accommodations with them. 

Finally we need to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and then implement this convention which calls for humane treatment of migrants and their families whether or not they carry documents. The convention recognizes the rights of nations to secure their borders, but above that right are the human rights of all of us. Legal migrants are entitled to the full protection of law in their country of residence. Migrants without documents are also entitled to due process and to be treated, at all times, in accordance with the rules of international human rights laws consistent with human dignity.

The treatment we saw at Tent City in Phoenix is not consistent with international law or with international norms of respect for human rights. What appalled me was that inmates of Tent City who had committed no crime were treated worse than the animals at the Phoenix animal shelter down the street from Tent City. The animals got air conditioned quarters proper food and cool water, all of which are denied to people imprisoned at Tent City. Remember most of these people have stolen nothing nor harmed anyone. They may have ignored a regulation, like driving 50 in a 35 mile an hour zone, but they are not criminals. According to the United Nations, migrants should never be treated as criminals.

LGBT Immigration

We also participated in an outstanding workshop on LGBT refugees and asylum seekers. The fact of the matter is that International Human Rights law is evolving in favor of equality regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. As progress for more rights and greater inclusiveness marches forward, there are growing efforts to oppose this progress. In the United States, we see anti-equality movements in the South and generally in the middle of the country. Canada’s middle (especially Alberta) seems also to be where anti-equality movements have the most traction. Globally, the most serious opposition comes from parts of Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe (notably Russia). Surprising progress is taking place in Latin America, Western Europe, South Africa, parts of Asia and in Israel. However, with serious backsliding in countries like Iran, Uganda, Nigeria and Russia; the world is seeing increasing migration out of these areas towards Western Europe, Canada and the United States.

Our panel discussed the legal issues and how they have evolved to allow LGBT people to obtain both refugee and asylee status.   However, LGBT refugees and asylees can have very difficult experiences in certain North American neighborhood and in the hands of certain assistance agencies to the extent that the refugee or asylee feels that her or his situation has little improved. Unitarian Universalist congregations can provide much-needed help and support to these newcomers to North America. The UU-UNO has partnered with the Organization of Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM) and with individual congregations to help LGBT refugees and asylees. The First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco has begun a collaboration with the UU-UNO and ORAM to host a refugee from Iran. The concept they have followed with ORAM is to form a “guardian group” where responsibilities are divided and shared among a committee of “guardians” so that the many tasks needed to help a refugee can be easily carried out because no one person will have to undertake an inordinate amount of this work alone. Representatives from UUSF were in the audience and their participation added much to the discussion.


The UU-UNO also collaborated on a discussion organized by the UU Abolitionists, principally from Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Santa Cruz County and Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. The featured speaker was Kevin Bales from Free the Slaves. However, prior to Kevin’s talk, I made some brief remarked based on my experience at a U.S. diplomat in dealing with the modern day slavery issue in Sudan and in Cote d’Ivoire. I also mentioned a case I worked on of the smuggling of Chinese laborers into the United States and how these laborers work and are kept in conditions of slavery in this country. Unfortunately, slavery though illegal globally remains horrifically alive in the 21st Century.

UU-UNO Reception at GA

The annual reception at GA was very well attended. The highlight of the reception was the Greeley Award winning sermon by Kent Price and the distribution of Blue Ribbon congregational awards. Kent’s sermon was a masterful tour de force about empowering women for a better world, which was the UU-UNO seminar topic in 2011. This year’s topic for UN Sunday and the Greeley Award competition is race and immigration. We were delighted to recognize 22 congregations which have fulfilled all the requirements to become a Blue Ribbon congregation. These requirements include having a UU-UNO envoy or envoy committee, having a UN Sunday during the year, making a congregational contribution to the UU-UNO and 5% of the congregational members making contributions to the UU-UNO (or 15 whichever is less). 

I have much more to tell, but no more space. Look for my letter in August. Enjoy your summer and remember to continue your engagement with and support to the UU-UNO.