Universe of faith interviews Anna Halpine founder of the World Youth Alliance about human dignity. She has been the mind and heart behind the World Youth Alliance since 1999. Anna believes there’s a universal language which humanity can speak. Since she was 21, Anna Halpine has worked with peers from many different religious and non-religious backgrounds including Atheists, Agnostics, Buddhists, Catholics, Confucians, Jews, Muslims, Protestants and people of no religion in favour of human dignity.
Why is the topic of human dignity so important?
Well, we can see all around the world that there are attempts to violate the dignity of the person. The WYA was a reaction of conscience to one of these moments. But these debates are taking place in every country in a variety of ways. It is absolutely essential for us to understand the dignity of the human person so that we can defend it and love it. You can never love something you don’t know.
We represent these ideals, we train young people and older ones, it allows them to be open to these ideas which are so powerful and can change their lives.
What do you understand by “human dignity”?
There are two different ways to understand dignity:
- The juridical and human rights way, where we can see that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of human rights. It is the recognition that the human person is prior to the determination of what is a just law and what is a human right. This means that both states and individual are both bound to respect the human person first, and this becomes a measure of the just nature of the law which they are developing so this means that the State cannot decide who has human dignity. The state has to respect this prior fact that every human person has dignity. The State cannot take it away. The State has an obligation to conduct itself and its laws in accordance with this dignity.
- The idea of the person from a philosophical and experiential way. Throughout history many great men & women have learnt through philosophy, pursuit of wisdom and difficult experiences, this reality of the human person. We study a lot the experiences of Central & Eastern European history, Communism, because we have a rich experience which comes out from human suffering. What comes clear in all of this is, the dignity of the human person. You can try to trample on it as a State, you can set up laws that obliterate it, but it is clear that this is false. What shines through is this notion of human person, that we have had to learn at a very great cost.
What does the “intrinsic level of human dignity” mean?
It means the fundamental root and value of the human person. It is the deepest sense of the reality of who we are and nothing we do can take away from that dignity. On the other hand, we can honestly act in ways that violate our own human dignity or the dignity of others in very deep ways. So people struggle to think that mass murderers and rapists have the same dignity as their victims. That is a problem that we face and that we have to examine very well. Underlining that, there’s the universal reality that we either have this dignity or we don’t. This worth in value that every person has as a human being. The great adventure of human life is to try to learn to act in ways that conform to human dignity rather than act in ways which violate it and to always act in ways as to defend those who are being attacked.
How do we learn to act in favour of human dignity?
We can learn to understand who we are. As humans we can do things like plants do; grow, nurture ourselves, reproduce... We can do the things which animals do: act on instinct, use imagination and memory, we can move... But only we humans have the unique capacity to think and choose, understand the world, write songs & symphonies, paint and build homes, contemplate the divine. So, these are ways that we can understand who we are as human persons. All of this we can engage it together with our freedom. We can learn to act in ways according to our human dignity and not.
What is your message to those who feel angry or helpless in front of the violation of human dignity?
You life is valuable and we (WYA) need your help. Each person really has to commit for themselves to live in a certain way and act on certain principles. If together we do this, we can really make a difference.
- We can represent ideas that need to be represented.
- We can defend human freedom.
- We can defend the vulnerable and the innocent.
- We can change the way we live, we can change our communities, our world.
The question is not why is the world like this?, why are these bad things happening? These are questions for sure, they can lead to righteous anger that mobilises us to action, but the real question for us at WYA is what are you doing about it today? This allows young people to see that their life counts, they don’t have to feel angry and helpless but they can take concrete action in their lives to contribute to the things that they believe in.
Is there a certain type of character to who could apply to join the WYA?
Young people who are willing to work in a good way. We don’t care about their background, whether they went to school or not, what specialty they’re studying. The question is can you take the time to really think hard? Do you understand the importance of the dignity of the human person and can you articulate it? Can you make the link between human dignity and the policy proposals we are making about maternal health, HIV & AIDS, population and the economy, women’s health? All of this is the critical thing but out of that we find amazing young people who really want to work hard and work together and give their talents. They want to give a portion of their lives and they’re really making a big difference. They have to study, write 14 essays, do an exam, before they begin to work with us. They have to understand the depth of the ideas that they will be working with to work and contribute. We are receiving extraordinary young people who help us present these ideas in fresh and exciting ways. WYA is for and by young people. We invest a lot in young people and we ask a lot of them.
On a European level what has the WYA contributed?
- Developing a network of young people who know these ideas and understand how they operate philosophically and politically and build friendships so that they don’t feel alone.
- Constantly monitoring of issues which are discussed at the UN through these young people.
- Drafting of a resolution that was adopted in 2012 by the EU parliament condemning forced abortion in China.
- Works on the research programmes of the EU in co-operation with other groups, to try to make sure that research priorities do not explicitly fund programmes that belittle or even require the destruction of human life.
- Works on the negotiations of the development agenda of the UN, insisting that the protection of human life and family in enshrined in there, not opposed in these programmes.
- Working on a number of resolutions and discussions related to human cloning always to say that we can never commodify human life and begin to experiment upon it.
- Work with a coalition of organisations to highlight the importance of many people who are rejected from society because they have physical or intellectual disabilities, through which we reached 6 commissioners and around 400 MEPs, to structure issues that will allow us to move research projects and then national laws.
- Yearly works on the budget of the EU.
How did the World Youth Alliance start?
I was studying on a scholarship programmes a musician at NY city. When I was in NY, I was chosen to go to work for a year at the European Parliament. There I met young people from all over the world, working at the parliament, talking with them about these ideas and how important they were in the world today, debates the the EU was talking about and how they were affecting all of our lives. So after I finished I went back to NY city and moved in apartment with other friends, musicians. We taught music to be able to live, pay rent and fund the project and also took a loan. Others joined, at one point we were 15. We had nothing, just shared everything, talked and worked together. It was changing our lives. We had no donors and important people. It was entirely young people. Eventually people started to help us develop white papers, reports etc. There where times when I wondered whether it will be possible to keep going. As the person responsible for this I had to think about where to get the money etc An adventurous experience. It was all studied by young people and other young people started to come to us to work with us at the UN and kept growing.
The World Youth Alliance has more than 1 million youth members from around the world all dedicated to work for a better world that fosters authentic integral human development, in public life, at all levels. It has six offices, in: New York, Kenya, Manila, Brussels, Mexico City and Beirut.
If you want to sign the WYA Charter and officially become a member of the World Youth Alliance or want more information about this international non-profit organisation please visit http://www.wya.net/.