Skip to main content

Oceanian unity: Dignity & freedom

Leaders and scholars collaborate to promote human dignity and religious freedom in Oceania by pledging unity and advocacy

A panel of seven people sit in front of a crowd
A panel at the conference
Photo by Yui Leung

Recognizing the interconnectedness of human experience and the universal longing for dignity and respect among people around the world was at the heart of the Oceanian Perspectives on Human Dignity Conference held on campus.

In a world often divided by differences and social norms, the three-day conference held at BYU-Hawaii on April 23-25, brought together leaders, scholars and students from diverse backgrounds across the Oceanian region who shared a common commitment to interact and to explore the complex tapestry of human dignity from cultural, religious and social perspectives. This function provided a platform for dialogue, reflection and collective action on the fundamental principles of human dignity and religious freedom.

Brett G. Scharffs, director of the International Center for Law at BYU in Provo, said people must be mindful of the consequences of violating human dignity. “Human dignity is the proposition that there is more that [human beings] have in common than everything that divides us,” he said

The conference


David Whippy, assistant professor in the Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts, was the advisor for the Religious Freedom and Human Dignity Initiative. He drew parallels between Oceanian culture and the symbolism of fine woven mats, urging delegates to continue weaving interconnected relationships to promote peace and dignity.

Different speakers talked about how human dignity applies to various issues. The Reverend Dr. Peter Loy Chong, representing the Archdiocese of Suva, Fiji, said, “Globalization favors the rich and powerful, and human and planetary dignity does not matter. To solve this, we need to humanize globalization to serve human and planetary dignity better.”

A woman and a man smile at a camera from behind the table they are seated at
Alohilani Housman and Aaron Shumway at the conference
Photo by Yui Leung

Similarly, Reverend James Shri Bhagwan, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, emphasized the intrinsic connection between human dignity and collective responsibility. In his address, he challenged participants to recognize that the context of human dignity extends beyond individual rights to encompass a shared obligation to protect and uplift one another within communities. “The context of human dignity is not only about individual rights, but also it is about collective responsibilities to protect others and their rights. To live in a community, is to care for all,” he said.

Robert J. Torres, the chief justice of the Supreme Court in Guam, and the keynote speaker at the event, said when people begin to ignore human dignity, they also start to disregard human rights. “The battle for justice and dignity endures despite advancements in consciousness and awareness, serving as a constant reminder of the need to continue protecting everyone’s rights and liberties. Our commitment to dignity is what defines us,” he said. “Loss of homes and other resources should not mean the loss of human rights.”

Student’s participation

John Zenger, an alumna who majored in intercultural peacebuilding and music, was the student lead for the Religious Freedom and Human Dignity Initiative. He said more than 30 student volunteers helped with organization, driving, preparation of rooms and so on. “I hope the students who attended and the students who will read the published articles in their classes will learn that dignity is inherent in all humans... Oceania’s unique views on human dignity [which vary by region] may ring true to students in ways that Western philosophy does not,” he said.

A man speaks at a podium
John Zenger at the conference
Photo by Yui Leung

Abish Baliwas, a alumna majoring in cultural anthropology and sustainability, shared the OPHD is a place for BYUH students to be part of an important conversation. “As students of BYUH, we strive to become disciples of Jesus Christ, and participating in both APHD and OPHD has cemented the belief that we are all children of a loving Heavenly Father, and we all deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of our race, religion, gender, social class and educational background,” she said. Baliwas added conference will help students understand that human dignity is universal and it exists on different concepts throughout the world. •