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Monday, April 21, 2008

The Pope at the UN: Sensible words devoid of hot air

UNITED NATIONS — Heralding the necessity for human rights and freedom, Pope Benedict XVI spoke before the United Nations General Assembly during his historic visit to the United States. During a magisterial address to delegates from 192 member states, the Catholic Pontiff delivered a powerful message, “The promotion of human rights remains the most effective strategy for eliminating inequities between countries and social groups, and for increasing security.”

Recalling the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Pope said that the document has allowed “different cultures and juridical expressions and institutional models to converge around a fundamental nucleus of values and hence of rights.” At the same time he cautioned, “Experience shows that legality often prevails over justice when the insistence upon rights makes them appear as the exclusive result of legislative enactments or normative decisions taken by the various agencies of those in power.”

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Pope Benedict XVI related the enduring adage from the 5th century scholar Augustine of Hippo. “Do not do to others what you would not want done to you.” He advised, “Human rights, then, must be respected as an expression of justice, and not merely because they are enforceable through the will of the legislators.”

He implored, “In the name of freedom there has to be a correlation between rights and duties, by which every person is called to assume responsibility for his or her choices.”

Significantly Pope Benedict stressed that human rights must include the right to religious freedom, adding importantly, “It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights.” He added poignantly, “The full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to the free exercise of worship, but has to give due consideration to the pubic dimension of religion, and hence to the possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order.” This could be interpreted as a warning to countries as China where the communist government has permitted an “official Patriotic Catholic Church,” but has barred and harassed believers in the Roman Catholic Church.

Having seen the late and great Pope John Paul II address the UN on two occasions from this very same rostrum, one appreciates the difference in the style but not the substance as the current Pontiff presents his case on a philosophical plateau rarely seen in the setting of the United Nations.

Importantly the German-born Pontiff stressed the concept of the responsibility to protect.

“Every state has the primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises, whether natural or man-made.” He beseeched, “If states are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations Charter.” He warned “it is indifference or failure to intervene that can do the real damage.” Read that again and recall Rwanda.

Fully aware of the many global crises facing governments, Darfur, West Africa, Congo Somalia, etc, the Pope though not mentioning any specific crises or cases, stated less than cryptically, “When faced with new and insistent challenges, it is a mistake to fall back on a pragmatic approach, limited to determining ‘common ground’ minimal in content and weak in its effect.” One could easily interpret this as a rebuke to bickering UN member states who in their aim to always achieve consensus in crisis, often agree on action too little too late.

Following his speech to the delegates, the Pontiff addressed an enthusiastic UN staff. Benedict XVI paid special tribute to the global humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts, as well as to the sacrifices of those staffers killed in the line of duty. Later, the Pope touched and blessed the blue and white flag, which had flown at the ill-fated UN headquarters in Baghdad, bombed by terrorists in August 2003.

Pope Benedict’s address in the cavernous hall of the General Assembly, a temple of political secularism and often-pedantic politicians, evoked a quiet majesty and philosophical introspection, not posing a direct political challenge. Nor did he specifically mention, enumerate or chastise any government or ideology as pundits had widely predicted. Rather, he presented a philosophical practicum which has relevance in the contemporary political world as a clear counterpoint to what he often calls a “dictatorship of relativism.”

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for World
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