Every September, the United Nations General Assembly meets in New York. Focused around a theme and responding to emerging concerns, the General Assembly is where every nation offers its reflections on the agenda and progress of the United Nations. In 2013, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon laid out a multi-year theme for concluding the millennium development project and establishing a new sustainable development agenda in 2015 – a life of dignity for all. It is fitting that Pope Francis gave his first address to the UN as they meet to finalize this agenda aimed at securing a life of dignity for all.
What is required to achieve a life of dignity for all? I just want to highlight 5 signposts offered by Pope Francis for the final negotiations on the sustainable development agenda.
1.) Global structures must be inclusive.
Calling for reform, Pope Francis urged global leaders to renew and reform not only the United Nations but international financial institutions. He noted “the experience of the past seventy years has made it clear that reform and adaptation to the times is always necessary in the pursuit of the ultimate goal of granting all countries, without exception, a share in, and a genuine and equitable influence on, decision-making processes.” Inclusion and participation are recurring themes for Pope Francis, especially here in the United Nations address. Greater agency and participation must be guiding principles in both reforms of the Security Council and of international financial organizations.
Insightfully, Pope Francis identified limiting power as both a fundamental principle of law but also of the United Nations. Just as he called upon the US Congress to return to its founding principles, here too Francis called the United Nations to embrace more fully what it was created to be. Francis is not alone in calling for reform – as the applause from the audience indicated. Over the last few years, many member states have been calling for reform of the Security Council and financial institutions.
2.) Dignity of the Environment (and protecting its rights)
It is impossible to achieve a life of dignity for persons without respecting the dignity of the earth. Building upon his monumental encyclical, Laudato Si’ Care for our Common Home, Pope Francis urged respect for the right of the environment. The environment has intrinsic value; it is not merely to be valued based upon usefulness to humanity. Francis reminds us that “we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. “Creation belongs to God; “We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.”
3.)Destruction of the Environment & Exclusion of Persons are Connected
Francis is clearest and unequivocal when he is speaking about the need to build a culture of solidarity and reject all forms of exclusion and violence. Violence to the environment and violence to persons are linked. He strongly challenged us all,
“The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion. . . . Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment. The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment.”
The dual emphasis on those living on the margins of society and the environment is foundational for Pope Francis’s theological ethics. For the 2030 development agenda to succeed, it similarly needs prioritize inclusion of the marginalized and protection of the environment.
4.) Remember: Persons not Statistics
To Congress, Pope Francis implored the members not to get caught up in the potential numbers of refugees or immigrants but instead to see their faces and listen to their stories. Similarly, to the United Nations he reminded us all that, “beyond our plans and programmes, we are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights. To enable these real men and women to escape from extreme poverty, we must allow them to be dignified agents of their own destiny.” Development is not a simple linear process. It is not a math equation. If we are seeking a life of dignity for all, then we must engage, listen, and respect the voices of all persons. These vulnerable persons are the victims of war, violence, terrorism, hunger, homelessness, human trafficking…and they all must be included.
5.) See, Judge, but then We Must ACT
Since Nairobi is 7 hours ahead of New York, this morning I taught a human rights class focused on religion and human rights. We watched Pray the Devil Back to Hell about the Christian and Muslim Women’s peace initiative in Liberia that was instrumental in ending the violence and a successful transition to elections. The class lamented where was the international community? They identified a clear gap between the strong rhetoric of our human rights documents and action. As if he heard my students’ frustrations, Pope Francis urged the United Nations to remember that documents are not enough. The ecological crisis, wars, drug trafficking, and nuclear proliferation are all crises that demand action.
Ultimately, the message of Pope Francis is one of hope. Seventy years ago, the international community came together seeking to build a world of human rights and fraternity. In embracing that same agenda always expanding for greater inclusion, greater participation—Pope Francis and the United Nations together have a shared goal—a life of dignity for all in our common home.
Meghan J. Clark is an assistant professor of moral theology at St. John’s University, Queens, N.Y. and the author of The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: The Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights (Fortress Press).