Pope Francis calls UN "necessary" but in need of reform on Sept. 25. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Heralding a Change of Direction at the UN?

Pope Francis concluded his wide-ranging address to the United Nations General Assembly today by telling its 193 member states that if they respect the international legal framework of the organization, “set aside partisan and ideological interests, and sincerely strive to serve the common good,” then they can ensure “a secure and happy future for the next generations.”

In a 48 minute talk, interrupted more than 25 times by applause and capped by a standing ovation at the end,” he zoned in on many of the major problems in a world that he described as “experiencing a growing and steady social fragmentation” which “places at risk all the foundations of social life” and consequently leads to “battles over conflicting interests.”

Speaking in Spanish, he told them that given the very serious situations in the world “we cannot permit ourselves to postpone ‘certain agendas’ in the future.” Indeed, “the future demands of us critical and global decisions in the face of world-wide conflicts which increase the number of excluded and those in need.”

Although three other popes have spoken at the United Nations—Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, this first pope from the southern hemisphere made history in a way they did not. This was the first time ever that a pope was invited to address a working session of the General Assembly and, moreover, no pope ever had such a distinguished audience, as UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, pointed out in his welcome address.

There were in fact more than 150 heads of state in the hall of the General Assembly when he spoke, including Europe’s most powerful political leader, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, together with the King of Spain, and the Presidents of Chile and Cuba. The presence of so many heads of state or government was an extraordinary tribute to the world’s leading moral authority who is “shaking things up” not only in the Church but also in the world by his example and his words.

I was inside the hall of the General Assembly and one could sense a distinct air of great excitement before he arrived, that turned into strong spontaneous applause when the joy-filled pope entered to address the governments of the world. Earlier he had greeted the international staff and other employees of the UN HQ, who gave him a rousing welcome. Speaking in English, he told them “you are the backbone of this organization” and urged them to “care for one another.” He also had a private meeting with the Secretary-General and the President of the 70th General Assembly.

Like his predecessors, Francis expressed his “great esteem” for the United Nations, and said without the interventions of this international organization “mankind would not have been able to survive the unchecked use of its own possibilities.” He praised it for helping the peoples of the world “advance” towards attaining “the ideal of human fraternity.”

At the same time, he said there was a need also for a reform of the organization, especially the Security Council and the International Financial Agencies. The latter “should care for the sustainable development of countries” and should ensure that these countries “are not subjected to oppressive lending systems.” That remark drew energetic applause.

As the Charter of the United Nations makes clear, he said, the organization’s work can be seen as “the development and promotion of the rule of law” and this entails “the limitation” of the power of states, so that no one individual state or group “can consider itself absolute” and “permitted” to bypass the dignity and the rights of individuals and their social groupings. But in today’s world, he said, there are “false rights” and “broad sectors” are “vulnerable, victims of power badly used,” and so there is a pressing need to affirm their rights “by working to protect the environment and putting an end to exclusion.”

As expected, Francis devoted a sizable part of his talk to “the ecological crisis.” He highlighted the damage that had been done, and is being done, to planet earth, “our common home.” He affirmed that “a true ‘right of the environment does exist” and emphasized, as he has done in his encyclical, that “any harm done to the environment, is harm done to humanity.” He told his distinguished audience that “the misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion,” and added that “economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment.” The poor thus become a party of that growing “culture of waste,” he said.

He told the General Assembly that this “dramatic situation of exclusion and inequality” needs to be urgently attended to and said “the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” which is now beginning at the UN “would be an important sign of hope.” He expressed confidence that the Paris Conference on Climate Change would reach “fundamental and effective agreements” in this field, and that would also be another ‘sign of hope.” In this way, Francis gave the Catholic Church’s support to both UN summits.

Pope Francis is not just a humble, holy man, he is also a strategist and “a political animal,” and is well aware that there is “much talk” in the UN, but often too little “political will” to take action. So this morning, he listed many of the world’s problem situations linked to social and economic exclusion, including human trafficking, slave labor, the drug and arms trades and other things, and told them frankly, “the magnitude of the situation and their toll in innocent lives” is such that “we must avoid every temptation to fall into a declaration nominalism which would assuage our consciences” but not resolve problems. He insisted on the need for institutions that are “effective.”

Francis is an “advocate of the poor” and today called on governments to enable men and women “escape from extreme poverty.” He said one important way to help them is to provide education, also for girls (who are excluded in certain places).

He said governments must do all they can to ensure that all can have “the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity, and to create and support a family.” In practical terms he said this means they must ensure that people have a roof over their head, a job and land. These three were also the minimum demands of the Popular Movements that he met in Bolivia. To these, Francis added religious freedom and the right to education and other civil liberties. He presented all this as the bottom line.

Highlighting the terrible effects of war, Francis called on the United Nations and its member states “to work tirelessly” to prevent war between nations and peoples, and to resolve conflicts by ensuring the rule of law and engaging in “tireless negotiation.” He recalled how over the past 70 years, and particularly in the past 15, the UN has had some successes in this field when its Charter was respected and followed, but it has experienced failures when this was not the case. He told them that when the Charter is considered as “an instrument to be used when favorable and avoided when it proves unfavorable, a true Pandora’s box is opened releasing uncontrollable forces that gravely harm defenseless populations.” (He may well have had in mind the 2003 war on Iraq which has brought such disastrous consequences).

The Jesuit pope recalled that the founding documents of the UN set forth the conditions for peace, but the proliferation of arms, especially weapons of mass destruction nuclear arms contradict all this. “An ethics and a law based on the threat of mutual destruction—and possibly the destruction of all mankind—are self-contradictory and an affront to the entire framework of the United Nations, which would end up as ‘nations united by fear and distrust’.” He was loudly applauded when he said “there is urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons.”

He cited the agreement between the international community and Iran on the nuclear question as “proof of the potential of political good will and of law, exercised with sincerity, patience and constancy.” He was applauded again when he expressed the hope that “this agreement will be lasting and efficacious.”

He told the assembly that there was much “hard evidence” of “the negative effects of military and political interventions which are not coordinated between members of the international community.”

In this context he renewed his appeal “regarding the painful situation of the entire Middle East, North Africa and other African countries, where Christians, together with other cultural or ethnic groups, and even members of the majority religion who have no desire to be caught up in hatred and folly, have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property, and have faced the alternative either of fleeing or of paying for their adhesion to good and to peace by their own lives, or by enslavement.”

Francis added the dramatic situations of people inUkraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and the Great Lakes region and told the General Assembly that all this “should serve as a grave summons to an examination of conscience on the part of those charged with the conduct of international affairs.” Again more applause.

Francis, seeking to ensure his appeal does not fall on deaf ears, told the General Assembly “the most basic understanding of human dignity compels the international community, particularly through the norms and mechanisms of international law, to do all that it can to stop and to prevent further systematic violence against ethnic and religious minorities and to protect innocent peoples.”

He said the General Assembly should also take into account “another kind of conflict” that “is silently killing millions of people”—the narcotics trade. He knows a lot about this from his years in Buenos Aires and in his talk to the United Nations he spoke with passion and reminded all present that “drug trafficking” is accompanied by “trafficking in persons, money laundering, the arms trade, child exploitation and other forms of corruption. A corruption which has penetrated to different levels of social, political, military, artistic and religious life, and, in many cases, has given rise to a parallel structure which threatens the credibility of our institutions.”

This is a pope who knows well what is happening on the street, and he speaks with a moral authority that is now being recognized by rulers and people across the world.

His talk today was like a public examination of conscience for the world’s rulers, he sought to awake their conscience in the hope that they will be converted to a different way of global governance and cooperation, that they will work together for the common good and human dignity of all the world’s citizens.

In a word, Francis told the state members of the United Nations that the world cannot continue the way it is going, it has to change direction, they have a responsibility to ensure it does, and on the big issues. That too was the message he expressed so powerfully in his encyclical on”our common home.”

The fact that so many heads of state and government chose to be present when Pope Francis addressed the United Nations General Assembly this morning can be read as an indicator that a great many of the world’s rulers are beginning to listen. That is indeed a good sign.