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Benedict at the United Nations

The international peacemaker makes his case.
by Sabrina Arena Ferrisi | Source:
UNITED NATIONS — Some delegates, staff members and observers of the United Nations said Pope Benedict gave them a speech to ponder.

Some said they were discovering deeper meanings in it on second and third readings.

Others speculated on what kind of effect it would have on dealings with the United Nations.

The Holy Father delivered his first speech to the General Assembly at the beginning of the New York leg of his papal visit April 18. And many agreed that it was not for the intellectually faint-of-heart.

“I thought it was great,” said Samantha Singson of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-Fam), a non-governmental organization at the United Nations. “But it was very subtle.”

Following the speech to delegates and ceremonial visits within the international body’s complex, Benedict came back into the General Assembly hall where upwards of 3,000 U.N. staffers awaited his message to them.

The second gathering gave the Pope a wildly enthusiastic reception, compared to the more subdued applause from diplomats earlier.

The first speech, about half an hour in length, was prefaced by a brief introduction by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who noted that the United Nations has no chapel, only a “meditation room.”

Though the United Nations does not officially advocate any religion, “many of us are motivated by our religious faith,” the South Korean secretary general said.

Pope Benedict spoke in French and English, giving a profound analysis of various themes already developed during his pontificate: the true meaning of human rights, human freedom, the sanctity of human life and religious liberty.

What He Said
The Pope spent a great deal of time in his speech making the connection between human rights and the responsibilities that states have in protecting them.

“Every state has the primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights,” he said, “as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises whether natural or man-made.”

The assembly hall was filled with representatives from the 192 member states of the United Nations. Susan Yoshihara of C-Fam was among those paying close attention.

“I was struck by the way in which he juxtaposed the responsibility to protect with the proper understanding of human rights,” she said. “It was just brilliant.”

Yoshihara believes that various portions of the speech were meant to be understood for what was between the lines. The “duty to protect” could be understood, she explained, as referring to the situation in Darfur, Somalia, or for what happened in the Rwanda in 1994.

The Holy Father applauded the legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years after it was drafted.

“This document was the outcome of a convergence of different religious and cultural traditions, all of them motivated by the common desire to place the human person at the heart of institutions, laws and the workings of society, and to consider the human person essential for the world of culture, religion and science,” he said.

He went on to state that these rights “apply to everyone by virtue of the common origin of the person, who remains the high-point of God’s creative design for the world and for history.”

“The Universal Declaration on Human Rights was based on a transcendent view of the human person,” said Yoshihara. “It was written with the influence of various Catholic nations.”

It was profoundly pro-life. Jeanne Head, who lobbies at the U.N. on behalf of International Right to Life, said Benedict’s words may fall on deaf ears in that regard. “You can’t come to common ground on this,” she said. “They’re either human rights or not human rights. I apply that to the unborn.”

With that as a backdrop, the Holy Father alluded to the fact that certain groups and nations have been trying to create new rights without any basis in natural law.

“There are efforts to read into rights — for example, by creating special rights for homosexuals,” said C-Fam’s Singson.

Religious Freedom
In a fairly strong statement, Pope Benedict called upon the nations of the world to respect true religious freedom.

“It is inconceivable, then, that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves — their faith — in order to be active citizens,” he said. “It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights.”

There have been calls for greater respect for religious freedom in places such as Saudi Arabia, China and Vietnam.

Eight years ago, the 57 nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference voted to accept a “Declaration on Human Rights in Islam,” which, according to Catholic journalist Russell Shaw, states that people have a right to live in freedom and dignity — provided they do that in accord with sharia (Islamic law).

Delegates we attempted to reach after the Friday speech were unavailable, including the Saudi mission, the Islamic Conference and the Chinese mission to the United Nations.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the permanent representative of the United States to the United Nations, was not available for interviews.

Staffers were easier to contact than delegates, and many expressed their appreciation for the talk the Pope gave directly to them.

The Pope acknowledged those personnel and peacekeepers who have sacrificed their lives, including 42 staffers who were killed in the field in 2007. But he also listed “translators, secretaries, administrative personnel of every kind, maintenance and security staff” whose work supports the U.N. mission of peace, justice and development.

“As soon as he stepped into the hall, the whole assembly stood and cheered with an intensity you don’t usually see at the United Nations,” said Jean Quesnel, director of the evaluation office at UNICEF.

Casimir Wolnowski was delighted. He’s with the intergovernmental organization of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The organization is a permanent observer at the United Nations.

“The most important thing that I got out of his speech was an understanding of how we as human persons coming from the stronger member nations have an obligation to take care of the weaker member nations,” Wolnowski said. “The U.N. is a symbol of different groups and nations coming together for common cause and looking at the needs of others.”

Register News Editor John Burger contributed to this article.

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is based in New York.

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