Pope Francis is not the first Pope to visit the United Nations Headquarters in New York, but its significance at a time of growing international tensions should not be underestimated. He is likely to cover key issues such as peace, climate change, human rights, human trafficking, poverty and inequality – but some of the more sensitive issues will be left for another day.
The first thing to note (as that is will be visible to all those waiting to cheer him) will be the flying of the yellow and white flag of the Holy See. What’s the issue, you might ask, as it is prominent on any Catholic Church anywhere in the world? But the UN would never fly the flag of another religious organisation (or football team for that matter). It is because the Holy See has been part of the UN system since 1964 with its own special status – that of a permanent observer. Those of us used to attending human rights and other meetings within the UN system are used to the active, and often very constructive, involvement of the Holy See. However, since 2012 it has been a club of two – Palestine now also has the same status. Next week, the Palestinian flag will certainly be raised when President Abbas arrives for the United Nations General Assembly and therefore, as a matter of protocol, so should the Papal flag tomorrow.
But what will Pope Francis actually say? He will make some US Republicans (and some member states of the UN for that matter) uncomfortable by being very clear that climate change is one of the world’s greatest challenges and that governments, businesses and consumers are all directly responsible for much of it. More than this, even if he does not use the words “climate justice” this will certainly be the approach he will take. Why is it that it is some of the world’s very poorest people (in low lying countries or dependent on stressed environments) are already the greatest victims of climate change when they are the least responsible for it? Recently a coalition of NGOs petitioned to the Philippines Human Rights Commission that the greatest carbon contributors of recent decades (i.e. some of the world’s largest energy, mining and other companies) should be held accountable for their impacts on communities there (even though many of those companies have no direct connection to the country). Pope Francis will not take such an adversarial approach, but he will challenge all the member states of the UN to work together for a strong commitment at the Paris Climate Summit (COP 21) in December and for governments and businesses still in denial to end any pretence that they have no problem to answer. He might note the growing number of companies that have now embraced the climate change debate (although the beatification of the Blessed Paul Polman or Saint Al Gore might be a while yet! – this is a joke by the way).
Poverty and the 2015-30 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be an essential part of the speech. This is a Pope that has taken the name of St Francis of Assisi and lives his life very modestly, by all accounts, and therefore practices what he preaches in relation to inequality. The UN Secretary General’s motif that the SDGs will “leave no one behind” will be something that the Pope will take at face value. And if you read the SDGs you will see that there is no lack of ambition, not least the $1 trillion needed from the private sector annually by 2020 – the governance of which is vague at best.
Human trafficking is also likely to figure as well as the desperate plight of refugees in the Middle East, crossing the Mediterranean and in Southeast Asia. He might raise the issue of religious freedom within this context (given the atrocities committed by ISIS in relation to Christians, Shia Muslims and other minorities). Europe’s response to the refugee crisis has not been its finest moment, and Pope Francis will not demur from inferring this. The exploitation of migrants and other vulnerable workers has long been a concern of the Vatican and he might subtly push for full ratification of the 2014 Forced Labour Protocol of the International Labour Organization (a UN agency) that updates the original 1930 Convention. An old problem that has not gone away, rather it is re-emerging in some global supply chains.
And yes, the Pope is bound to invoke the concept of “Dignity” (I will jump into the Hudson if he does not). Dignity is now deeply lodged within Catholic teaching as well as sitting right there in Article 1 of the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Pope’s view of dignity is that it is an inalienable core within every human – something that can never be stripped away but must be respected. In this way he aligns very much with the Post-World War Two human rights consensus, the thinking of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant or speeches by Chancellor Merkel of Germany for that matter. He is on safe ground within the United Nations to do so, but it does then raise the issue of two things that are unlikely to be unsaid in his speech tomorrow.
First, the Catholic/Kantian view of human dignity is not the only interpretation of the concept. When the US Supreme Court ruled earlier this year on the issue of Same-Sex Marriages it was not this definition of dignity that prevailed. Rather it was the idea that dignity is also about “freedom and liberty” and the right of free choice (very much part of the American dream). This then leads to the view that the right of free choice should sometimes be central (i.e. anyone should be able to marry in the eyes of the State, or God for that matter) and that the rights of mother (free choice) must sometimes trump the innate dignity of the unborn child. I cannot see the Pope entering into these choppy waters – LGBTI rights, contraception and abortion – other than very obliquely. These after all are very complex issues, too often polarized by the media and populist politicians (some of which have made it to Heads of State).
Finally, the question that some of ministers and ambassadors in the room might be thinking, is what about the internal behavior of the Catholic Church itself. Now that the United Nations has developed “soft law” norms for businesses, and other non-state actors, when we will see religious organizations of all stripes according to universal human rights (i.e. secular) values in their own operations. The Holy See has ratified most UN Human Rights Conventions. This Pope is perhaps the most progressive in a long while on this issue, but I will be back in the Hudson again if he touches any of this.
I am not a Catholic but I remain a great fan of the current Pope.