On 25th September 2020, a meeting of the UN General Assembly took place to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN. It was largely an on-line event as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the travel restrictions associated with it. Pope Francis poke to the Assembly by way of a video message. A report of Pope Francis address can be found at the Vatican News website: Pope to UN: Rethink the future of our common home (though the headline can give a misleading impression of the content of the address). A text in English can be found at the website of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the UN: Address of His Holiness, Pope Francis, to the United Nations General Assembly (2020).
It is certainly worth a careful read of the complete text. Whilst the speech is given in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pope Francis reflects, in the range of his different subjects, the same underlying concerns that we saw in Pope John Paul II's address to the General Assembly, namely a commitment to the human rights expressed in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to the dignity of the human person. We can see Pope Francis' specific remarks on, for example, social and economic questions such as unemployment, as an application of these principles to particular situations. Indeed, it is interesting to read Pope Francis' address alongside the Universal Declaration in order to recognise the implicit references as well as the explicit references. As with Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis' address assumes the Declaration of Human Rights as a key basis for the engagement of the Holy See with the United Nations.
In the context of the response to COVID-19, Pope Francis draws attention to one of the less well known articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, which includes a right to health care:
The pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to promote public health and to make every person’s right to basic medical care a reality. For this reason, I renew my appeal to political leaders and the private sector to spare no effort to ensure access to Covid-19 vaccines and to the essential technologies needed to care for the sick. If anyone should be given preference, let it be the poorest, the most vulnerable, those who so often experience discrimination because they have neither power nor economic resources.
An implicit reference to Article 23 can be seen in Pope Francis' remarks on unemployment:
There is an urgent need to find new forms of work truly capable of fulfilling our human potential and affirming our dignity. In order to ensure dignified employment, there must be a change in the prevailing economic paradigm, which seeks only to expand companies’ profits. Offering jobs to more people should be one of the main objectives of every business, one of the criteria for the success of productive activity. Technological progress is valuable and necessary, provided that it serves to make people’s work more dignified and safe, less burdensome and stressful.
There are implicit references to Article 3 (the right to life) and Article 26 (the right to education) in this passage:
Millions of children are presently unable to return to school. In many parts of the world, this situation risks leading to an increase in child labour, exploitation, abuse and malnutrition. Sad to say, some countries and international institutions are also promoting abortion as one of the so-called “essential services” provided in the humanitarian response to the pandemic. It is troubling to see how simple and convenient it has become for some to deny the existence of a human life as a solution to problems that can and must be solved for both the mother and her unborn child.
The reference here to Article 16 is explicit, and we can clearly see Pope Francis' understanding of the family as being founded in the relationship of a woman and a man:
The first teachers of every child are his or her mother and father, the family, which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes as the “natural and fundamental group unit of society”. All too often, the family is the victim of forms of ideological colonialism that weaken it and end up producing in many of its members, especially the most vulnerable, the young and the elderly, a feeling of being orphaned and lacking roots. The breakdown of the family is reflected in the social fragmentation that hinders our efforts to confront common enemies.In concluding his address, Pope Francis indirectly takes to task the Security Council of the United Nations for its failure to act in some circumstances of recent years (the situation in Syria, for example, where vetoes by permanent members of the Security Council have hindered initiatives):
In addition, our strife-ridden world needs the United Nations to become an ever more effective international workshop for peace. This means that the members of the Security Council, especially the Permanent Members, must act with greater unity and determination. In this regard, the recent adoption of a global cease-fire during the present crisis is a very noble step, one that demands good will on the part of all for its continued implementation. Here I would also reiterate the importance of relaxing international sanctions that make it difficult for states to provide adequate support for their citizens....
The pandemic has shown us that we cannot live without one another, or worse still, pitted against one another. The United Nations was established to bring nations together, to be a bridge between peoples. Let us make good use of this institution in order to transform the challenge that lies before us into an opportunity to build together, once more, the future we all desire.