Rules and structures that promote the common good do not limit human freedom, Benedict XVI told the General Assembly of the United Nations.
This was the message the Pope delivered when he addressed the international body during his apostolic trip to the United States, which ends Sunday. His speech, given partly in French and partly in English, touched on the principles of international relations and the defense of human dignity, rights and freedom.
Human rights must be respected as an expression of justice, and not merely because they are enforceable through the will of the legislators.
Pope Benedict XVI
“In the context of international relations,” the Pontiff said, “it is necessary to recognize the higher role played by rules and structures that are intrinsically ordered to promote the common good, and therefore to safeguard human freedom.
“These regulations do not limit freedom. On the contrary, they promote it when they prohibit behavior and actions which work against the common good, curb its effective exercise and hence compromise the dignity of every human person.”
Benedict XVI acknowledged that states have “the primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights, as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises, whether natural or man-made,” but that if a government can’t protect its people, the international community must intervene.
This intervention, however, should be diplomatic, he affirmed: “What is needed is a deeper search for ways of pre-empting and managing conflicts by exploring every possible diplomatic avenue, and giving attention and encouragement to even the faintest sign of dialogue or desire for reconciliation.”
Commenting on the institution of the United Nations, the Pontiff said its establishment “coincided with the profound upheavals that humanity experienced when reference to the meaning of transcendence and natural reason was abandoned, and in consequence, freedom and human dignity were grossly violated.”
“When this happens,” the Holy Father said, “it threatens the objective foundations of the values inspiring and governing the international order and it undermines the cogent and inviolable principles formulated and consolidated by the United Nations.”
Benedict XVI added that it is a mistake to “fall back on a pragmatic approach, limited to determining ‘common ground,’ minimal in content and weak in its effect.”
The Pontiff pointed instead to a return to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed 60 years ago.
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.
“The rights recognized and expounded in the declaration 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,” he added. “They are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations.
“Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks.
“This great variety of viewpoints must not be allowed to obscure the fact that not only rights are universal, but so too is the human person, the subject of those rights.”
Continuing in English, the Pope asserted, “The promotion of human rights remains the most effective strategy for eliminating inequalities between countries and social groups, and for increasing security.”
Without mentioning specific situations, the Pontiff said that those people who have had their human dignity violated “become easy prey to the call to violence, and they can then become violators of peace.”
The Holy Father warned: “The common good that human rights help to accomplish cannot, however, be attained merely by applying correct procedures, nor even less by achieving a balance between competing rights.
“The merit of the Universal Declaration is that it has enabled different cultures, juridical expressions and institutional models to converge around a fundamental nucleus of values, and hence of rights.”
Benedict XVI called for resistance to “pressure to reinterpret the foundations of the declaration and to compromise its inner unity so as to facilitate a move away from the protection of human dignity towards the satisfaction of simple interests, often particular interests.”
He said the declaration was adopted as a “common standard of achievement,” and that it “cannot be applied piecemeal, according to trends or selective choices that merely run the risk of contradicting the unity of the human person and thus the indivisibility of human rights.”
The Pope continued: “Experience shows that legality often prevails over justice when the insistence upon rights makes them appear as the exclusive result of legislative enactments or normative decisions taken by the various agencies of those in power.
“When presented purely in terms of legality, rights risk becoming weak propositions divorced from the ethical and rational dimension which is their foundation and their goal.
“The Universal Declaration, rather, has reinforced the conviction that respect for human rights is principally rooted in unchanging justice, on which the binding force of international proclamations is also based.
“This aspect is often overlooked when the attempt is made to deprive rights of their true function in the name of a narrowly utilitarian perspective.”
“Human rights,” the Holy Father added, “must be respected as an expression of justice, and not merely because they are enforceable through the will of the legislators.”