The 2020 edition of the United Nations General Assembly was conducted via videoconferencing, a clear sign that the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over and continues to curtail human activities. It was within this context that Pope Francis addressed the General Assembly on 25 September, calling for greater solidarity among nations and issuing a stark reminder of the multiple threats that face our common humanity. Ricardo da Silva examines the key themes of the Pope’s speech.
At the 75th annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Pope Francis criticised world leaders for failing on the promises they made in the five years since he first addressed them in New York.
In a pre-recorded video from the Vatican, aired last Friday, 25 September, on the General Assembly’s dedicated website, the Pope urged member states to act for the common good, especially in light of the globally crippling Covid-19 pandemic.
In what was possibly the most diplomatic expression of disappointment, the Pope reminded world leaders of his speech to them in 2015. “It was a moment of great hope and promise for the international community,” he said. But, quickly, he turned to reflect on his view of the present state of affairs.
“We must honestly admit that, even though some progress has been made,” the Pope confessed, “the international community has shown itself largely incapable of honouring the promises made five years ago.”
The Pope’s message came as global heads face the most urgent public health crisis in a century. This past Tuesday, the pandemic produced yet another sombre statistic for the international community. In the 10 months since Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor in Wuhan, China, announced the Covid-19 outbreak, more than one million people have died from complications related to the disease.
Compared with the intervention the Pope made in 2015, his address this year took a stronger tack, perhaps showing signs of his growing impatience toward leaders of member states who have failed to act on the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development ratified in October 2015.
Undeterred by the uncooperative stance of some member states, the Pope hit many of the same points he made in 2015, determined to impress once more the urgency of reaching the 2030 goals under the blight of Covid-19.
Power to choose
“The pandemic calls us to ‘seize this time of trial as a time of choosing,’” the Pope said, reiterating his message to the world this April when he stood alone in prayer on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica presiding over an empty square.
Although it might not be plain to an irreligious audience, the Pope’s strategy to present his audience with a choice and the subsequent consequences of each choice is a biblical one.
In the book of Deuteronomy, found in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the prophet Moses invites the Israelites to choose between life and death. “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil,” the prophet says, before following with an explanation of where each choice will lead, imploring them to choose life over death. In much the same way, the Pope presented the options set before the world today.
Assessing the pernicious effects of the pandemic, the Pope characterised the present moment as either “a concrete opportunity for conversion, for transformation, for rethinking our way of life and our economic systems” or “an occasion for a ‘defensive retreat’ into greater individualism and elitism.”
Driving his point further still, the Pope went on to describe what he believed would be the consequences of choosing one way over the other.
“One path leads to the consolidation of multilateralism as the expression of a renewed sense of global co-responsibility, a solidarity grounded in justice and the attainment of peace and unity within the human family, which is God’s plan for our world,” the Pope said. “The other path emphasises self-sufficiency, nationalism, protectionism, individualism and isolation; it excludes the poor, the vulnerable and those dwelling on the peripheries of life.” He added, “That path would certainly be detrimental to the whole community, causing self-inflicted wounds on everyone. It must not prevail.”
But, much more than an ominous forecast of where the world might be headed, the Pope’s choice presented a sober assessment of a reality already experienced worldwide, as he went on to show.
In his 26-minute-long speech, the Pope referred to the social, economic and ecological crises of our time; the increasing threats to the rights, livelihood and safety of women and children; and his concerns surrounding war and weapons of mass destruction.
A concern for those on the peripheries
Throughout his papacy, the Pope has expressed particular concern for people on the peripheries of the world. At the General Assembly, he once again renewed this call, advocating especially for the rights of refugees, migrants, those internally displaced and the world’s materially poor.
“Thousands are intercepted at sea and forcibly returned to detention camps where they meet with torture and abuse,” the Pope said, before issuing a stern admonition. “This is intolerable, yet intentionally ignored by man.”
While raising concern for the protection of the human rights of migrants, the Pope also recognised, “the numerous and significant international efforts to respond to these crises.” Still, the Pope underscored that many agreements fall through either because they “lack the necessary political support to prove successful,” or “because individual states shirk their responsibilities and commitments.”
We need only look to the antics of politicians worldwide, including our own, to understand the problems the Pope is pointing to.
A call for solidarity and pardon
Adding to the responsibilities that states have to one other, Pope Francis turned to the global economic crisis exacerbated by Covid-19. He called member states to reimagine their economic and financial policies and commitments such that they can bridge “the rapidly growing inequality between the super-rich and the permanently poor” and “renew the architecture of international finance.” He also asked for nations “to work together to close tax shelters, avoid evasions and money laundering that rob society.”
Then, appealing for mercy and compassion, the Pope renewed the call he made in April in the throes of the pandemic from St. Peter’s Square. He asked the leaders of developed nations and international lending organisations to lighten the load on the most ravaged economies, “through the reduction, if not the forgiveness, of the debt burdening the balance sheets of the poorest nations.”
Surprisingly, the Pope dedicated less time to his concerns about the global environmental crisis than is customary, except to note his particular concern for the Amazonian region and its peoples. “Caring for the environment calls for an integrated approach to combatting poverty and exclusion,” the Pope said.
A plea for women and children
Pressing on with his concerns, the Pope turned to the threats facing women and children today. “Millions of children are presently unable to return to school,” he told the General Assembly, reminding them that “this situation risks leading to an increase in child labour, exploitation, abuse and malnutrition.”
Then, in what appeared to be a lateral jump in his thought, the Pope turned to the question of abortion, “one of the so-called ‘essential services’ provided in the humanitarian response to the pandemic,” he said, expressing great concern for what he sees as a disdain for human life.
“It is troubling to see how simple and convenient it has become for some to deny the existence of a human life,” the Pope said, “as a solution to problems that can and must be solved for both the mother and her unborn child.”
Having addressed his concerns for the earliest forms of human life, Pope Francis turned to other distressing problems faced by women worldwide, recognising that though “at every level of society, women now play an important role,” he said. “Many women, however, continue to be left behind: victims of slavery, trafficking, violence, exploitation and degrading treatment.”
An end to Weapons of Mass Destruction
In the Pope’s final appeal to the leaders listening to him, he called them to personally reflect on “the present climate of distrust” among peoples and nations. Such a climate is only exacerbated “in light of the development of new forms of military technology,” he said, like lethal autonomous weapons systems and nuclear warheads. But, despite key challenges on this front, the Pope still offered his gratitude to nations for agreeing to uphold a global ceasefire during the pandemic.
“We need to dismantle the perverse logic that links personal and national security to the possession of weaponry,” the Pope said in what was a direct rebuke of present practices between warring nations and in countries where civilians are allowed to bear arms. “This logic serves only to increase the profits of the arms industry, while fostering a climate of distrust and fear between persons and peoples.”
Therefore, choose life
Returning to the strategy he deployed at the start of his address, the Pope once more put a choice before world leaders. “We never emerge from a crisis just as we were,” he told them. “We come out either better or worse.”
Then, in a similar vein to Moses in the Bible, the Pope led the General Assembly — watching him on their screens the world over — to what he believed to be the option that would lead to life at this time.
“The pandemic has shown us that we cannot live without one another, or worse still, pitted against one another,” he exclaimed. “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.”