New York (AsiaNews) – Human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent since they are based on natural law and equality between humans. They are the shared foundation of international relations and the measure of the common good. By promoting them, inequalities between and within countries can be eliminated so much so that international principles now acknowledge that states have a “responsibility to protect” and that the international community can intervene should such rights be subject to gross violations.
Third pontiff to speak to the United Nations General Assembly after Paul VI (1965) and John Paul II (1979 and 1995), Benedict XVI centred his long reflection on human rights, taking his cue from the fact that this year is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Religious freedom is one of these rights, often violated to the extent that some people are forced to “deny God in order to enjoy” their rights.
But the theologian Pope did not try to examine any actual case or situation, except for a mention of poverty in Africa. Instead, he focused on the ethical nature of human rights, since they come from the Creator, which places them above the laws of states. Because of their origin in the nature of human creation, they are “indivisible”, and not concessions by states. Indeed attempts to present them as such, divorced from their ethical, hence universal, dimension tends to relativise them, which in turn weakens them.
Along with a prayer at Ground Zero next Sunday, the Pope’s UN speech was one of the key moments of his visit to the United States. In a packed General Assembly Hall, the Pope’s address was frequently met with rounds of applause, not all out of courtesy. Benedict XVI himself concluded his speech by extending his heartfelt greetings in all five official languages of the United Nations, namely Arabic, Chinese, English, French and Spanish.
The Holy Father began by addressing the function of the United Nations itself, saying that in “the context of international relations, 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 behaviour and actions which work against the common good, curb its effective exercise and hence compromise the dignity of every human person.”
From this stems the principle that there is a “responsibility to protect,” from which John Paul II derived the concept of humanitarian intervention. “Every State,” said Benedict XVI, “has 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. If States are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations Charter and in other international instruments.” This said such action “should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty. On the contrary, it is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage. 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.”
The responsibility to protect “has to invoke the idea of the person as image of the Creator, the desire for the absolute and the essence of freedom.” For this reason the Pope noted that when “faced with new and insistent challenges, it is a mistake to fall back on a pragmatic approach, limited to determining ‘common ground’, minimal in content and weak in its effect.”
In today’s world, said Benedict XVI, “Human rights are increasingly being presented as the common language and the ethical substratum of international relations. At the same time, the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights all serve as guarantees safeguarding human dignity. It is evident, though, that 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. 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.”
“Human rights, of course, must include the right to religious freedom, understood as the expression of a dimension that is at once individual and communitarian—a vision that brings out the unity of the person while clearly distinguishing between the dimension of the citizen and that of the believer.”
“It is inconceivable, then, that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves—their faith—in order to be active citizens. It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights. The rights associated with religion are all the more in need of protection if they are considered to clash with a prevailing secular ideology or with majority religious positions of an exclusive nature. The full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to the free exercise of worship, but has to give due consideration to the public dimension of religion, and hence to the possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order.”
“Refusal to recognize the contribution to society that is rooted in the religious dimension and in the quest for the Absolute—by its nature, expressing communion between persons—would effectively privilege an individualistic approach, and would fragment the unity of the person.”