15 MAY 2008

Pope Benedict XVI stressed the United Nations' major role in seeking a better world as he highlighted, during his address to the General Assembly, the need to protect human rights, ensure development, security and reduce local and global inequalities.

"The promotion of human rights remains the most effective strategy for eliminating inequalities between countries and social groups, and for increasing security," he told the 192-member body in a half-hour speech that was greeted with a standing ovation.

"Indeed, the victims of hardship and despair, whose human dignity is violated with impunity, become easy prey to the call to violence, and they can then become violators of peaces," he added speaking in French and English.

Pope Benedict called the UN the embodiment of aspirations for a "greater degree of international ordering" in response to the needs of the human family.

"This is all the more necessary at a time when we experience the obvious paradox of a multilateral consensus that continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few, whereas the world's problems call for interventions in the form of collective action by the international community," he said.

Pope Benedict called for international leaders to act jointly and in good faith on issues of security, development, reduction of inequalities, protection of the environment and resources, global warming, and on promoting solidarity with the planet's weakest regions.

"I am thinking especially of those countries in Africa and other parts of the world which remain on the margins of authentic integral development, and are therefore at risk of experiencing only the negative effects of globalization," he said.

He praised the recent explicit inclusion of the responsibility to protect people from crimes against humanity such as genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing, adopted by a UN world summit in 2005, although he noted that this was implicitly included at the UN's founding in 1946.

"If States are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with juridical means provided by the United Nations Charter and in other international instruments," he said.

"The action of the international community and its institutions, provided that it respects the principles undergirding the international order, 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," he added, calling for a deeper search of ways to pre-empt conflicts.

The Pope devoted a large part of his speech to the various aspects of human rights, stressing their universality and dismissing a "relativistic conception" under which the meaning and rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks.

But he emphasized that human rights must include the right to religious freedom. "The activity of the United Nations in recent years has ensured that public debate gives space to viewpoints inspired by a religious vision in all its dimensions, including ritual, worship, education, dissemination of information and the freedom to profess and choose religion," he said.

"My presence at this Assembly is a sign of esteem for the United Nations, and it is intended to express the hope that the Organization will increasingly serve as a sign of unity between States and an instrument of service to the entire human family.

"It also demonstrates the willingness of the Catholic Church to offer her proper contribution to building international relations in a way that allows every person and every people to feel they can make a difference."

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon looked visibly enthusiastic during the visit by the Pope in response to his personal invitation. Following is Mr. Ban's welcoming statement:

"I am deeply grateful to His Holiness for accepting my invitation to visit the United Nations -- home to all men and women of faith around the world. Your Holiness, welcome to our common home.

The United Nations is a secular institution, composed of 192 States. We have six official languages but no official religion. We do not have a chapel -- though we do have a meditation room.

But if you ask those of us who work for the United Nations what motivates us, many of us reply in a language of faith. We see what we do not only as a job, but as a mission. Indeed, mission is the word we use most often for our work around the world -- from peace and security to development to human rights.

Your Holiness, in so many ways, our mission unites us with yours.

You have spoken of the terrible challenge of poverty afflicting so much of the world's population, and how we cannot afford indifference and self-centred isolation.

You have encouraged the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and called for progressive and agreed-upon nuclear disarmament.

You have spelled out that those with greater power may not use it to violate the rights of others, and stated that peace is based on respect for the rights of all.

You have spoken of water resources and climate change as matters of grave importance for the entire human family.

You have called for an open and sincere dialogue, both within your Church and between religions and cultures, in search of the good of humankind.

Finally, you have called for trust in, and commitment to, the United Nations. As you have said, the UN is "capable of fostering genuine dialogue and understanding, reconciling divergent views, and developing multilateral policies and strategies capable of meeting the manifold challenges of our complex and rapidly changing world."

Your Holiness, these are fundamental goals we share. We are grateful to have your prayers as we proceed on the path towards them.

Before leaving the UN today, you will visit the Meditation Room. My great predecessor, Dag Hammarskj÷ld, who created that room, put it well. He said of the stone that forms its centerpiece [and I quote]: "We may see it as an altar, empty not because there is no God, not because it is an altar to an unknown God, but because it is dedicated to the God whom man worships under many names and in many forms." End quote.


Whether we worship one God, many or none -- we in the United Nations have to sustain and strengthen our faith every day. As demands on our Organization multiply, we need more and more of this precious commodity.

I am profoundly grateful to his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for bestowing some of his faith on us -- and for placing his trust in us. He possesses both of these in abundance. May we be strengthened by his visit today.

Thank you very much."