UN Update: IRLA reports from the 70th General Assembly in New York

More than 150 world leaders gathered in New York City last week for the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. This year, the stakes are high on issues as diverse as climate change, global development goals, peacekeeping, geopolitical conflicts, and extremism. Are foundational principles—such as human dignity and religious freedom—in danger of being sidelined? IRLA representative José I. Ortiz is at the United Nations in New York and has filed this report.

On Friday, September 25, Pope Francis visited the United Nations Headquarters in New York, addressing UN staff in the early morning, before heading into the General Assembly Hall to address world leaders. Most of the media’s attention was focused on this historic visit, making it difficult to weed out other important events and decisions made by the 70th Session of the General Assembly. But the various events, statements, and decisions by the General Assembly will continue to shape not only global development, but the cornerstone issue of Human Rights as well.

One such event occurs every year on September 21st. The International Day of Peace was instituted by the General Assembly in 1981 via Resolution 36/67. This year’s commemoration included statements by both Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the UN, and Mogens Lykketoft, the president of the General Assembly. In their remarks, both officials reminded listeners that the enforcement and maintenance of peace were the very principles that birthed the UN in the aftermath of World War II. President Lykketoft also spoke of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its important role in preventing violent conflict around the world. This ceremony, complete with the ringing of the Japanese Peace Bell, serves to remind the world of the conflicts of the past and the peace that organizations like the UN strive to maintain.

While the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was approved by the General Assembly on September 25, it is not an entirely new concept. The 17 major goals and 169 targets to be reached stem from the previously adopted Millennium Development Goals that set lofty benchmarks including halting the spread of HIV/AIDS as well as halving extreme poverty by 2015. While these goals have not quite been met, proponents of the Agenda cite statistical improvements in areas of health and poverty that will feed into the new 2030 Agenda.

These goals are based on the principle that Human Rights are built on dignity. These are the same principles for which the International Religious Liberty Association was chartered in 1893—“To defend and safeguard the civil right of all people to worship, to adopt a religion or belief of their choice…”
 Over the coming days, many heads of state or government will make their way to the podium in the General Assembly Hall and make headlines with their remarks. Political pundits will discuss the verbal jabs thrown between Presidents Obama and Putin, but few will focus on the fundamental issues of Human Rights and, specifically, the freedoms of conscience and religious belief.

As the debate floor opened at the General Assembly on Monday, September 28, Secretary-General Ban urged member states to work closer together to end the conflicts brought about by religious extremism and fulfill the goals of the 2030 Agenda. He closed with these words: “We have a major challenge before us—one that will not disappear overnight—but one that we can address concretely by forging societies of inclusion, ensuring lives of dignity, and pursuing this essential endeavor inspired at all times by the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” President Obama echoed these principles during his address to the General Assembly by stating that the world does share a core set of principles, including the desire of peoples everywhere to worship peacefully.

As the debate continued, various heads of state or government made statements urging other member states to follow their examples and take in more refugees and asylum-seekers as they cross over international borders in search of a peaceful life. These themes will surely encompass a great portion of the debate in the UN’s various committee chambers and Non-Governmental Organizations’ meetings in the coming weeks as millions are forced to leave their homes due to violent conflict and ideological persecution.

Though it may seem that the issues of Human Rights get placed on the back burner during high-profile events, we are reminded that these rights are not at the periphery of world organizations, like the UN, but at the very core. The rights to freedom of conscience and religious belief must continue to be at the heart of any discussion seeking to successfully implement the 2030 Agenda and fulfill the physical needs of every human being.