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Pope Francis lays down challenge to world leaders at UN

Pope Francis has laid down challenge to world leaders at the UN to urgently respond to those living in poverty and facing injustice says Éamonn Meehan, Executive Director of Trócaire

On his recent visit to America Pope Francis met the President, spoke to Congress, addressed the UN General Assembly, prayed with immigrant schoolchildren in East Harlem, ministered to inmates in Philadelphia’s largest jail and addressed the World Meeting of the Families celebration.  

I was fortunate to be in New York for his address to the UN ahead of their deliberations on the 17 new anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

The goals mark a significant leap beyond the focus of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which they replace.  The new goals agenda – to end poverty by 2030 and pursue a sustainable future – has targets on issues ranging from equality and full employment to action on climate change and sustainable consumption. 

Crucially, wealthy countries, including Ireland, will be obliged to account for their progress against these new commitments.  

Trócaire’s Éamonn Meehan, Dr Lorna Gold and Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele in New York

Trócaire’s Éamonn Meehan and Dr Lorna Gold with Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the Mission of the Holy See Climate Change round table at the UN on Saturday 26 September.

The SDGs have the potential to transform the lives of millions of people. Ireland, in particular, deserves great praise for having co-chaired, along with Kenya, the process that has seen these ambitious targets formally adopted by every country on the planet. The SDGs deserve our support and commitment.  

As an out-spoken advocate for the world’s poorest people, it was both highly appropriate and highly symbolic that the words of his Holiness began the UN Assembly.

He has shone a global spotlight on issues such as climate change and has repeatedly spoken of the devastating effect extreme weather is having on communities in the poorest parts of the world. The refugee crisis, which he has also spoken about too, has woken people up to the human suffering that arises when the root causes of injustice are not addressed and protracted crises are allowed to persist.

In his forthright speech to the UN, the Pontiff demanded world leaders to go beyond their solemn promises. He asked them to take bold measures including ‘effective, practical and constant steps’ to assist the world’s poor and to protect the environment.

He reminded the 193 global leaders present, including Taoiseach Enda Kenny, that behind each statistic on global poverty there are women, men and children who are suffering the consequences of war, conflict and environmental degradation.

His urgent call not to ‘rest content with the bureaucratic exercise of drawing up long lists of good proposals,’ is both a stark reminder that the SDGs will be meaningless if not accompanied by effective policies and action. 

He wasn’t the only one saying that declarations are not enough. The Secretary-General to the UN, Ban Ki-moon, said the true test of commitment to this new era of international cooperation will be implementation.  “We need action from everyone, everywhere. Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals are our guide. They are a to-do list for people and planet, and a blueprint for success,” he urged.

It is clear the Pope regards war as the greatest evil and condemned the world’s inaction in his speech to support those in the Middle East whose lives and communities have been fractured by war and destruction. 

It is difficult to celebrate a set of idealistic goals when a great human tragedy continues to unfold in Syria and in the wider Middle East. Over 250,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, 12 million are homeless and more than 4 million of them are refugees, mostly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.  Trócaire is working to support these communities. Ancient communities of Christians and Yazidis have been destroyed. 

The Syrian crisis also now marks a deeper crisis and even more fundamental one – millions of people are on the move from Africa, Latin America and Asia towards Europe, North America and Australia in search of peace, prosperity, freedom and opportunity.   Human beings have always migrated; the scale is now vastly different.  Inequality, conflict and oppression are the principal drivers.   It will continue because we live in a truly unequal world which is no longer sustainable. 

The Pope’s impassioned plea to not allow ‘the number and complexity of problems’ to overwhelm the work that has to be done to address the needs of the most vulnerable, is hugely important at the time where world leaders are weary and global institutions are broken.   We welcome his call for effective global institutions, particularly for the reform of the UN Security Council and the international financial institutions.

The UN system which responds to humanitarian crises around the world is not working.  Governments have funded about one third of the appeal for Syria this year while appeals for South Sudan, Iraq, Dafur, Central Africa Republic (to name just a few) are all woefully underfunded.  The total appeals for 2015 amounted to about $18.8 billion.  By mid-year just $4.8 billion had been committed.  

Our failure to respond to those most in need – which stands in sharp contrast to the speed with which trillions of dollars were found for broken banks – does not bode well for the delivery of the SDGs. 

This key question remains unanswered – how progress on the global targets is going to be funded. The World Bank estimates that the SDG targets will take trillions to implement, far in excess of what governments have currently pledged.

We welcome the commitment to the Irish overseas development aid programme (0.7% of gross national income) as part of Ireland’s foreign policy as outlined by Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the Assembly.    We now look forward to a plan being put in place for Ireland to reach that target.

If these admirable goals and targets will ever become practical, lived experiences for the people of this world, all UN Member States including Ireland must pledge their commitment to funding them.

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