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The U.N. at 75: Continuing to work for world-wide peace and human rights

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Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai looks on before her meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo March 22, 2019. Women's rights are a major cause at the United Nations, and Yousafzai was named a U.N. Messenger of Peace, the youngest person ever given this title. (CNS photo/Frank Robichon, Pool via Reuters)

The United Nations was born in 1945 out of the rubble and human devastation of World War II. Like its predecessor, the League of Nations, the United Nations hoped to prevent future conflicts.

But unlike the League of Nations, which rose from the ashes of World War I and collapsed as another world war started, the United Nations has grown and continued to work for 75 years to diminish international struggle and encourage human rights for all.

Effie Caldarola
Effie Caldarola writes for the Catholic News Service column “For the Journey.” (CNS photo)

Today’s challenges are complex. Rather than disputes over territories and borders and treaty alliances, modern disputes are often within states like Syria, or regional fights springing from human rights issues and environmental conflicts over water and other resources. These conflicts have produced unprecedented waves of displaced peoples and refugees.

The Catholic Church has deep concern for peace, human rights and environmental sustainability, which is one reason that four recent popes have addressed the U.N. General Assembly.

And the Holy See became a permanent observer at the United Nations in 1964, and is always invited to participate in the meetings of all sessions of the General Assembly. The Vatican also has a voice and vote in U.N. conferences.

Pope Francis has been particularly vocal about the plight of refugees, the environment and the effects of war on the marginalized. In July 2020, for example, he publicly praised the U.N. Security Council for its request for a global and immediate cease-fire of regional conflicts to focus on the delivery of humanitarian aid to assist in the COVID-19 pandemic.

His encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” finds common ground in many United Nations’ initiatives, including the Youth Climate Action Summit, which brought youth climate champions together from more than 140 countries and territories to share their solutions and press for immediate attention to addressing climate change.

The pope shares the U.N.’s concern that the Paris Climate Accord will be productive. The U.S. pulled out of that accord under President Donald Trump.

When Pope Francis addressed the U.N. general assembly in 2015, he focused on the environment, our “culture of waste” and the effect of climate change on the poor.

But, with Malala Yousafzai in the audience, he also stressed that women have a “right to education.” Yousafzai is the Pakistani woman, who, when only 15 years old, was injured in a failed assassination attempt by the Taliban because of her writing and outspoken promotion of education for girls and women.

Women’s rights are a major U.N. cause, and Yousafzai was later named a U.N. Messenger of Peace, the youngest person ever given this title.

Currently, the U.N. is attempting a Spotlight Initiative to educate people worldwide about the second-class status of women. For example, the U.N. points out that 49 countries have no laws that protect women against domestic violence, which has increased during the isolation of the pandemic.

In 18 countries, men can legally prevent their wives from working, and in 39 countries sons and daughters do not have equal inheritance rights. By educating populations on these and many other inequalities, the U.N. must make this the century of women’s equality, said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The United Nations reports that each day, 100 civilians, including women and children, are killed in armed conflicts around the world. In response, the U.N. has over 100,000 staff and affiliated personnel in peacekeeping operations worldwide.

There are currently 14 such missions, including in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Kosovo, Darfur and near the border between India and Pakistan. Peacekeepers aim to suppress conflict, keep enemies separated and help threatened civilians.

Their first major challenge was in 1948, when U.N. peacekeepers became observers to the Arab-Israeli War and helped maintain a cease-fire during that conflict. They’ve been involved in keeping the world’s peace ever since.

The United Nations celebrates its 75th birthday Oct. 24.

Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.