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The Pope Promotes 'Right of the Environment' and Global Welfare in Rousing UN Speech

Pope Francis told world leaders, observers, and news media gathered at the UN’s General Assembly hall that any harm to the environment "is harm done to humanity."
Photo by Andrew Gombert/EPA

Pope Francis delivered a speech to UN member states on Friday morning that addressed an array of issues, calling for countries to protect the environment, ban nuclear weapons, end usurious loans to the developing world, and respect diversity.

Referring to what he termed a true "right of the environment," Francis told world leaders, observers, and news media gathered at the UN's General Assembly hall that any harm to the environment "is harm done to humanity." Those words echoed remarks he delivered before Congress on Thursday as well as a more explicit encyclical on the environment and climate change that the Vatican released in June.

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The pope spoke shortly before the opening of a UN summit that will formally endorse the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and a set of 17 new sustainable development goals for the next 15 years. Francis urged world leaders to take the necessary steps to ward of a climactic catastrophe, saying he was "confident" that a December UN conference in Paris would lead to such moves.

"Solemn commitments, however, are not enough, even though they are a necessary step towards solutions," he said. "The ecological crisis and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity can threaten the very existence of the human species."

Prior to his address at the General Assembly, Francis spoke to several hundred staff members in the UN lobby.

"Like so many other people worldwide, you are concerned about your children's welfare and education," he remarked. "Dear friends, I bless each one of you from my heart."

The pope asked those gathered to pray for him; as for non-believers, he said they could "wish me well."

Related: Pope Politely Sticks It to Congress in Historic Speech

Francis's arrival coincided with the hoisting of the Vatican's flag at the UN — the corollary result of a resolution passed earlier this month aiming for Palestine's flag, the other non-voting member state of the UN, to be flown. Francis's motorcade, including his familiar Fiat 500, drove by the flag.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon introduced Francis at the General Assembly, lauding the Jesuit leader's humility and attention to climate change.

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"You are at home not in palaces, but among the poor; not with the famous, but with the forgotten; not in official portraits, but in selfies with young people," said Ban.

The Argentine-born pope — who looked understandably tired after a whirlwind trip that has taken him from Cuba, to Washington to New York in less than a week — delivered his speech in Spanish.

After brief opening remarks, he delved into what he called a global responsibility to end unfair lending practices, which he said were destroying the chances of developing countries to care for their people. While not directly naming global lenders like the IMF, Francis said that "International financial agencies should care for the sustainable development of countries and should ensure that they are not subjected to oppressive lending systems, which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate greater poverty."

Financial agencies and other bodies like the Security Council should become more equitable, he said, adding that "this will help limit every kind of abuse or usury, especially where developing countries are concerned."

Related: Pope Francis Says Earth Is Beginning to Look Like an 'Immense Pile of Filth'

Those lines drew applause from Argentine delegates at the hall, whose country has for over a decade battled international creditors over defaulted bond payments. Argentina is one of the leading voices at the UN pushing for the establishment of a sovereign debt restructuring mechanism, which would allow countries to orderly reconfigure and lessen their debt loads. Previous resolutions endorsing such a framework have had overwhelming support among member states, though with several notable exceptions, including the United States.

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"Pope Francis called for responsible lending policies to benefit the poor and most vulnerable, and he specifically connected the failure of austerity and reckless lending policies to poverty," Eric Lecompte, head of the Jubilee USA Network, a umbrella organization of religious groups pushing for debt relief, told VICE News following the speech. "He actually referenced the financial agencies and the work of the UN… that was very clearly an allusion for the need for the bankruptcy process."

Though the pope has been received in Washington and New York like a rock star, the Catholic Church's child sexual abuse scandals still follows him, if at a greater distance than his predecessors. Advocates have criticized him for not meeting with victims while in the US. In his speech, Francis did not directly address sexual abuse committed by priests, but called on world leaders to work to solve many of the world's problems, including the "sexual exploitation of boys and girls." Also on the pope's list of issues were human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, slave labor, and terrorism.

Though Francis's focus on climate change and greater economic equality largely follows that of the UN, the church remains conservative on many issues, opposing abortion and battling with member states on gender empowerment goals when they include language on access to contraception.

Related: Pope Francis's First American Trip Will Be Heavy on Politics and Prayer

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Francis said that leaders "charged with the conduct of international affairs" should ensure "real human beings take precedence over partisan interests, however legitimate the latter may be."

"In wars and conflicts there are individual persons, our brothers and sisters, men and women, young and old, boys and girls who weep, suffer and die," Francis said. "Human beings who are easily discarded when our only response is to draw up lists, problems strategies and disagreements."

The pope gestured particularly to the plight of Christians and minority groups in the Middle East and Africa that have "been forced to witness the destruction the destruction of their places of worship, their culture and religious heritage… and have faced the alternative either of fleeing or of paying for their adhesion to good and peace by their own lives, or by enslavement" — a not so thinly veiled reference to the Islamic State terror insurgency, which is present in Syria, Iraq, and parts of North Africa. The Vatican has stated that attacking the Islamic State is permissible under the Catholic Church's doctrine of "just war."

In calling for a complete ban on nuclear weapons, Francis said he was encouraged by the recent international nuclear deal with Iran, which he called "proof of the potential of political good will and law, exercised with sincerity, patience, and constancy."

"I express my hope that this agreement will be lasting and efficacious, and bring forth the desired fruits," he added.

Francis received a standing ovation following his speech. He then left the UN in his minuscule Fiat 500 and headed toward the World Trade Center memorial for the victims of the 9/11 attacks in lower Manhattan.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford