Perhaps through cosmic coincidence, the same week that, at an opening address to a gathering of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on December 3, Pope Benedict XVI summoned a “commitment for the building of a world community, with a corresponding authority,” the United States Senate on December 4 voted down the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on the grounds that it would be a violation of U.S. sovereignty. Although sixty-one senators voted in favor of the treaty and only thirty-eight opposed it, a two-thirds vote of the Senate is necessary to ratify a treaty.
Pope Benedict appealed to his predecessor Pope John XXIII, the first pope to call for an international political authority. In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, Pope John wrote:
Today the universal common good presents us with problems which are world-wide in their dimensions; problems, therefore, which cannot be solved except by a public authority with power, organization and means co-extensive with these problems, and with a world-wide sphere of activity. Consequently the moral order itself demands the establishment of some such general form of public authority. (#137)
According to Pope John, the root cause for the need for such an authority is the inability of individual states to fully secure the common good in an increasingly globalized world:
In our own day, however, mutual relationships between States have undergone a far reaching change. On the one hand, the universal common good gives rise to problems of the utmost gravity, complexity and urgency—especially as regards the preservation of the security and peace of the whole world. On the other hand, the rulers of individual nations, being all on an equal footing, largely fail in their efforts to achieve this, however much they multiply their meetings and their endeavors to discover more fitting instruments of justice. And this is no reflection on their sincerity and enterprise. It is merely that their authority is not sufficiently influential.
We are thus driven to the conclusion that the shape and structure of political life in the modern world, and the influence exercised by public authority in all the nations of the world are unequal to the task of promoting the common good of all peoples. (##134-35)
Although he does not use the term, Pope John’s point is that the modern doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of the state is now insufficient (in previous posts here, here, and here, I made a similar point regarding current U.S. policies on immigration and drone warfare). Pope John relies heavily here on the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who in his 1951 book Man and the State argued that states must cede some of their sovereignty to an international political authority. Both Maritain and Pope John are clear, though, that they do not want the modern state simply transferred to the global level; rather, the international authority’s power would be limited to ensure the legitimate rights of both states and individuals. Pope John states that the principle of subsidiarity must provide the limits on the international authority’s jurisdiction:
The special function of this universal authority must be to evaluate and find a solution to economic, social, political and cultural problems which affect the universal common good. These are problems which, because of their extreme gravity, vastness and urgency, must be considered too difficult for the rulers of individual States to solve with any degree of success.
But it is no part of the duty of universal authority to limit the sphere of action of the public authority of individual States, or to arrogate any of their functions to itself. On the contrary, its essential purpose is to create world conditions in which the public authorities of each nation, its citizens and intermediate groups, can carry out their tasks, fulfill their duties and claim their rights with greater security. (##140-41)
There is a tension built into John’s proposal, however. He praises the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the foundation for the “juridical and political ordering of the world community” (#144), and “the public authority of the world community must likewise have as its special aim the recognition, respect, safeguarding and promotion of the rights of the human person. This can be done by direct action, if need be, or by the creation throughout the world of the sort of conditions in which rulers of individual States can more easily carry out their specific functions” (#139). John here seems to be opening the door for some kind of intervention by international authorities into the affairs of an individual state in order to protect the rights of its citizens, although paragraphs 140-41 cited above are intended as a qualification of this duty.
Looking at things from a contemporary perspective, clearly issues such as climate change and migration are within the purview of international organizations laid out by Pope John since they are global problems that individual states cannot solve on their own. Certainly war is by definition another such issue, and papal reflection on international political authority has always had a special focus on conflict resolution. But what about issues such as racism and women’s rights? These are certainly global issues, but the rights of disadvantaged ethnic and racial groups and women can also, theoretically, be protected at the state level. Can international institutions step in to protect them when individual states do not, and how do they do so?
This tension has been complicated by, in the years since Pacem in Terris was written, the ratification of international human rights treaties that, unlike the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are legally binding on their signatories. The seven core treaties are: the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (1990), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006). For the most part, these treaties reflect international standards on the relationship between the individual and the state, rather than transnational issues such as climate change, and each has a treaty body affiliated with the United Nations responsible for monitoring compliance with the treaty’s requirements. However, this review process is based on the consent of the signatory states, and the treaty body has no enforcement mechanism; these treaties work primarily through “peer pressure” rather than enforcement.
Human rights enforcement at the international level has mainly been limited to “crimes against humanity” and war crimes. In the 1990s, the issue of humanitarian intervention arose; in situations in which an individual state is unwilling or unable to prevent massive human rights abuses or genocide, it was argued, it could be permissible for a United Nations force to intervene militarily to prevent these abuses. The doctrine of the “responsibility to protect,” first proposed by a Canadian commission in 2001 and supported by the U.N. General Assembly in 2005, refined the concept of humanitarian intervention, insisting that non-military means of preventing human rights abuses must be considered before the resort to force can take place. The doctrine is based on the idea that sovereignty is a responsibility of the state towards its people, and that in moments of crisis the international community must become involved to help the state meet that responsibility. Another international form of human rights enforcement is the International Criminal Court, established in 2002. This court also is limited to cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on international political authority, in his recent address and more authoritatively in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009), arise out of this changed context. In paragraph #67 of the encyclical, Benedict proposes an international political authority with “real teeth.” He not only endorses the doctrine of the responsibility to protect, but also claims that an international political authority needs “to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights.” He goes on that, “Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties, and also with the coordinated measures adopted in various international forums.” Benedict is clearly dissatisfied with the inability of human rights treaties, among other things, to be adequately enforced against serious human rights abusers. Yet, consistent with John’s vision, Benedict also writes that this authority needs “to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good, and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth.” The tension present in Pacem in Terris remains, and in fact is aggravated by the increased scope of international law in the intervening years; Benedict calls for an international political authority with the power to enforce international law on recalcitrant states, but one also willing to restrain itself with respect to the legitimate authority of states. For me, this raises at least two serious questions:
- Given that international law now covers a wide range of issues covering not just those transnational in scope, but also those concerning the relationship between the state and the individual, what is the boundary between the proper realm of the state and the international authority proposed by Pope Benedict?
- How could an international political authority with the power to enforce its will on states in areas within its proper competence be restrained from doing so in areas outside its competence?
Pope Benedict, and official Catholic social teaching in general, has not offered compelling answers to these questions. In my next post I will show how the recent debate over the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the United States illustrates the need to develop answers to them.