Can the UN promote freedom and dignity?

Philip Booth in the Catholic Herald on International Institutions and Caritas in veritate

After the launch of Pope Benedict's recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the BBC led its report with the headline: "Pope calls for UN 'with teeth'". The same topic took centre stage at our own bishops' press conference. This focus was understandable. The secular press was not keen, of course, to communicate the real message of the encyclical so they claimed a "scoop" that suited their agenda. Unfortunately, that scoop was at least 46 years old: back in 1963 Pope John XXIII called for a greater role for international institutions; and in 2003, Pope John Paul II asked for "a new constitutional organisation of the human family". As we shall see, he used almost the same words that are in the Italian version of Pope Benedict's encyclical.

But there is also a puzzle about the call for "real teeth". And this puzzle deserves wider discussion given the widespread use of English as a second language.

The French, German and Italian versions of the encyclical, published at the same time as the English version, talk about bringing "meaningful reality" or a "real and concrete form" to the "family of nations". Other versions, published later, have the same emphasis, as does the official Latin version published late last month.

There are often debates over the interpretation of different versions of encyclicals, partly resulting from the evolving nature and wide vocabulary of the English language. Words such as "solidarity" and "socialisation", for example, may evoke different images in the minds of French intellectuals and British voluntary sector workers. And there was much scratching of heads in the English-speaking world at the apparent praise, in Caritas in Veritate, of the practice of pawnbroking. Such translation difficulties are only to be expected. They are an occupational hazard, if you like.

But the mistranslation of "real teeth" seems more deliberate and it does matter. How did "real teeth" come to be inserted into the English language version? At the moment, we don't know. We do know, however, that the encyclical was not drafted in English. As such, a whole new meaning has been inserted by the translators and we can only speculate as to the reasons.

That the meaning is different in the English version, there should be no doubt. International institutions need sound foundations, a real and concrete form. Many are currently built on sand. At one time, the United Nations was dominated by authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships that had no respect for human rights. Currently, the bureaucracy of the UN often sees human rights in terms that are anathema to Catholics: at one time or another it has promoted "rights" to abortion as well as aggressive family planning programmes. The European Union is captured by its bureaucracy and by political elites and is structured in such a way that this will not change. Giving institutions that are institutionally dysfunctional "real teeth" is pretty dangerous.

In fact, the idea of a family of nations with a real and concrete form seems "typically Benedict": the foundations must be right; the institutional structures must be sound; they must promote values that are based in the truth and on natural law. On the other hand, the suggestion that international institutions should acquire "real teeth" is a statement about how institutions should behave and about their outward manifestations. And there is nothing more dangerous than an institution that is not built on sound foundations having real teeth.

But can international institutions that are a force for the common good with wide-ranging powers ever be created? Even in the Italian version, the encyclical moved on to suggest that international institutions should be more active in the economic and political sphere. Is the Church calling for something that looks enticing on paper but, given what we know about human nature, is likely to do more harm than good?

International institutions with objectives built on a wide consensus might work. The consensus regarding their role can be built around what Christians call "natural law". As natural law is engraved on the hearts of all, we can feel confident about getting wide agreement among people of goodwill and feel no compunction about developing juridical structures to enforce basic human rights at an international level. War crimes trials and peacekeeping forces provide relevant and sometimes successful examples. If the family of nations is to exercise its fangs it could define a narrow area in which to act and intervene more decisively when domestic governments ride roughshod over human rights.

The encyclical, though, wants us to go further. Pope Benedict called for international institutions to regulate migration, deal with environmental problems, and to "manage the global economy". There may be a legitimate role here for international cooperation, and voluntary agreements. The World Trade Organisation works purely by consensus and, for all its faults it has broadly succeeded in removing barriers to trade. If it tried to achieve more, it would probably fail. But there are huge dangers in having an international authority with its own legal personality "managing the global economy". Such bodies - the EU being an obvious example - tend to become self-serving or represent powerful lobby groups, rather than promoting the common good. This is partly because there is no obvious way that an autonomous body to "manage the global economy" could be accountable to those it is intended to serve.

Indeed, we already have various international global systems of financial regulation - one of the areas of concern discussed in Caritas in Veritate. The Basel Accord on banking was designed specifically to deal with the problems of the international operations of big banks. Some would argue that this failed because it became captured by the banks themselves. Others would argue that the very presence of an international system ensured that if something were to go wrong it was bound to go wrong on a catastrophic, worldwide scale. Either way, despite good intentions it failed.

It may be possible to do better. The Church, together with political economists of various perspectives, can and should have an invigorating dialogue about the role and constitution of international institutions. But experience - as well as serious work in political economy - suggests that such organisations are likely to do more harm than good unless their role is narrow and precisely defined. Indeed, the greatest increase in human welfare would arise if all the world's governments respected the rule of law, the right to life, and the freedom to hold property and to exercise economic initiative. If an international institution could help us achieve such a goal, without being captured by other interests, it would be a worthy creation.

Professor Philip Booth is editorial and programme director of Institute of Economic Affairs. The author would like to thank IEA intern Andres G Watty for assistance with this article