The former director of Harvard Kennedy School’s (HKS) Carr Center for Human Rights Policy received kind words and encouragement from Pope Francis last month while attending a conference on international humanitarian law in Rome. Douglas A. Johnson, lecturer in public policy, was among a group of attendees invited to a private audience with the Pope.  

With Pope Francis.jpg
Douglas A. Johnson meets Pope Francis.

Sponsored by the Carabinieri, a branch of the Italian military, the conference was also hosted by the European Society of International Law. It was the third such conference in recent years, but Johnson’s first. “The Carbinieri, which is deeply involved in peacekeeping operations, was taking seriously the task of training its leaders and future leaders about their obligations and responsibilities to human rights law and humanitarian law,” he says. “That’s what attracted me to this gathering.”

 Attendees at the conference included the Italian ministers of defense, foreign affairs and the interior; the chief of staff for the Italian Defence Forces; and the top leaders of the Carabinieri. After the panel discussions concluded, the Pope delivered his message about the importance of international law and overcoming indifference.  

“Going to the aid of victims of conflicts is something that brings together a number of merciful actions,” the pope told his audience. “May international organizations always operate in conformity with the fundamental principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.”

Later, as Johnson moved through a receiving line, he told the Pope Francis about his ongoing work against torture. Johnson served for 23 years as the first executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), the first treatment center in the United States for torture survivors. He was also an original member of the OSCE Experts’ Panel on the Prevention of Torture, and worked with the National Religious Coalition for Human Rights and Evangelicals for Human Rights to lead the CVT’s Campaign to Ban Torture.  

Johnson says that the Pope responded, “Adelante, hermano,” which translates to “Go forward, brother.”