The Vatican’s Man at the United Nations

Archbishop Celestino Migliore has seen a lot at the United Nations.

Since becoming the Holy See’s permanent observer at the world body in 2003, he’s seen his delegation receive more priveleges. While not a member state at the United Nations the Holy See may now speak to the assembly without first obtaining the consent of each of the five regional groups. It may also circulate its own documents and respond to interventions that referred to the Holy See.

Archbishop Migliore, a native of Italy, discussed several current world issues in an interview with Register correspondent Sabrina Arena Ferrisi.

Militant Islam is a worrying feature of a post-9/11 world. What part does the Holy See Mission take in confronting this new reality, while at the same time forging ties with the Muslim world at the United Nations?

The tone and the pace of the Holy See’s interreligious dialogue and diplomacy to reach out to the Muslim community were set by Pope Benedict XVI in his encounter with 10 Islamic leaders in Cologne, when he pointed out the recognition of the centrality of the person as a common basis for understanding, one which enables us to move beyond cultural conflicts and which neutralizes the disruptive power of ideologies. Teaching — he said — is the vehicle through which ideas and convictions are transmitted. Words are highly influential in the education of the mind. He added that Christians and Muslims must face together the many challenges of our time. There is no room for apathy and disengagement, and even less for partiality and sectarianism.

Much has been said during this past year at the U.N. headquarters, and also in operative terms, of the contribution that religions can and should offer to promote a climate of understanding and cooperation between cultures and civilizations. Our mission has been very proactive in all these fora.

For the last 10 years, there have been many nations and non-governmental organizations that have been trying to make access to abortion a universal human right at the United Nations. What can you tell us about the Holy See mission’s continued fight in this particular battle? Are more countries aligned with the Holy See’s position these days, or less? What countries support the pro-life position? Where do the pro-abortion forces come from and what nations tend to support them?

Trying to solve this tragic and multifaceted human and moral issue by declaring abortion a universal right is to attack the very basis of social decency and coexistence and to trivialize all internationally recognized human rights. This is why the Holy See labors against the current.

At the Cairo and Beijing conferences, when attempts were made to disguise the issue with so-called constructive ambiguity under the terms of “reproductive health/rights” or “sexual health/rights,” about 30 countries, along with the Holy See, expressed reservations in order to make clear that any time these terms were used they would not imply the right to abortion nor access to abortive services.

Nevertheless, the language adopted at Cairo and Beijing has had an impact on national legislation, mainly through the conditions attached to the private and public assistance to development in developing countries. Some of them, which initially expressed reservations about these terms and their contents, have since been pressured to relax their stance.

Just recently, at the adoption of the Resolutions of the General Assembly, some Arab countries added their efforts in removing or nuancing the impact of controversial language, and the USA, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Philippines and the Holy See reasserted their understanding that these terms do not create any rights and cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement or promotion of abortion.

Pro-life organizations are of course involved and very proactive in this field, seeking to alert politicians and the public at-large regarding the need for accountability of politicians and diplomats to reinforce and defend basic human rights, including the right to life. I think it’s indispensable that all of us make a concerted effort so that it remains crystal clear that these expressions do not include the right to abortion.

What do you see as the most positive developments at the United Nations during your time there? What are the most disturbing trends?

I arrived at the U.N. three years ago in the very middle of the debate on Iraq. The first impact was to see the cohesion that had been reached two years before on the common cause of international security and rejection of terrorism fall by the wayside. It was a serious blow to the U.N. Then it emerged quite clearly that among the multifaceted reasons for this crisis, a particular factor was the deep cultural fragmentation existing among the member countries. Added to this was a number of serious problems with the management of the U.N. itself. However, in these difficult circumstances two convictions surfaced: first, that the U.N. is indispensable for the peaceful coexistence of the international community, and second, that the U.N. needs a bold institutional and operative reform. The membership worked hard on this last point throughout 2005, and will continue to do so in the new year to prepare a reform which, hopefully, will restore the U.N.’s effective service to the benefit of all the “we the peoples” of its charter.

You have spoken frequently about the issue of disarmament and a ban on nuclear testing. Has there been progress on these issues? If not, what are the main reasons that keep many nations from committing?

There has been no notable progress on the non-proliferation treaty since the year 2000. The original bargain of the NPT was: non-proliferation in exchange for nuclear disarmament.

Instead, we have an ongoing struggle between the nuclear “haves” who rightly insist on non-proliferation, but do not maintain their promise to engage in serious negotiations towards disarmament, and the “have-nots” who also rightly insist, though unilaterally, on disarmament. The rigidity of 50-year-old nuclear policies and the lack of progress give an ongoing pretext to various governments to justify the reliance on vertical and horizontal proliferation and the dubious use of nuclear energy.

Another cause of erosion of the treaty was the silence of the outcome document of the 2005 Summit of Heads of State and Government regarding the NPT. Nevertheless, the international community has taken steps to secure the world from nuclear war, such as the creation of nuclear weapon-free zones, the adoption of confidence-building measures and the moratorium between the USA and the Russian Federation.

Besides the threat of terrorism posed especially by non-state actors, narrow national interests and hesitation to give up a lucrative business, the main reason that lures countries to rely on nuclear weapons hinges on a security dilemma: the element of distrust, occasioned by the failure of significant parties to completely observe agreements.

One of your previous jobs, before coming to the Holy See mission, was that of forging relations with several Asian countries that do not have formal relations to the Holy See. Have there been opportunities, at a human level, to establish friendships between the Holy See and these nations — who have no formal relations to the Holy See — during your time at the United Nations?

Of course. The Holy See has diplomatic relations with 174 countries and it has a diplomatic presence in all those countries. It is only appropriate that the Holy See maintain a diplomatic presence at the U.N. where all the countries are represented, including some 20 countries that don’t have diplomatic relations with us.

This forum provides us with a natural way to stay in contact with representatives from all the countries of the world. This is a place where we can deal directly with any country, on any issue.

What has changed for you and your work since the election of Pope Benedict? What kind of interest has he taken in your work?

In the last month, the Holy Father has spoken several times about the U.N. He did so in his traditional message for the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1 when, after confirming the confidence of the Catholic Church in the U.N., he expressed the hope that it would undergo an “institutional and operative renewal which would enable it to respond to the changed needs of the present time, characterized by the vast phenomenon of globalization.” He also did so in his homily on the same day, when he called on the U.N. to a reawakened conscience of its responsibilities in the promotion of the values of justice, solidarity and peace. And he adressed it again on Jan. 9, when he talked of the creation of the U.N.’s new Peacebuilding Commission.

These references to the U.N. are to be understood in the context of the Church’s traditional trust in international organizations, especially in catalyzing, producing, implementing and monitoring international law.

Underlining this trust in a moment of crisis  also means reminding the U.N.’s friends and foes of the basic values which underpin the U.N. project, things which will have to be restated more clearly in its renewed institutional and operative shape.

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is based in Jersey City, New Jersey.