War: A One-Way Adventure

For sixteen years, he was the Holy See’s permanent observer to the UN. And now that the Pope has called him to the Vatican to lead the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Archbishop Renato Martino once again finds himself having o deal with the long-standing Iraqi crisis. He talks about it in this interview with Traces, using this opportunity also to take stock of his mandate and to discuss other burning issues on the international scene


At the beginning of 1991, with the world at the time, like today, on the edge of conflict in the Persian Gulf, the Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See to the UN, Archbishop Renato Martino, learned from the Secretary General of the United Nations, Javier Perez de Cuellar, that there was no more room for hope of avoiding what the Pope called then “the one-way adventure” of military intervention. “He said, ‘Monsignor, we can do nothing more, because they have already decided to make war,’” the Archbishop recounts. In 2002, Msgr Martino is once again reminding the powerful of the earth in the UN building, just as he did eleven years ago, that war “does not solve anything.” In the sixteen years that he has been Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, Msgr Martino has lived all the ups and downs of what is now more than ten years of crisis with Iraq. And even now that he is getting ready to leave New York, called by the Pope to the Vatican to lead the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Archbishop has to pack his bags for Rome in the midst of a raging diplomatic struggle that still has Baghdad as its object. Msgr Martino agreed to talk about the current situation in a conversation with Traces at the end of October, while the UN was engaged in trying to work out a resolution on Iraq that reconciled the positions of the United States and Great Britain with those of Russia and France. This also provided the occasion for a panoramic view of the other burning issues in the world and for drawing up a balance sheet at the close of his mandate by one of the foremost protagonists of world diplomacy, who has made, above all, the defense of life the constant theme of his actions on behalf of the Holy See.

Your Excellency, if war is warded off, what future do you see for Iraq, and what task do you feel the UN must perform in this “endless crisis”?
In my most recent action in this area, a few days ago, I raised the question of sanctions. Although reiterating once again what the Holy See said in 1996, recognizing the legitimacy of inflicting sanctions on countries that do not respect the rules for living together as “good neighbors,” I called attention to the fact that sanctions cannot last forever, and that they must be intelligently aimed at those who cause the problems, not indiscriminately at the civilian population. What will happen with Iraq? I hope it will soften its position and, first of all, accept the inspectors.

Let us remember, however, that when the inspectors left in 1998, it was not because of a UN decision. The inspections were broken off by a unilateral decision by Mr Butler [the ambassador who at the time was head of the inspectors and is today a tenacious supporter of armed intervention against Baghdad]. We shall have to see how the resolution the UN agrees upon will be worded. Many are hoping that it will be all-embracing.

In 1991, you were in constant dialogue with the highest UN authorities, to try to ward off a war that proved to be impossible to stop. What is the Holy See’s position these days?
I remember very well what I did eleven years ago, at the behest of the Holy Father and the Secretary of State, in order to avoid war. And I remember when Perez de Cuellar told me that there was nothing more to be done. In this predicament as well, we are trying, as much as we can, to discourage war, which is only bloodshed, destruction, and misery. Benedict XV called it “useless slaughter.” Pius XII said clearly in 1939 that “with peace, everything is gained; with war, everything is lost,” and John Paul II spoke of it as a “one-way adventure.” This is a constant in the position of the Holy See and the Popes: war does not solve anything, and creates more problems than it solves.

Let us try to hypothesize the worst-case scenario, that of an American conflict against Iraq in a Middle East where this time the Arab countries are firmly opposed to an armed solution. What would happen?
It is unforeseeable. Whereas in 1991 not all, but many Arab countries were in favor of the war, now I believe that no one, not even Kuwait, would support it. This is because everyone understands that it would disintegrate the front against terrorism that has been put together this year with so much energy and enthusiasm. It would be disastrous from the point of view of the Middle Eastern situation. There are extremely grave problems in that area, and we know this. Why don’t we solve those first, as they are the cause of a war that produces victims on both sides every day? I am convinced that if we resolved this situation, the solution to all the other problems would come by itself.

You have said that, at a time like this, in the wake of September 11th, the effects on the Middle East of a conflict in Iraq would be disastrous. Let me ask you a question that the whole world is asking: why are the Americans so insistent right now?
To answer this, perhaps we have to look at what lies behind it. We have to see the hidden reasons for their position. The temptation would be to give a one-word answer: oil. There could be other additions to this word; perhaps this is too facile reasoning.

The bloodbath in the Holy Land is another of those unending crises that have accompanied your sixteen years at the UN. Do you glimpse any reasons for hope?
Those two peoples are condemned to peace! They cannot do anything except make peace. Only this will allow them to develop and grow. That area should be an area of peace and example for all the world, especially for us Christians who see there the Prince of Peace. These are peoples condemned to peace. There is no alternative. They are so intelligent and perspicacious that I am amazed they do not see this reality, which is so obvious that every man of good sense would see it.

You mentioned earlier the fight against terrorism. What is, in your opinion, an effective form of action in this area?
A few days after September 11th, I declared to the UN that it is necessary to fight terrorism, because what it does and can do is atrocious. But the fight must not be limited to police actions, wherein one, a hundred, a thousand terrorists are eliminated and the problem is solved. No. The Pope, too, has said this numerous times: we have to go to the root of the problem. Wherever there is poverty, oppression, and lack of freedom, that is the breeding ground of terrorists. Wherever there is a lack of development, there are the candidates for terrorism, youths who have no hopes for their future. Living or dying is the same thing for them. It is the denial of a decent, human future. And this is why they go blow themselves up.

Do you think that there is also a war of religion going on?
No, absolutely not. It is man’s inborn calling to freedom, to the expression of his own potential. When you deny him this, these are the results

You lived through September 11th in America. What reaction did you see in the country and what changed inside the UN?
This country certainly did not expect to be attacked on its home ground. A myth of unassailability, of invincibility was shattered. The UN, too, felt the repercussions; there is more solidarity among all the countries in searching for the causes. Now, we are no longer the only ones pointing out the need to look for causes.

Abortion, death penalty, limits to scientific research: the right to life has been a constant in your actions at the UN in these years. What are the most meaningful successes and what are the bitterest disappointments you will carry away with you as you go to Rome?
The defense of life has been my leit motiv all these years. The fundamental success was perhaps the one we obtained in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, when we were instrumental in passing, as the first principle of the Declaration, the statement that “human beings are at the center of concern for sustainable development. They have the right to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.” This was the fruit of the diplomatic skill of the Holy See, because in the rough draft, instead of “human beings,” “states” were spoken of as the protagonists of development. This is pure Stalinism… And two years later, at the Conference on Population in Cairo, we obtained the passage in the final declaration of the statement: “In no case must abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.” Since then, these concepts have remained central to the work of the United Nations. This should characterize all the action and decisions of the UN: the centrality of the human being. It is a very Christian principle, but it is also a human moral principle for all religions. Can we imagine what would happen if the UN lost its perspective of serving human beings? What purpose could the UN possibly serve?

There have, however, been various attacks on the Holy See’s positions…
Yes, in the conferences after Cairo, efforts were made to destroy everything the Holy See had obtained. In Beijing, in Istanbul, I remember entire days of fighting to defend recognition of the family. One day we debated the whole morning over the use of an article: “the.” They were trying to get approval for a reference not to “the” family, but a generic family, a family nucleus that could be made up of me and my dog. Even in the Conference on the International Criminal Court, something similar was attempted; there were those who wanted to insert the term “forced pregnancy,” with the underlying implication opening the road to abortion, into the definition of ethnic rape. We succeeded in getting passed a definition that condemned this practice, but emphasizing that this “has nothing to do with the national laws regulating pregnancy.” If that term, “forced pregnancy,” had been left to stand alone, without being defined further, it would have been extremely dangerous. It could have been used to condemn the husband who persuades his wife not to interrupt her pregnancy; it could have been used against laws that prevent abortion after a certain number of weeks. The Pope himself speaking against abortion from his study window could have been incriminated! Then they came out with the definition of “emergency contraception,” which we removed. Recently, at the Johannesburg conference, abortion was hidden behind a conjunction: “and.” The term “health care and services” was being used, with abortion lurking behind the word “and.” We managed to get the definition “health care services” passed.

How does it make you feel, being the spokesman for so many years, in the relationship between nations, of a criterion of judgment inspired not only by international law, but above all by the Christian event?
I am reminded of what the Pope said to me at the end of his visit to the UN in 1995. We were in the car returning to the Mission after his speech to the General Assembly, a marvelous talk about the family of nations. The Pope said to me, “I told them.” I didn’t know to what he was referring, so I asked, “What, Holy Father?” He replied, “That Jesus is the reason for all our actions.” I said to him then, “That’s true, Holy Father, and it is what I and my co-workers try to make every day out of our presence here at the United Nations.” These sixteen years have been characterized by very intense activity; I am pleased and perplexed that the Holy Father has had confidence in me for all this time. For me, this has been a preparation, lasting many years, for my next job, which I naturally intend to carry out with the same enthusiasm and the same perspective of defending first and foremost the right to life, which is the fundamental right. If we do not have life, we cannot claim any other right. It is the most important right.