A defender of the rights of victims – Interview with His Excellency Monsignor Silvano M. Tomasi, Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See

When going for a rendez-vous with the Holy See’s representative in Geneva, you might expect a serious, austere type who is going to make you feel guilty about all the things that you should have done and never did. However, meeting Monsignor Tomasi was not like this at all. We met a man with a great sense of humour, a deep concern about people and their well-being, and who is there to give the « forgotten ones » in our globalized world a voice, so that it can become a better place for everybody to live. One of his battles — if we may call it so — is to strive in favour of refugees and migrants, putting their issues on the international agenda, a task to which Monsignor Tomasi has dedicated most of his life.
Q: Could you tell us something about your background?
I was born and raised near Venice. As a young man I went to New York where I became a priest. Altogether I lived for over twenty-five years in the United States. At first, I started teaching sociology at the City University of New York, where I taught for more than three years. At a certain point, I had to make a choice between continuing my full-time teaching position in the university system or pursuing other activities in the Church. After this teaching experience (which was great), I worked with migrants and refugees.
Sometime after that, for about six years I went to work for the Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States in Washington in the area of resettlement of refugees, assistance to the new people arriving in the aftermath of the war in Viet Nam and other newcomers from Asia and Latin America.
From there I was called to Rome to serve as the secretary of one of the departments of the Curia (the central governing body of the Roman Catholic Church) that coordinates activities dealing with displaced persons – migrants, refugees and people on the move. I belong to a small religious order that deals with the world of human mobility.
From Rome I was sent as a nuncio (i.e. ambassador) to Ethiopia and Eritrea. I was there for some seven years. It was a great experience, I could see what all these matters that I am involved with in multilateral diplomacy — development, poverty alleviation, the role of civil society and democratic institutions, prevention of conflicts — looked like on the ground. It was the time of transition from the Mengistu Regime to a more democratic approach to political life in Ethiopia, while Eritrea gained independence and moved in a different direction.
It was also a tragic time. I was accredited both to Addis Ababa and to Asmara during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea and I had to shuttle between these two capitals. To reach Asmara I had to go through Saudi Arabia because other connections were inter- rupted, or use the transport of the U.N. peacekeepers.
Religious leaders became involved in trying to establish communication between the two sides and to resolve the differences. Ethiopians and Eritreans really are brothers with the same language, the same basic culture. I think it was a good service to both governments in trying to shorten that futile and disastrous war.
I put a lot of energy into the push for development projects in villages, in medical health, in schools, and also in the idea of a Catholic university that is being developed right now in Addis Ababa.
Normally a nuncio deals with the government to which he is accredited, with the local Catholic Church, and with other religious communities. The largest part of the Ethiopian population belongs to the Orthodox faith, but there is also a large percentage of Muslims, and a Lutheran tradition, in particular in the south. The small Catholic Church is also very active with some 250 schools and some good health institutions.
In his usual work, a nuncio maintains relations with the government like any other ambassador, but he also has another hat to wear, which is service to the local Catholic Church, and to other churches to the extent possible. He tries to be of support and to be a link between this community and the Holy Father in Rome.
During my time in Africa, the Holy See opened diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Djibouti and also obtained the first agreement as Observer to the African Union, which has its seat in Addis Ababa. This latter aspect of the work was very interesting. It gave me the opportunity to follow the transition from the Organization of African Unity to the African Union; the different steps taken to strengthen this transition and to make Africans more responsible for their own future. African leaders are progressively assuming more direct responsibility for their own continent and for the solution of its problems, a great step forward.
From Africa I was asked to come to Geneva, which is rather different! But when the Pope calls, you go! I came here in 2003 and I’m still going! Of course, it’s a different environment, a different style and cultural context. At the same time I think there is continuity — strange as it might seem. All the debates that we have in the United Nations about development, about poor countries becoming more involved in world trade, the alleviation of poverty, the mechanisms developed to improve the quality of life, human rights and disarmament — all of these issues take on the face of the people I have met in the villages in the Horn of Africa. If you provide the children with clean drinking water, they will not get sick — and that makes the difference. When looking at the big picture, you have to recall the daily experience of people, an approach that gives me a more realistic understanding in our international discussions here in Geneva.
Geneva is an international hub with several organizations specialized in different facets of international life — from disarmament to human rights and health, from refugees to intellectual property. It takes some time to enter into this labyrinth and to figure out what the priorities are. Slowly you discover that there are interconnections, even though they are not formal and coherent. Issues are linked across the system, even though they are handled sometimes in what appears to be some isolation. Thus, if you deal with intellectual property at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and access to medicines at the World Trade Organization (WTO), you affirm a real connection that directly affects development, although each of these different institutions pretty much marches to its own drumbeat.
Providence works in strange ways, but in the end it makes sense and things work out. In quick strokes, this has been more or less my journey through life.
Q: Lately there has been much talk about the « rights of victims ».
Yes, I often try to raise this issue when I intervene in meetings. If we look around the world, there are categories of people who live in the shadows or hidden away. Take, for example, the hundreds who die every year trying to cross from Somalia to Yemen, from Mexico to the US, from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa or from West Africa to the Canary Islands. This phenomenon of global mobility is becoming the trademark of the twenty-first century, and at times it results in people who disappear in the effort to look for security, for a better quality of life, in the hope of making some money to send home to their families, to create a famil. This is one type of victims that needs to be brought to the attention of the international community and ways should be found to prevent such tragedies.
Another type is the victim of trafficking. For instance, women, either from Eastern Europe, from Nigeria or some other countries are promised jobs in Europe, Japan, the U.S.A., etc. As soon as they arrive to their destination, passports are confiscated and they are told: « Now you are to serve the clients who come knocking on your door, or you must go and work at such and such sweatshops. » Money has to be paid back to recruiters and traffickers.
Children, for different reasons, are often victims of forced labour or mines. Take, for instance, the cluster bombs that have been dropped in abundance in some areas of the world. Children go to play in these places and trigger the explosion of dormant ordnances. I experienced something like this once myself. I was on the border between Mozambique and Zimba-bwe visiting a friend who was very sick in a small missionary hospital run by a Swiss Protestant couple. People came from all over to this hospital. I remember in particular a woman who had gone out to collect firewood, had stepped on a mine and she was covered in blood, holding on to her leg. The hospital had run out of anaesthetic, so they had to sew her up without sedation. With unexploded and cluster munitions, anti-personnel mines — there are many categories of victims.
Part of the sensibility and responsibility of the Christian community and the Holy See is to be the advocate of those who have no voice; to try to put among the priorities of the international community the groups of people who tend to be forgotten. The main concern of politics, rightly so, is to secure peace and economic growth. But at times the national interest is becoming more dominant and imposes itself on other priorities. For this reason, once in a while, the international community has to be reminded about those who have no voice and who have equally inalienable human rights.
Q: The Holy See was the co-sponsor of the exhibition on child soldiers at the Palais des Nations a while ago. Why?
This initiative aimed at drawing the attention of public opinion to exploited children. There are today something like 250,000 to 300,000 children still active in armed conflicts recruited by rebel or by paramilitary groups. In Northern Uganda the local Church is very active in resolving the problems caused by the « Lords’ Resistance Army » that has kidnapped many young children and brainwashed them for military activities. We are hopefully coming to the end of this tragedy. There is a dialogue between the Government of Uganda and the rebel leaders in view of stopping this conflict. By means of this exhibition we wanted to draw the public’s attention to two things: on the one hand, to the peace process and the ongoing dialogue to strengthen them and to show that this is the way to stop such horrors; and on the other, to the ongoing work to recuperate the children and to give them a chance to resume normal lives again.
These children have been forced to kill. Whether you want it or not, when you kill somebody it has an impact on you. How do we help the children to overcome this psychological problem and become as far as possible normal human beings? There are activities sponsored by faith-inspired groups to help the children overcome their fears. The exhibit wanted to portray how these terrible forces ruin young children by forcing them to do actions that impact negatively their psyche and their personality. Then, it presented the process of returning the children to a normal environment of recreation, school, the feeling that people still love them. Love is the power that can provide a normal life even for abused children.
Attention to child soldiers reminded me that sometimes children have been abused even by family members, teachers, church people themselves. Of course, where you have human beings you have also some problems, so we need to continue working in this direction to protect the children. The Holy See is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its protocols, including the one regarding child soldiers. We need to keep on moving in this direction.
Q: You said earlier that you belong to a religious community working with migrants. Which one is that and what exactly do you do?
My task now is serving in the diplomatic corps of the Holy See after diverse pastoral and educational experiences related to my membership in a small international religious community of approximately 700 priests engaged in the care of people forced to work away from their country of birth. These are people often at the bottom of the social ladder confronted with different languages and cultures and in need of a friendly presence during their process of adjustment to a new unfamiliar environment.
My religious order was started in Italy at the end of the nineteenth century at the time of mass migrations from Europe. It is called Scalabrinian, after Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, the bishop who founded it, a very dynamic and modern man. He saw the Italian population emigrating in huge numbers, abandoned to themselves with nobody doing anything for them. He was prompted to organize social and cultural activities in their own language that would allow them to adapt to their new society without trauma. The work started out with one nationality just over one hundred years ago and it has now become international in response to the globalization of migrations.
In today’s world, we have more than 200 million people who live and work in countries other than the one where they were born. And the trend is increasing because of demographic pressures and the world job market. Europe is ageing; Japan is ageing. There is a need for manpower. The globalization of the economy requires people with skills faster than they can be trained in the areas where new developments are taking place. So there is a flow of people across the globe. How do we protect the rights of these people as human beings? How do we make them feel comfortable in the host country? The international community is becoming more sensitive to the issue. The U.N. held a High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development in 2006. The Global Forum on Migration and Development has recently met in Brussels in 2007 and the next meeting will be in the Philippines in October. If you take, for instance, the example of the Philippines, 10% of the population — or 9 million people — are working outside the country, then the magnitude of the phenomena becomes evident.
And let us not forget the several million refugees around the globe who must be cared for by the international community. Uprooted people therefore should be kept before the eyes of the world.
Q: On April 18 the Pope has spoken at the U.N. Headquarters in New York. Will he visit also the Palais des Nations in Geneva?
The Holy Father Benedict XVI has shown his esteem for the United Nations and pointed out some critical areas of its role: human rights, the protection of all people, the importance of solidarity and peace, the protection of the environment. I certainly hope that soon his message and his presence may encourage the diplomatic community and the functionaries of international agencies hard at work here in Geneva.