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Interview with Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi

Wars with unknown consequences require a new urgent response

 Wars with unknown consequences  require a new urgent response  ING-011
15 March 2024

In a wide-ranging interview with Vatican News, Cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi, the former Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, warned that amid the dramatic global climate and the many ongoing conflicts, questions are beings raised about the right to self-defense. If two conflicting entities are mutually destructive because of the weapons they use, he asked, what remains to be defended?


ardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi, who served as Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva from 2003 to 2016, analysed how dangerous the current global context is, and, based on his vast experience, reflected on alternative approaches to peace. Currently serving as the Special Delegate to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the Cardinal spoke of the need for reasonable dialogue and working toward a resetting of the moral compass “which is now broken.” While violence in all its forms generates disasters, he said, when it comes to the destruction of atomic weapons, the unpredictable harm to civilians, and the destruction of the environment, is worse, and therefore, such arms “cannot be accepted.”


Pope Francis has warned time and time again that we are experiencing a Third World War in pieces. Likewise, the un Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently said, “We cannot, we must not become numb to appalling and repeated violations of international humanitarian and human rights law,” and committed un bodies to act as one to prevent, identify, and respond to human rights violations. In your years of experience at the un , and career in diplomacy, how would you assess the global ‘climate’ at this point? How dangerous is what we are seeing?

There is too much indifference to the fact that disarmament is necessary. The consequences of not disarming are so dangerous, that it becomes a responsibility to be informed about them. In fact, the hypothesis that some atomic weapons may be used, as it has been threatened, would leave this planet a desert and we do not know for how long.

Given this, there is a moral decision that imposes itself, namely that it will be absolutely necessary to ban any weapon whose effects we do not know, while the defects that we know already confirm their incredibly dangerous nature. The human family does not know the consequences that the potential use of these weapons may cause, and therefore we cannot accept them. This creates a climate of fear and of tension. It will therefore be necessary to educate the public, to create a public culture that is aware of the dramatic repercussions of war. Violence generates disasters everywhere, but the destruction caused by atomic weapons is worse. Therefore, it is very important that we all do our best to sensitize the average citizen to be aware of this.

With the wars, especially in the Holy Land and Ukraine, do you see a peaceful way of settling the conflicts, rather than the continued bombardments? From your decades of experience, especially your long tenure as Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, have you observed an approach that could serve as a model? Are there tools, measures, or models, that have not been explored, that ought to be?

You open a chapter that is quite complex and difficult to articulate, but it is fundamental to learn something from the past. The First World War provoked an enormous number of victims, a fact that should make us reflect on the use of violence and arms today. The argument that these arms are used for self-defense raises new questions, as I mentioned before. Despite sovereign nations having the right to defend their people, with the prospect of the use of arms that would kill far more people and destroy the environment, beyond the areas in question, parties must carefully consider this aspect, in all they do. If, in an effort to defend, all is lost, what remains to be defended? We do not know all the consequences, all the damage that is done, and for how long [this will last.] We do not know the number of civilian victims that are involved. The better and reasonable option is to move from a mentality of fear to one of trust.

The Holy Father, at his Sunday Angelus, made an appeal for disarmament and called on nations to move from a mentality of fear to trust. In your experience, how can the Pope’s appeal be adopted concretely?

The Pope is playing his role as a conscience of humanity in a very articulate and forceful way. I feel that the only reasonable voice that we have at this moment in discussing the problem of disarmament, of great or little wars, is the voice of Pope Francis. He is doing a great service to the human family. The Pope, by pointing out the consequences of these political decisions which prefer war, is trying to prevent something awful from coming about.

Pope Francis insists time and again how it is necessary for people to sit down and dialogue, to use the strategy of diplomacy, or to use the common-sense approach of talking. He calls for putting everything on the table, the objections, the difficulties, the presumed injustices, and resolve problems, by conversation and reasonable agreement. Today, I don’t see any alternative to the necessity to dialogue. All the other means that have been used, have proven useless. In fact, they have proven more dangerous than anticipated. Therefore, we should not be surprised, or annoyed, by the fact that the Holy Father keeps returning to this urgency of dialogue, instead of violence.

After the wars of the 20th century, were there, according to you, wisdom or lessons that were learned that are being forgotten? Was there some outcome that must be remembered, or applied, in our current context?

The best outcome would be to not forget it, because it is easy to say something is ‘of the past, the victims are of the past, the destruction is of the past.’ The economic aspects and relationships that are destroyed in wars make people lose a sense of moral ethic. The moral compass is now broken. What we have learned from past wars is the result of unforeseen, unpredictable consequences. There is now a similar war taking place, but the awareness of the damage that is caused for generations to come is not taken into account.

The moral voice of the Pope in the international context is what remains of the sanity of the human family, in trying to come to terms with the problems that we are facing. There are issues that demand serious analysis and discussion, that involve different countries and different people. This is a fact. But the response to be given is not the immediate response of force, but an invitation for the common-sense response to speak.

In 2023, global spending on defence rose by nine percent. From the un agenda for disarmament, one sees a strong link between investment in arms and wars. The wars in Ukraine and the Middle East have led to a strong shift of investment towards the defence sector. Global spending on arms accounts for 22 percent of the world’s gdp . Over 71 ethical banks asked the financial system to change their approach and make sure their investments take into account the principles of Ethical Finance. Can this ethical effort and concept, if you will, help trigger a reconsideration of the profitability of arms?

I have been participating in the Conference on Disarmament of the United Nations, in which several sessions were dedicated to identifying ways that are useful and practical, to prevent damage for everyone in the world. But it didn’t work. There is no political willingness to avoid the loss of resources, money and time, nor to invest in the fight against the waste of human lives. If we look around, we see that there are many social needs, especially the need for schools in many countries, to ensure that education may give a chance to these people to develop and to use their talent in a constructive way. Certainly a great amount of money, technology, and many human lives, are lost because of choosing violent confrontation instead of reasonable negotiation. It is a price too high to pay. It seems to me, even if I don’t know the exact figures, that it would be reasonably easy to use the budget that is used for arms, and for war and bombing-provoked destruction, to create an international fund that could be used for development purposes. The fund would be used to help countries and the people that are left behind, without access to health, education, and technology, to be endowed with these resources. It would help those disadvantaged to catch up and enable them to have a reasonable lifestyle, that could help resolve the problem of famine, and safeguard against potential pandemics and the sicknesses they could bring.

Certainly the dramatic wars in Ukraine and the Holy Land have taken the world’s attention. Yet, the Holy Father, even with his incessant appeals regarding both, still remembers all the forgotten wars throughout the world, especially Myanmar, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, just to name a few. How does the current ‘prioritizing’ globally, leave these other suffering nations? What must be done to help ensure they are not ‘forgotten’ and are also prioritized to work toward peace, or at least protection of human rights and dignity?

There is apparently a category of countries, some that count and other countries that don’t count. But human beings are valuable in themselves, independently of where they come from, or where they are. This is true. I saw it clearly when I was nuncio in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The international community was not so much concerned by the fact that there was an active war between the two, in which tens of thousands of young people were killed. I saw the bodies. The border where they were fighting and this reality is linked to another, larger factor, namely that certain people or certain countries absorb the media’s entire attention, and don’t leave much space for other concerns to emerge. This often is the case too because sometimes these little wars are wars by proxy on behalf of the bigger countries; and therefore, there’s no interest on the part of the bigger countries, to put a spotlight on them. There is this conflict; these interests clash. Again, I see that the voice of the Pope is the only one who points out the problems, wherever they are. The Pope offers this encouragement to sustain and help these discarded people because of his conviction that the human person is sacred, a conviction that is a belief for people of faith.

We are Christians, and the Christian world is engaged at this moment in time in terrible conflict. That means that the effectiveness of our belief does not extend to the whole reality around us. Given this, we need to recall what Pope Francis has written in the Encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. We are all brothers and sisters, and there is one human family; the son that is lost by Ukrainian parents, causes the same suffering as the son that is lost by Russian parents. The leaders of government, and political leaders in general, do not wish to admit that nobody is a winner in the long run. The suffering catches up with everyone. There is a need to admit the fact that what the Pope calls for, what reasonable people together with him call for, is an urgent stop to the fighting, to spare parents the suffering of seeing their children devastated, and to utilize resources that are invested in war, unfortunately. What is needed is to channel these resources into creating a response in poor countries, that can provide them with a minimum of living conditions to make their life bearable and a joy instead of a sorrow.

Cardinal Tomasi, is there anything else you would like to add?

We spoke of the necessity to find a new model for peace, especially in the Middle East. We need to reflect on the fact that all the different approaches tried in the past were not successful. Perhaps we should take into account that both Muslims and Israelis are people who believe in God, and they know that the covenant between God and the people demands faithfulness to this covenant and a good peaceful relationship. So, perhaps starting from the religious experience of these people, living in the same physical place, one could start to reflect upon, and accept, a new covenant. God made a covenant with Abraham. Now, [they could consider] creating a covenant between the two of them, based on religious conviction, that would be the same for both of them. They could use the seriousness of this commitment to create trust. By remembering, and potentially following, the ancient tradition of this covenant between God and the people, it could be possible to open a channel of communication and dialogue, and initiate a sense of trust.

Thank you, Your Eminence.

By Deborah Castellano Lubov