In his traditional New Year’s greetings to the ambassadors from 183 countries that maintain diplomatic relations with the Holy See, Pope Francis warned that the rise of nationalism and the weakening of the multilateral approach to resolving problems are among the most serious challenges facing the world today.
He denounced a new arms race, especially among states that possess nuclear weapons, and emphasized the urgent need for a unified, global response to climate change and the migration crisis. He appealed to the international community to bring an end to the conflict in Syria and denounced attempts to stoke up enmity between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.
His annual address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See is considered the most important of the year in geopolitical terms. It is closely monitored by states worldwide because of the moral authority of the pope and the diplomatic role of the Holy See. In a speech that lasted almost an hour in the Vatican’s Sala Regia, Pope Francis offered an overview of how he and the Holy See understand the situation in the world today and for the first time before this important audience spoke about the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.
He recalled that the modern multilateral diplomacy, “whereby states attempt to distance their reciprocal relations from the mentality of domination that leads to war,” began with the establishment of the League of Nations in June 1919, but the difficulties that experiment in global governance encountered led to the Second World War. Nevertheless, the league paved the way for the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, which, despite “difficulties and obstacles,” continues to provide “an opportunity for nations to meet and seek common solutions” to problems.
Francis reminded the ambassadors and the governments they represent that “an indispensable condition for the success of multilateral diplomacy is the goodwill and good faith of the parties, their readiness to deal with one another fairly and honestly, and their openness to accepting the inevitable compromises arising from disputes.” But, he said, “whenever even one of these elements is missing, the result is a search for unilateral solutions and, in the end, the domination of the powerful over the weak.”
He recalled that the League of Nations failed for these very reasons and noted with regret that “the same attitudes are threatening the stability of the major international organizations” today.
“The reappearance of some populist and nationalist impulses today is progressively weakening the multilateral system,” the pope said, “resulting in a general lack of trust, a crisis of credibility in international political life and a gradual marginalization of the most vulnerable members of the family of nations.”
He recalled that St. Paul VI, in a historic speech to the United Nations in 1965, suggested four features of multilateralism that protect humanity and promote peace.
The first emphasized “the primacy of justice and law” in relations between nations. “It is troubling,” Francis said, “to see the reemergence of tendencies to impose and pursue individual national interests without having recourse to the instruments provided by international law for resolving controversies and ensuring that justice is respected, also through international courts.”
He underlined the importance of “respect for law and justice both within their national communities and within the international community” and said “reactive, emotional and hasty solutions” by political leaders “may well be able to garner short-term consensus, but they will certainly not help the solution of deeper problems; indeed, they will aggravate them.”
Pope Francis: The church “strives to encourage, directly and indirectly, peaceful paths to the solution of the conflict, paths that are respectful of justice and law, including international law, which is the basis of security and coexistence in the entire region.”
A second beneficent feature of multilateralism is its “defense of those most vulnerable,” Francis said, citing the church’s efforts to help people suffering in eastern Ukraine because of “the conflict that has now lasted for almost five years and has recently seen troubling developments in the Black Sea.”
He said the church “strives to encourage, directly and indirectly, peaceful paths to the solution of the conflict, paths that are respectful of justice and law, including international law, which is the basis of security and coexistence in the entire region.”
He appealed yet again to the international community “to promote a political solution” to the conflict in Syria and “put an end to the violations of humanitarian law, which cause untold suffering to the civil population, especially women and children, and strike at essential structures such as hospitals, schools and refugee camps, as well as religious edifices.” He praised Jordan, Lebanon and European countries for giving refuge to displaced Syrians.
He noted with sadness that “in these years, Syria and more generally the whole Middle East have become a battleground for many conflicting interests” and said that “in addition to those of a chiefly political and military nature, we should not overlook attempts to foment hostility between Muslims and Christians.”
Noting the plight of the Christian population in the Middle East, he said “it is extremely important that Christians have a place in the future of the region” and described his forthcoming visits to the United Arab Emirates to Morocco as “important opportunities to advance interreligious dialogue and mutual understanding.”
Francis appealed to the international community “to defend not only refugees but also migrants” and “to provide assistance to all those forced to emigrate on account of the scourge of poverty and various forms of violence and persecution, as well as natural catastrophes and climatic disturbances, and to facilitate measures aimed at permitting their social integration in the receiving countries.”
The pope’s annual address to the diplomatic corps is closely monitored by states worldwide because of the moral authority of the pope and the diplomatic role of the Holy See.
He told the ambassadors that “the challenge of migration cannot be met with a mindset of violence and indifference, nor by offering merely partial solutions” and welcomed the approval of the two Global Compacts on “Refugees” and on “Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration,” concluded in December at a U.N. conference in Marrakech.
He spoke about the plight of the refugees and migrants from Venezuela and the need to build peace there through “institutional means.” He praised Colombia for giving hospitality to so many Venezuelan migrants.
Francis then went onto speak about other vulnerable groups: young people, children, women and workers. In this context, he called the abuse of minors “one of the vilest and most heinous crimes conceivable.”
“Such abuse inexorably sweeps away the best of what human life holds out for innocent children,” Pope Francis said, “and causes irreparable and lifelong damage.”
He assured the ambassadors that “the Holy See and the church as a whole are working to combat and prevent these crimes and their concealment, in order to ascertain the truth of the facts involving ecclesiastics and to render justice to minors who have suffered sexual violence aggravated by the abuse of power and conscience.” Moreover, he said, his “meeting with the episcopates of the entire world next February is meant to be a further step in the church’s efforts to shed full light on the facts and to alleviate the wounds caused by such crimes.”
He also spoke out against “the increase in violence against women” and said “there is an urgent need to recover correct and balanced forms of relationship, based on respect and mutual recognition.” At the same time, he said, “the promotion of certain forms of non-differentiation between the genders risks distorting the very essence of manhood and womanhood.”
Pope Francis expressed particular concern at “the fact that nuclear disarmament is now yielding to the search for new and increasingly sophisticated and destructive weapons.”
Then, turning to a third way in which multilateralism can protect humanity, Pope Francis emphasized the important role of the United Nations as “a bridge between peoples and builders of peace.”
In this context, he welcomed “the historic agreement” between Ethiopia and Eritrea that ended 20 years of conflict, the recent agreement between the leaders of South Sudan and the “positive signs” for peace in the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, he expressed concern at the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and said respect for the results of the recent elections is the key to peace. He expressed concern, too, at the “fundamentalist violence” in Mali, Niger and Nigeria.
He appealed once again to the international community to help Israelis and Palestinians agree on a two-state solution and achieve a lasting peace. He called for a “united commitment” by the international community to restore peace to Yemen and Iraq.
In the final part of his speech, Pope Francis focused on “a fourth feature” of multilateral diplomacy: “to rethink our common destiny,” specifically in relation to the arms race and climate change.
He lamented “that not only does the arms trade seem unstoppable but that there is in fact a widespread and growing resort to arms, on the part both of individuals and states.”
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the most authoritative observatory in this field, the volume of international transfers of major weapons rose by 10 percent between 2008 and 2017, reaching its highest level since the end of the Cold War. The five largest arms suppliers in 2013–17 were the United States, Russia, France, Germany and China. Together they accounted for 74 percent of the total global volume of exports of major weapons. Since 1950, the United States and Russia (or the Soviet Union before 1992) have consistently been by far the largest suppliers of arms to the international defense market.
Pope Francis expressed particular concern at “the fact that nuclear disarmament, generally called for and partially pursued in recent decades, is now yielding to the search for new and increasingly sophisticated and destructive weapons.” He reiterated what he told an international conference at the Vatican on disarmament in November 2017, that “we cannot fail to be genuinely concerned by the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects of any employment of nuclear devices. If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned. ”
He said it is also “immoral” to have these weapons and restated that “international relations cannot be held captive to military force, mutual intimidation and the parading of stockpiles of arms.”
Then turning to the need “to rethink our relationship with our planet,” Francis recalled that this year, too, “immense distress and suffering caused by heavy rains, flooding, fires, earthquakes and drought have struck the inhabitants of different regions of the Americas and Southeast Asia.”
Consequently, he said, “among the issues urgently calling for an agreement within the international community are care for the environment and climate change.” He welcomed the consensus reached at the recent international Conference on Climate Change (COP24) held in Katowice, Poland, and expressed the hope for “a more decisive commitment on the part of states to strengthening cooperation for urgently combating the worrisome phenomenon of global warming.”
Today, the Holy See has full diplomatic relations with 183 states, as well as diplomatic ties with the European Union, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and permanent observer status at the main international governmental organizations, including the United Nations (in New York and Geneva) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. It does not have diplomatic relations with 12 states: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Brunei, the People’s Republic of China, Comoros, Laos, Maldives, North Korea, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Tuvalu. The Holy See does maintain apostolic delegates to the Catholic community in four of these states—Brunei, Comoros, Laos and Somalia.