Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See's permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva, appealed for recourse, when necessary, to "humanitarian intervention" in order to guarantee the fundamental rights of refugees.
He delivered that message last week when addressing a session of the Executive Committee of the Program of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
The rights accorded "to the refugees in international instruments too often remain mere words," Archbishop Tomasi told his audience.
"Continuing warfare still obliges numerous people to leave their homes because of fear of persecution, human rights violations, harassment and widespread violence with a systematic use of rape as a war tactic," he said.
"The cost of such forced movements is very high: the sufferings of people, the loss of lives, the process of eventually rebuilding society," said Archbishop Tomasi, a member of the Scalabrini Missionaries, who until recently was apostolic nuncio in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
"International human rights and humanitarian law oblige governments to provide for the security and well-being of all those under their jurisdiction," the prelate told his listeners.
"In particular, each citizen has a right to protection by his or her country. If however a state fails to or cannot take this responsibility, and the human rights of a population continue to be trampled upon, then the international community can and should assert its concern, step in and take on this obligation," he urged.
The Vatican delegate referred to John Paul II's Message for World Day of Peace in January 2000, in which he addressed the thorny question of "humanitarian intervention."
"Clearly," the Pope said in the message, "when a civilian population risks being overcome by the attacks of an unjust aggressor and political efforts and non-violent defense prove to be of no avail, it is legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor.
"These measures however must be limited in time and precise in their aims," Archbishop Tomasi said, continuing to quote the Holy Father. "They must be carried out in full respect for international law, guaranteed by an authority that is internationally recognized and, in any event, never left to the outcome of armed intervention alone."
He continued, citing the Pope's message: "The fullest and the best use must therefore be made of all the provisions of the United Nations Charter, further defining effective instruments and modes of intervention within the framework of international law. In this regard, the United Nations Organization itself must offer all its member states an equal opportunity to be part of the decision-making process, eliminating privileges and discriminations which weaken its role and its credibility."
"The timeliness of this intervention is critical to save lives and a test of the international community's commitment to the cause of refugees," concluded the Vatican representative in Geneva.
In an interview published Sept. 22 in the Turin newspaper La Stampa, the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, revealed that in the context of the process of U.N. reform, the Holy See will propose the addition of a new principle, "humanitarian intervention," to the U.N. Charter.