Roman Catholics and others throughout the United States have been struck by the odd spectacle of General Manuel Noriega's decision to seek temporary refuge in the Papal Nunciature in Panama. How ironic it is that just months after Guillermo Endara, the winner of the Panamanian election, escaped beatings and persecution by entering the Nunciature, General Noriega, the very man who thwarted that election, should seek refuge in this same place.
In this statement, I wish to respond to some of the concerns and the questions that have been raised regarding General Noriega's temporary presence in the Embassy.
I am convinced that the actions taken by the Nuncio in Panama were intended to save lives and not to hinder the course of justice and that all parties to the current discussions are seeking a solution which will serve justice without violating the principles of international law.
It should first of all be pointed out that, while Noriega's flight to the Embassy was an event unsought by the Church and complicates her mission, his acceptance into the Embassy clearly played the decisive role in bringing an end to the fighting in Panama.
Before Noriega sought refuge at the Vatican Embassy in Panama City on December 24, several hundred Panamanian civilians, 23 U.S. soldiers and 297 Panamanian soldiers had been killed and hundreds of others on both sides injured in the fighting which followed the U.S. intervention on December 20. But from the moment General Noriega was granted entrance into the Embassy, the fighting in Panama virtually ceased.
The statement of the bishops of the Panama City archdiocese issued on December 27 (attached) makes clear that the Apostolic Nuncio's primary objective in permitting General Noriega to enter the Nunciature was to bring a rapid end to the continued resistance of his supporters in order to avoid further loss of innocent lives. Vatican spokesman Dr. Joachin Navarro explained to journalists in Rome on December 27 that the Nuncio, Archbishop Jose Sebastian Laboa, had first demanded Noriega's pledge to cease hostilities as a pre-condition to his being allowed to seek temporary refuge. Dr. Navarro added that Noriega and those who entered the Nunciature with him are unarmed and that they have not been allowed any-contact with the outside world.
In their statement, the Panama City bishops note that "the Church has been, is and will always be in favor of the safeguarding of human life, no matter the ethical or political quality of the person concerned". In responding to a person's plea to protect his life, the Church makes no judgment on the quality of that life, and, people of every moral and religious persuasion, and sometimes of none, have sought the Church's protection down through the years. For the principle of diplomatic refuge to work, however, it must be honored with consistency; international law and policy do just that, and all the governments of the Americas, including the United States, have historically recognized that principle.
Delicate and complex discussions are now underway to deal with the question of the permanent fate of General Noriega. Since December 24, there have been frequent contacts between Vatican and U.S. officials, and these contacts continue daily. Dr. Navarro explained to the press on December 27 that there seems to be no legal way that a foreign embassy to one country, in this case to Panama, could hand over to a third country a person who had sought refuge in that embassy. While the Vatican would be pleased were General Noriega to choose to abandon the Nunciature on his own, it cannot force him to leave nor hand him over to American authorities without violating the principles of international law. Our hope and prayer is that a solution can be worked out which will respect international law, Panamanian sovereignty, legitimate U.S. interests and the unique and vital role of the Holy See in world affairs.
As pastors, we offer our prayers and our sympathy to those in both the United States and in Panama who lost loved ones or suffered injury in the fighting in recent days. Now that the hostilities have ceased, our further prayer is that the Prince of Peace, whose coming the whole Church is celebrating these days, may bring Panama genuine peace and true justice in the New Year and the years ahead.