The Holy See backs off from its claim for full membership of the UN,
settling for the rights already held by Palestine.

By Serra Sippel

After skillful lobbying and diplomacy, including a year and a half of publicly announcing that it was considering full membership of the United Nations, the Holy See “settled” for an increase in its rights as a Non-member State Permanent Observer. But the full membership the Holy See apparently sought was not forthcoming.

On July 1, 2004, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution (A/RES/58/314) granting the Holy See new rights for participation in the General Assembly, but made no change in the Holy See’s status as Non-member State Permanent Observer. The Holy See is the only entity to hold such status since Switzerland became a full member in 2002.

The UN resolution to grant extra rights rather than full membership to the Holy See was adopted without a vote. The resolution was sought in part, according to a spokesperson from the office of the president of the General Assembly, because not every country recognizes the Holy See as a state. UN insiders report that new rights for participation in the General Assembly accorded to Palestine in 1998 (A/RES/52/250) played a role in their decision. Palestine has a standing invitation to participate as an observer and maintain a permanent office at the UN and is thus one rung below the Holy See in the UN pecking order. It was felt, apparently, that not to accord the same rights for participation in the General Assembly to the Holy See—or to remove the current status of the Holy See which was considered by some in this process—might leave Palestine’s status in a precarious position.

It is not surprising that the Holy See accepted increased rights over full membership if some were in fact considering downgrading its status. The pope himself has acknowledged the parlous nature of the Holy See’s “state” status. Speaking with Vladimir Putin, he said, “Look out the window. What kind of state do I have here? You can see my whole state right from this window.” (Daniel Williams, “For ailing pope, many projects remain unfinished,” Washington Post, October 7, 2003.)

With full membership not on the agenda, and with the Holy See as the only Non-member State Permanent Observer at the UN, Ambassador Marcello Spatafora, Permanent Representative of Italy, stepped in to avert what might have become an acute embarrassment for the Holy See if its status was downgraded. According to Archbishop Celestino Migliore of the Permanent Mission of the Holy See, Ambassador Spatafora “skillfully” facilitated consultations with the President and Department for the General Assembly on the draft resolution (A/58/PV/92). Consequently, the President of the General Assembly, the Honorable Julian R. Hunte of St. Lucia, submitted the draft resolution (A/58/L.64) as a presidential text. (Weeks later the Vatican rewarded Hunte with the prestigious Knight of the Grand Cross Pian Order, the highest papal award given to laypeople.)

Obstructionist Policies
The Holy See has used its position to obstruct consensus on important documents relating to women’s and reproductive rights, most notably at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo; the 1995 World Summit for Social Development, in Copenhagen; and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing. Specific examples of its role include opposition during the 1998 debate over setting up the International Criminal Court, when the Vatican strove to exclude “forced pregnancy” from a proposed list of war crimes. In 1999, the Vatican used its position at the UN to condemn the provision of emergency contraception to women who had been raped during the conflict in Kosovo, and in 2001 to condemn the use of condoms for hiv/aids prevention. While the extra rights granted to the Holy See may not necessarily increase its ability to intervene and obstruct consensus at the UN, its new powers may embolden it to seek restrictions on women’s and reproductive rights.

Anti-family planning organizations that work on UN-related issues attempted to gloss over the slight. Austin Ruse, who, according to the National Catholic Register, called the Holy See the UN’s “moral conscience” and urged it to pursue permanent- member status “immediately” (NCR, May 23-29, 2004), tried to present the UN decision as a victory, while meekly acknowledging that the move was merely a “clarification of the prerogatives of the Vatican” as a permanent observer.

Dangerous Precedents
The Vatican was created in 1929 under the terms of the Lateran Treaty between Italy’s then fascist government under Benito Mussolini and Pietro Cardinale Gasparri, secretary of state to Pope Pius XI. Since gaining international status, the state status of the Holy See has been questioned. In 1944, Secretary of State Cordell Hull questioned the Holy See’s eligibility for UN membership. (James Crawford, The Creation of States in International Law, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), p156.)

Hyginus Eugene Cardinale, a former Vatican diplomat who wrote the authoritative work on the Holy See on international relations, has admitted the questionable state status of the Holy See, when he noted, “The Holy See is not a state, but is accepted as being on the same footing as a state.” (Hyginus Eugene Cardinale, The Holy See and the International Order, 1976.)

It is as perplexing as it is troubling that the UN member states agreed to expand rights for a “monarchical-sacerdotal state whose head of state is head of the Roman Catholic church.” (“Vatican could become full UN member,” Agence France Press, June 30, 2003.) The former Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the question of religious intolerance, Mr. Abdelfattah Amor, in a report submitted to the 56th session of the Commission on Human Rights (E/CN.4/2000/65), explained his visit to the Holy See in its capacity as a “religious institution.” He describes the visit as “untypical” in that although the Holy See has juridical personality as a state, it was visited because of its significance as a religious institution (Article 117). An obvious question comes to mind, How can the UN arbitrarily choose when to address the Holy See as a church or state, and who decides?

According to a legal officer in the UN Office for Legal Affairs, there are two conditions for statehood qualification at the UN: 1) if the entity is a member of a UN specialized agency; and 2) if the entity is a full member of the United Nations. The former applies to the Holy See and to the UN legal officer this is sound policy.

However, as the Center for Reproductive Rights has pointed out, there are several problems with treating the Holy See as a state. The internationally accepted
Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States defines a state as follows: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”

The Holy See does not satisfy this definition for a number of reasons: 1) It cannot be said to have a “permanent population” because the Holy See is the governing body of Catholics worldwide and not a territory; 2) For the same reasons, it does not possess a defined territory; 3) It did not when it joined the UN in 1964 have diplomatic relations with a majority of member states in the UN. (As late as 1985, it had diplomatic relations with only 53 countries, and it was not until 1984 that the US established diplomatic relations.); 4) The Holy See is defined by the church as the “supreme organ of government” of the Roman Catholic church. Clearly, a government of a religion cannot be considered a state; and, 5) In the normal course of events, most ordinary state functions within the Vatican are actually carried out by Italy, which provides a police force and punishes crimes committed within Vatican City and maintains the water and railway systems for the area.

For many, it is clear that the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic church, is not a state. For others, even some within the United Nations system, its status remains questionable. The Holy See has stepped up its efforts to play a larger role in the UN to regain the lost credibility caused by several factors: its opposition to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of hiv/aids, the global sexual abuse scandal, its refusal to treat women equally and The “See Change” Campaign—an international effort supported by more than 700 international organizations from 80 countries which believe that the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic church, should participate in the UN in the same way as the world’s other religions do—as a nongovernmental organization. (For more information, visit www.seechange.org.)

Contrary to the official silence in the UN missions on this matter, a number of European parliamentarians have expressed concern that their foreign ministries did not oppose the expansion of rights and are in the process of questioning their representatives in New York on the matter. The UN action emphasizes the importance of greater vigilance on the part of NGOs in reviewing the UN agenda and lobbying missions. Contact with a number of missions showed that they were completely unaware that the action had been presented and passed in the General Assembly.

While the Holy See may be resting now, feeling secure in its new rights, recent events should serve to galvanize the ongoing efforts to call into question the dubious status of the Holy See at the United Nations.

Serra Sippel is the director of the International Program at CFFC.