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21. The Vatican’s U. N. Status Challenged

Source: MS., October/November 1999, Title: “Giving the Vatican the Boot,” Author: Laura Flanders

Faculty Evaluator: Laurel Holmstrom
Student Researchers: Corey Hale & Katie Anderson

Mainstream coverage: Although some aspects of this story did receive coverage in the New York Times and other papers, the extent and reasons behind the Vatican’s power in the U.N. were not explored.

A special delegation to the Vatican, the Holy See, holds a position in the United Nations that is more powerful than any other non-governmental organization (NGO). As a “nonmember state permanent observer,” the Vatican enjoys the same status as politically neutral Switzerland. When confronted about its problematic “nation” status, the thousand-member male population of the Vatican City legitimizes its position by claiming to be the representative of “the entire people of God.” In its position as a nonmember state permanent observer, the Holy See does not have a vote in the General Assembly, but it can speak, lobby, and negotiate on virtually equal footing with any nation.

During more heated proceedings, the priests circulate through the hall, shaking hands and distributing literature to the delegates. This action is a privilege not available to any other NGO. For example, the Vatican wields this power to promote its agendas by threatening to “pull out” of any of the 300,000 health care facilities it owns worldwide if the U.N. should attempt to force any of those facilities to provide abortion services or contraception services. This threat creates a hostage situation for poorer countries who are reliant on the church for poverty relief and basic health care. As governments around the world—such as the U.S.—farm out more health care services to private operators, including the Catholic Church, these countries become more vulnerable to having the Catholic Church’s doctrine imposed upon them.

Last spring, the See Change Campaign was launched by over 100 international women’s, religious, and reproductive rights groups, to challenge the Vatican’s power in the U.N., and to downgrade its status from a nonmember state to a traditional NGO. This campaign was spearheaded by Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC). According to Kissling, “the Vatican occupies 100 square acres of office space and tourist attractions in the middle of Rome, with a citizenry that excludes women and children … and should not have a place at the table where governments set policies affecting the very survival of women and children….”

When U.N. committees try to create consensus on issues involving reproductive rights or contraception, the Holy See is the one consistently dissenting organization. In the case of using condoms for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV and AIDS, the Holy See’s representatives declare, “We cannot approve.” This scene was played out in 1999, at the Cairo+5 conference, which recognized women’s empowerment and reproductive health as keys to stemming global population growth. During the conference, the Holy See stalled proceedings for days over language in the final document. In this capacity, the papacy sets its political perimeter not only around a country but around the world.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR LAURA FLANDERS: The United Nations spends lots of time pondering the world’s approach to the environment, development, and people’s social and political rights. Drop in on one of the organizations’ massive conferences, and you will see 185 member nations trying to reach agreement on complex documents that aim to set policy for the globe. From abortion to children’s education, the U.N. has a policy document addressing it. That policy is drawn up by the 185 member-nations and one nonmember state—the Holy See, the governing body of the Catholic Church.

The Vatican, the only non-governmental organization, is permitted to debate in the General Assembly, vote on policy at conferences and lobby nation representatives from the floor of the hall, while NGOs are restricted to watching from afar. This consideration has irked women’s rights advocates for decades—as they have found themselves at odds with the Church on reproductive rights and health education time and again.

Back in 1995, at the U.N. conference on Women in Beijing, close to 10,000 people signed on to a letter asking the Secretary-General to review the Holy See’s status. Still, it has only been in the last year, at the five-year anniversary of the U.N. conference on Population in Cairo, that the campaign has gathered steam. If the Vatican is a state, then Euro-Disney deserves a place on the Security Council, says Kissling. At last count, more than 250 groups from around the world had joined with CFEC in the effort to change the Vatican’s diplomatic rank.

The See Change story received some coverage this summer and fall, as the General Assembly met. Described as “quixotic” by Legal Times (August 16, 1999), the effort has typically been portrayed as a dispute between Kissling and the Vatican (ignoring the powerful groups from South and Central America that are leading participants), and solely about abortion—though the See’s interventions go way beyond that. For instance, this spring, the Church’s opposition prevented U.N. peacekeepers from distributing RU-486 to rape victims in Kosovo. The larger question raised by the See Change campaign remains woefully under-reported: the Vatican’s growing power.

With 300,000 health facilities worldwide, the Roman Catholic Church is a major global health provider. When challenged to provide abortion services, the church repeatedly responds that if forced, it will stop health services. As governments privatize social services worldwide, and more and more public hospitals fall under Catholic Church control, the Vatican’s power grows. As an adamantly anonymous source in the Secretary General’s office put it—the Secretary General’s no match for the Pope.

For more information on the See Change Campaign, you can contact Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) 1436 U St., NW, Washington DC 20009. Tel: (202) 986-6093; Fax: (202) 332-7995; E-mail: CFFC@igc.apc.org; Web site:http://www.seechange.org

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