What should be the role of the Holy See at the United Nations?

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An Interview with Serra Sippel, Director of the See Change Campaign at Catholics for Free Choice, by Renu Mandhane.
There is much confusion between the Holy See, the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church.
What is the Holy See and what is its status at the United Nations?

The Holy See is the government of Vatican City and the Roman Catholic Church. It consists of the Pope, the Roman Curia (the various departments and institutes that assist the pope in running the church), and the College of Cardinals. Vatican City is the temporal residence of both the Holy See and the Roman Catholic church. It is the world’s smallest “city-state” at 108.7 acres. The Roman Catholic church is a religious society with 1 billion adherents worldwide, with the pope as its head.

The Holy See is a non-member state with permanent observer status at the UN. This means that the Holy See can participate in world conferences and other agenda-setting meetings, but cannot vote in the General Assembly. Until recently, Switzerland also held non-member state permanent observer status; it was admitted as a full member in September 2002. As such, the Holy See is the only entity with non-member state permanent observer status.

Recently, the Vatican has issued two statements suggesting that the Holy See will seek full membership in the UN. This would be unprecedented since all other religious organizations participate in the United Nations as non-governmental organizations. In fact, the Holy See is the only religion to hold the status of non-member state permanent observer.

A lot of countries have religious governments that vote in the United Nations, why shouldn’t the Holy See be given such an opportunity?

First, such religious governments are governments of legitimate states, unlike the Holy See which is not a state. The four criteria for statehood are a permanent population, defined territory, government, and capacity to enter into international relations with other states. The Holy See can only establish the last criterion, namely that it has diplomatic ties with states. This does not qualify it as a state for the purposes of non-member permanent observer status or for full membership in the UN.

Second, unlike religious governments of states that have voting rights in the UN and participate in world conferences that impact their countries, the Holy See is solely concerned with religious doctrine and does not face any of the other political or social responsibilities of running a state. As such, the Holy See is not constrained by the demands of running a state when it participates in UN meetings ­ it is only concerned with advancing the Catholic faith.

What are the implications for women’s human rights of the Holy See’s participation in the United Nations?

Since the Holy See is able to participate fully in UN conferences and meetings, it routinely negotiates on public policies that affect women’s human rights. Working within the Catholic faith and tradition, the Holy See condemns all forms of artificial contraception, including emergency contraception for rape victims; and opposes the use of condoms to reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS. The Holy See is anti-choice and denies that access to safe abortion is a public health issue.

The Holy See seeks to inform public policy to conform to the tenets of the Roman Catholic religion. Since the Holy See is confined by religious doctrine, it is not open to persuasion like other states negotiating around such issues. At the five-year review of the International Conference on Population and Development (“Cairo+5”) the Holy See rejected efforts by legitimate states to strengthen women’s rights and reproductive and sexual rights.

What is the “See Change” campaign?

The “See Change” Campaign came out of a petition to change the status of the Holy See at the UN at the International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo in 1994. Interest in the petition prompted the initiation of a formal campaign five years later at Cairo+5.

The Campaign is a broad alliance of more than 700 organizations from 80 countries worldwide, representing tens of thousands of individuals. Broadly, the Campaign seeks to educate people about the Holy See’s status in the UN and bring attention to the fact that it is the only religion to hold such a privileged status. More specifically, The “See Change” Campaign asks that the UN Secretary General, Koffi Anan, to open an official review into the status of the Holy See at the UN. The eventual aim is to have the Holy See’s non-member state permanent observer status changed to non-governmental organization (like all other religious groups represented at the UN).

As a Catholic organization, how do you respond to those who claim that the See Change campaign is “un-Catholic”?

The “See Change” Campaign is not anti-Catholic. The Campaign seeks to protect the right of all religions to participate equally at the UN. In the end, the Campaign is about the proper role of religion in politics, not about religion itself. Religions should not act as governments and Church leaders should not act as politicians.

In any case, it is arguable that the Roman Catholic Church would be able to more effectively represent Catholic viewpoints as an NGO at the UN since it could offer its religious perspective without being bogged down by politics and negotiations.

Finally, a change in the Holy See’s status at the UN is unlikely to affect the Pope’s status as an esteemed religious leader. The change in status at the UN is a political consideration that has little bearing on the Catholic faith.

How can interested organizations or individuals become involved in The “See Change” Campaign?

Interested individuals or organizations should visit www.seechange.org to learn more about the campaign. Individuals are urged to sign a post card, and to become activists by distributing postcards at work, in meetings, and to their friends and families.

Organizations, especially those working for women’s, reproductive and LGBT rights, are urged to officially endorse the campaign and take it on as part of their own strategies for furthering human rights.

For further information, contact info@seechange.org; or write 1436 U Street, NW, Suite 301, Washington, DC 20009, USA, Fax: + 1 (202) 332-7995