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Letters & Op-Eds - 2001

USA today

Church and State at the United Nations

Frances Kissling

1 November 2001

"At most UN conferences, the Vatican is granted the full status enjoyed by member states, including not only a voice, but a vote."

There is increasing concern that the traditional barriers between church and state in the U.S. are under threat. Pres. Bush's decision to set up a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has caused considerable debate about the role religion should play in public policy and the delivery of social services. There is public anxiety that granting Federal funds to religious organizations would allow them to further their religious aims while also providing social services. Religious groups have discriminated in hiring, and Catholic health care providers have refused to dispense legally available reproductive health services while availing themselves of government money.

Similar concerns about the separation of church and state have been heard at the United Nations. There is distress regarding the increased role religion is playing in the forging of public policy. Since the 1992 Rio Conference on the environment, many diplomats and nongovernmental organizations have noticed increasing activity by the Roman Catholic Church, which has a unique and privileged status at the UN. While the Catholic Church has used its position to speak out for the poor and dispossessed, it has also used its status to create obstacles to policy decisions based on its religious tenets, not the common good.

Conservative religious organizations, Catholic and otherwise, are also playing an increasingly prominent role at the UN. According to a recent report, "The presence of right-wing anti-feminist groups at the United Nations has been intensifying since the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt in 1994 [and] it would appear that several of these groups receive sustained support from the Vatican and other religious bodies." One of the more prominent is the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. Its director, Austin Ruse, summoned hundreds of "pro-family and pro-life advocates" to the UN in 2000 to fight against "the Beijing Platform for Action…one of the most radical and dangerous documents you can imagine. … You will work alongside Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims and Mormons…We are the children of Abraham arising to fight for faith and family." Ruse is not afraid to upset UN protocol either. In a recent speech, he said that "we broke every single rule of UN lobbying, which forbids leafleting. … [S]omething like pandemonium ensued."

Imagine the furor if a diplomat at the UN argued that condoms cause AIDS; women who had been raped in war should not be allowed to use emergency contraception; women in developing countries have no interest in individual rights, but only want to serve the community; UNICEF should not be supported because it was no longer a children's agency and was involved in abortion; and adolescents have no right to confidential sexuality education. Yet, these positions are regularly taken by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church - a "country" that many people are shocked to hear exists, and outraged when they learn the United Nations has accorded it the status of a state (albeit a non-member one).

More disturbing is the fact that such positions are taken in the face of life-and-death tragedies. Six hundred thousand women die each year from complications associated with pregnancy, and 80,000 from botched illegal abortions. During 1999, about 5,400,000 people were infected with HIV, 620,000 of them children 14 or under, and as many as 2,800,000 deaths resulted from HIV/AIDS.

While the World Council of Churches, Muslim World League, World Fellowship of Buddhists, and Baha'i International Community, among others, attend the United Nations as nongovernmental organizations, the Roman Catholic Church has the extraordinary honor of full voting privileges at UN conferences where most UN policy is decided.

This situation is not without opposition. The "See Change" Campaign, a broad-based alliance of more than 600 organizations from 80 countries and tens of thousands of individuals, is seeking to correct this anomaly. Progressive Catholic organizations, women's rights groups, gay rights organizations, and those interested in development and environmental issues have come together to lobby the UN to open a review of the Vatican's status, with the aim of having it represented as a nongovernmental organization (NGO), as other religions are. The campaign urges sending the following messge to Secretary-General Kofi Annan:

"As a UN Non-member State Permanent Observer, the Holy See often enjoys unique status as a voting partner with countries at UN conferences. Granting governmental privileges to what is in reality a religious body is questionable statecraft. While the Holy See-the government of the Roman Catholic Church-has made positive contributions through the United Nations to peace and justice, this should not be used to justify granting the status of a state to a religious institution.

"Governmental participation in the UN should be reserved for actual states. The world's religions have been well represented through non-governmental organizational status. With NGO status, the Roman Catholic church would be able to continue its participation in the UN-like the World Council of Churches-without ambiguity or privilege. We call upon you to open an official review of the Holy See's status at the UN."

The Vatican enjoys the status of a Non-member State Permanent Observer. Only Switzerland, which chose that status for reasons of neutrality, is on an equal footing. It is important to note that, while there are several other tiers of permanent observer, no others may sit on the floor of the UN with the state members.

Questions concerning the Roman Catholic Church's unique role at the UN are not new. At news conferences during a 1995 international women's conference in Beijing, China, representatives of the Vatican were repeatedly asked about their peculiar UN status. The Vatican had clearly anticipated the issue and had prepared responses designed to portray the controversial matter as long-settled. "It is an interesting question, but one which was settled many centuries ago when the countries of the world began exchanging ambassadors," said Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a Vatican spokesman.

One of the most noted experts on the subject is Hyginus Eugene Cardinale, a senior member of the Vatican hierarchy. In a book entitled The Holy See and the International Order, he noted that "the Vatican City State was not established with an autonomous purpose, but as a means to support a religious body."

Vatican representatives themselves frequently maintain that the Holy See acts as a religious body, not as a state, in the United Nations. For example, the first time Pope John Paul II addressed the UN General Assembly in 1979, he stated: "Of course the nature and aims of the spiritual mission of the Apostolic See and the church make their participation in the tasks and activities of the United Nations organization very different from that of the states, which are communities in the political and temporal sense."

However commentators and the Vatican's own representatives characterize its role and status, there is no doubt that it does not meet international legal definitions of statehood. The internationally accepted Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (1933) names four qualifications for a state: a permanent population, a defined territory, government, and capacity to enter into relations with the other states. Moreover, according to the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, "The only characteristic of a modern state that is attributable to the Holy See is its capacity to enter into relations with other states. The Holy See is party to international treaties, and it receives foreign envoys."

Problematic Positions

In recent years, the United Nations has become an important venue for policy discussions on public health issues, including sexuality and reproduction. Since the UN works on a consensus basis, even a small group of delegations can have a controlling presence. Therefore, the Vatican, relying on sectarian religious positions, can, and does, obstruct consensus reached by member nations at international meetings on critical issues such as family planning and public health policy. At most UN conferences, the Vatican is granted the full status enjoyed by member states, including not only a voice, but also a vote. During debates, the Vatican, alone among the world's religions, can make as many interventions as a member state.

The Catholic Church's most visible position relates to the use of family planning. The Vatican, of course, remains officially opposed to all family planning methods except periodic abstinence. Moreover, the Vatican continues to forbid the use of condoms for protection against sexually transmitted diseases, even for married couples in which one partner has HIV. Catholic theologians, clergy, and laity the world over have soundly rejected these teachings. Many Catholics use contraception, and they believe they are acting morally in doing so. Having failed to convince Catholics to follow this teaching, the church leadership has moved into the public policy arena to block access to contraception-even for non-Catholics. This political work, which affects Catholics and non-Catholics alike, also includes obstructing efforts to broaden sexuality education programs and to improve and expand prevention programs on HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The Roman Catholic Church's religious tenets regarding sexuality and reproduction make it next to impossible for its representatives to participate in policy debates with the same public health concerns and openness to compromise that inform state policy. Instead, it attempts to conform public policies to its religiously based views. With the church's rigid insistence on its position as universal - to which all people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, are subject - its UN role is increasingly viewed as inappropriate and untenable. The Vatican's public policy positions on reproductive health have been rejected by the majority of Catholics and by every other major world religion.

This problem was especially acute at recent UN meetings on women and population and development. The Vatican delegation opposed numerous proposals, including calls for the provision of emergency contraception to refugees, promotion of condoms to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS, inclusion of sexuality education in school curricula, and training and equipping health care workers to ensure that, where abortion is legal, it is safe and accessible.

The Vatican's attempts to block consensus on these issues at the UN fueled the already active campaign by nongovernmental organizations to change the Vatican's status at the United Nations. The "See Change" Campaign has attracted significant support and vehement opposition from conservative groups, including the ultimate accolade for a campaign that is making its mark on the world -- a counter-campaign.

Usually, United Nations proceedings are conducted in an atmosphere with enough diplomatic nicety to put any insomniac to sleep. Imagine the reaction to a senior government official from the British delegation to a UN conference accusing the Vatican of playing a "deeply obstructive role" and of being in an "unholy alliance with reactionary forces." Clare Short, the United Kingdom's international development secretary, and a Catholic herself, accused the Roman Catholic Church of just that, and of steering a "morally destructive course" that would lead to an increased incidence of illegal abortion, unwanted pregnancy, and HIV/AIDS. Moreover, during a meeting in New York in 2000 to review progress made since the conference on women in Beijing, Pierre Sane, former head of the international human rights organization Amnesty International, criticized "the unholy alliance formed by the Holy See, Iran, Algeria, Nicaragua, Syria, Libya, Morocco and Pakistan [that] has attempted to hold [for] ransom women's human rights" at UN conferences.

While there is much positive input that the Vatican has contributed to issues that are discussed at the UN, a commitment to a secular, plural statecraft rules out state status for any religion. The positive contributions of the Vatican can just as easily be made if it were an NGO, like the world's other religions.

In November, 2000, three Dutch parliamentarians issued a statement in support of The "See Change" Campaign. Lousewies van der Laan, Elly Plooij van Goorsel and Joke Swiebel argued that the Vatican's privileged position at the UN forces the organization into serious policy compromises on women and youth. "The consequences of these concessions are especially visible in poor countries where thousands of women die as a result of illegal abortions, and millions are contaminated by the AIDS virus," they said. In Italy, Member of Parliament Marco Pannella, called for the Vatican's status as a separate country to be abolished. He maintained that the Vatican was "using the holy water sprinkler to bless the baton ... against science, conscience, democracy and tolerance, if not worse: against the lives of millions of people." Belgian parliamentarians Bart Staes and Kathleen Van Brempt issued their own statement in favor of the campaign. Irish, British, German, and Swedish parliamentarians have lent their support to it as well.

Questions about the Vatican's status at the UN cannot be ignored. International issues of population, health, and development are too important to allow a nongovernmental entity such as the Roman Catholic Church power that no other religion shares. That is not an argument to allow each and every religion similar status, but quite the reverse. No religion should have privileged status at the UN or in any other policymaking body, nor should any religion be given the opportunity to influence detrimentally the lives and health of women, men or children, wherever they live.

Frances Kissling is president, Catholics for a Free Choice, Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in the 1 November 2001 edition of USA Today.