Unfulfilled: The Holy See Backs off from Its Claim for Full Membership of the UN, Settling for the Rights Already Held by Palestine

Article excerpt

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 Nonmember 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.)


The Holy See has used its position to obstruct consensus on important documents relating to women's and reproductive rights, most notably at the i994 International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo; the 2995 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 i998 debate over setting up the International Criminal Court, when the Vatican strove to exclude "forced pregnancy" from a proposed list of war crimes. In 2999, 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. …