Time for UN to jettison Vatican?
Eamonn McCann
Belfast Telegraph (Northern Ireland), November 29, 2000

Is it time for a "See-change" at the United Nations? A group of Dutch Euro-MPs thinks so, and has launched a campaign for the removal of the Vatican from the world body. The move is in protest against the Vatican's role in blocking decisions on women's rights and AIDS.

The presence of the Vatican at the UN is one of the most curious anomalies of the age.

It is commonly assumed the situation arises from the status of Vatican City as a State. It isn't Vatican City which is recognised at the UN but the Holy See.

The Vatican City dates from the Lateran Treaty of 1929, negotiated between Pius XI and Mussolini with a view to ring-fencing Church property and central administration from the laws of the surrounding society.

The Holy See is a more nebulous affair, defining itself as "the supreme organ of both the Catholic church and the Vatican City State." It has no temporal or territorial existence, but nevertheless conducts international relations as the "juridical personification of the Church."

The Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with 157 countries. Its status at the UN is as a Non-Member State Permanent Observer (NMSPO).

The designation originated in 1946, to make provision for Switzerland - affiliated to international bodies within the UN's remit but constitutionally barred from taking up UN membership.

In 1951, Pius XII, citing the Vatican City's affiliation to two international bodies, the Universal Postal Union and the International Telecommunication Union, claimed a comparable right, and appointed an auxiliary bishop from New York to attend the UN on a part-time basis.

By 1964, the presence of the bishop at UN Plaza had become accepted as custom and practice. Then, Paul VI wrote to Secretary General U Thant, announcing that the Holy See wished formally to appoint a Permanent Observer on the Swiss model.

There was no discussion of the proposal in any UN forum. But within three weeks, U Thant had replied, welcoming the "Holy See" as the organisation's second NMSPO.

Ever since, nominees of the Pope have been able to attend and speak but not to vote in the General Assembly and to participate fully in UN-sponsored international bodies.

The Holy See is now a member of the World Health Organisation, UNESCO, the International Atomic Energy Agency and so forth. It also plays a prominent role in gatherings such as the Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio in 1992, the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and so on.

It has led the way in blocking initiatives which it considers out of line with Catholic teaching.

The Cairo conference launched a Programme of Action to address "the critical challenges of interrelationships between population and sustained economic growth in the context of sustainable development." The years since have been marked by Holy See-led efforts to prevent the programme being put into practice.

The Holy See is particularly opposed to the Programme's acceptance of the "right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children, and to have the information and means to do so."

It was the Holy See's role in relation to Cairo which prompted the Dutch group, led by MEPs Lousewies van der Laan, Elly Plooij van Goorsel, and Jok Swiebel, members of the three parties in the Dutch coalition, to launch their campaign.

They point out that Vatican attempts to stymie the promotion of condoms in AIDS-ravaged Africa is in direct contradiction to EU-supported programmes.

"The consequences are especially visible in poor countries where millions of women die as a result of illegal abortions, and millions are contaminated by the AIDS virus," they say.

The group stresses that it is not anti-Catholic but merely "wishes the Catholic Church to have the same role as other religions".

Many will agree that what they are saying is sound and simple commonsense.