NGOs Call For Review of U.N. Status of Holy See
Mithre J. Sandrasagra
Inter Press Service, March 14, 2000

A coalition of over 450 women's and human rights groups worldwide, led by Catholics For a Free Choice (CFFC), have launched a campaign calling for a review of the Holy See's status at the United Nations.

At a press conference today, Frances Kissling, president of CFFC, said that, "to grant state status and special privileges to this religion (Roman Catholicism) over all others is simply unfair."

No other religion is recognized as a state in the United Nations, although many participate as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), she added. Of the NGOs participating in the campaign are some of the United Nations's largest and most active, including the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Equality Now, the Sierra Club, the American Humanist Association, the Feminist Majority and hundreds of others from more than 40 countries.

The high-profile opposition of the Vatican to family planning, abortion and condoms for AIDS prevention seems to have served to alert supporters of the campaign -- formally called the "See Change" Campaign -- to the question of the legal statehood of the Holy See and its implications for the privileged role it plays at the United Nations.

Anika Rahman, director of international programs at the Center For Reproductive Law and Policy, told reporters today that the Holy See's status at the United Nations, "is as if the Soviet Union's Politburo had had the right to Non-Member State Observer status at the U.N."

Speaking not as a Roman Catholic but an Evangelical Christian, Peter C. Smith of the International Right to Life Federation said he does not recognize "the authority of NGOs to request the removal of any delegation from the U.N."

He went on to laud the unique role of the Holy See as an intermediary between delegations here, saying that "the Holy See represents neither rich nor poor, East nor West, North nor South."

"At the U.N., the Roman Catholic Church is uniquely positioned to influence international policy and deliberations on a wide range of issues, including international economic development and women's status," Rahman said.

However, the CFFC has always held the position that having no women, girls or even male children as citizens, the Vatican has no basis to form opinions on issues relating to women or family.

Additionally, the Holy See has neither signed nor ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), called the international "Bill of Rights of Women," ratified by 165 of the 188 member states.

In fact, the Holy See has not signed or ratified any women's rights treaty at all, according to CFFC.

The church has also dealt harshly with women who disagree with it on issues of sexuality, the group says. Women are absent from senior positions within dioceses and on the pontifical councils that advise the Pope on issues of family and sexuality.

According to CFFC, the Pope is quoted as saying of women who had been raped in Bosnia that they "should accept the enemy" and make him "flesh of their flesh" rather than take emergency contraception.

In many African countries where women are increasingly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, the Holy See has consistently attempted to block or undermine safe sex programs.

Bene Madunagu, executive chairman of the Girls' Power Initiative (GPI) in Nigeria, noted the devastating impact of the Catholic hierarchy's opposition to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa.

"Faced with the devastation that AIDS is causing in countries across Africa, the Holy See has coldly reiterated its ban on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. The Church leadership continues to pose serious obstacles to AIDS prevention at both an international and local level," Madunagu said.

Slamming the "hypocrisy and double standard of the Vatican," Amparo Claro, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Women's Health Network, said that "on the surface they posture and seem to defend women, but in reality they are working to deny access to reproductive health services."

At the current session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the Vatican opposed the use of the word "services," putting it in brackets to signify opposition. By bracketing "services," the Vatican effectively blocked a consensus resolution that women do require health and reproductive services.

In fact, it is "precisely the poorest women," whom Roman Catholicism claims to represent, "that are in the most dire need of these types of programs," Rahman said. "If the Holy See were acting as it properly should as the Roman Catholic Church, it would indeed roundly condemn China by name for sponsoring legal abortion, family planning and the one child policy."

"But when the Holy See acts as a government and is busy in diplomatic circles trying to get recognized as a state by China, it mutes its opposition to these Chinese policies," Kissling said. She was surprised that no nations have spoken out in favor of the "See Change" Campaign. However, it is significant to note that no countries have spoken out in opposition to it as well.

A trio of Republicans in the U.S. Congress have introduced a resolution warning the United Nations not to downgrade the status of the Vatican, cautioning that any diminution of the Vatican's rights would "further damage relations between the United States and the U.N."

It should come as no surprise, however, that Republican members of Congress should attempt to assuage the current charges of anti-Catholicism against Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush by attempting to pass a resolution lauding the exploits of the Holy See at the United Nations.

All the same, no "observer" has ever been downgraded in the history of the global body. Such a change would require approval of the secretary-general, the president of the 188-member General Assembly and a majority vote by member states.

"All of which seems unlikely," said U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq, who compared change in the Holy See's status to "Taiwan's annual ill-fated attempts to win U.N. membership."