Vatican Role at U.N. Questioned
Ellen Sung, June 9, 2000

Five years after the landmark U.N. Women's Conference in Beijing, China, a follow-up U.N. conference on women's issues was held this week in New York. Unlike Beijing, however, the recent conference was marked less by harmonious agreement on the issues facing women around the world and more by discord over the "Platform for Action" approved in the last meeting. The controversy is centered not on the actions of one of the delegate nations but on an observer with no voting rights -- the Vatican.

In the waning hours of the conference (held June 5-9), delegates from 180 countries are still struggling to achieve a consensus on a range of hotly debated issues, including abortion rights, teen sex education and homosexual rights. Negotiators worked through the night Thursday and resumed talks early Friday morning in order to reach their midnight deadline, when the special session of the U.N. General Assembly ends.

Many delegates who favor the Beijing platform say the talks have been stalled by a small minority of conservative Islamic and Catholic countries -- including Libya, Algeria, Iran, Sudan and Nicaragua -- who object to the platform's approval of nontraditional families and abortion. Separately, the United States has been unable to resolve a debate with Iraq and Cuba over a section detailing the negative effects of sanctions against women.

The Vatican, which is playing a vocal role in the conference's negotiations, is arguing against birth-control policies, homosexual rights and abortion. That has prompted many observers to question why an entity that is not legally recognized as a state was given so large a voice.

"The worst thing that has been happening this week is the sense of deja vu, that this small handful of countries consistently sought to block consensus and drop the negotiations into a sort of theater of the absurd, where basic ideas, such as the idea of women's rights as human rights, are questioned," Amparo Claro, of the Latin American and Caribbean Women's Health Network in Chile, told Reuters.

Catholic protestors boarded a schooner and sailed past U.N. headquarters on Thursday shouting their objection to the Vatican's role. The group, called Catholics for a Free Choice, argues that the Vatican should not be a "non-member state permanent observer," but rather a non-governmental organization (NGO) able to participate in such U.N. talks. Although they acknowledge that altering the Vatican's status would be almost impossible, they note that no other religious entity is given a seat in the General Assembly.

But the Vatican, known as the Holy See at the United Nations, is also distinctly different from other religions. Vatican City is a self-governing city, with its own currency and legal system.

"The Holy See has had both an active and passive right of legation since the fourth century. Its international juridical status is universally recognized. How can a seat at the United Nations be considered a privilege when the Holy See has had stable diplomatic relations for centuries with a great number of countries?" Archbishop Renato Martino asked in a 1999 article in Zenit Newswire.

The debate over the Vatican's permanent-observer status was highlighted earlier this year, when members of Congress introduced legislation to rebuke any efforts to change the Holy See's status. More recently, Republican presidential candidate (and Texas Gov.) George W. Bush said he supports continued permanent-observer status for the Vatican.

U.N. officials have been quick to state that the final document of the women's conference will not retreat from the Beijing platform. "There is no evidence in the text that seems likely to be adopted that there is any backward movement on any of the Beijing language, and in certain areas we are very heartened to see a strengthening of the Beijing language,'' said U.N. Assistant Secretary General Angela King.

At least 90 percent of the document already has been completed, and King notes that delegates have agreed on tougher plans to address the trafficking of women and girls, the impact of AIDS, the education gap between girls and boys, and the emerging effects of globalization on women. The document also would require the prosecution of all forms of domestic violence, including marital rape.

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