Catholic women activists protest Vatican's UN role
Deborah Zabarenko
Reuters, June 8, 2000

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Aboard a two-masted schooner sailing outside U.N. headquarters, Catholic activists chanted and waved pennants Thursday to protest the Vatican's role at a global meeting aimed at improving women's lives.

The protesters, from the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice, said they believe the Vatican should be classified as a grassroots group -- a non-governmental organization, or NGO, in U.N. parlance -- instead of its current status as a "non-member state permanent observer."

These demonstrators and other activists at a week-long U.N. women's conference have said the Vatican, or the Holy See as it is known at the United Nations, is obstructing progress toward a blueprint to bring about more equality between the sexes, especially where matters of sexuality are concerned.

"Hey hey, ho ho, the Holy See is an NGO," the protesters chanted aboard the schooner Richard Robbins as it sailed up and down the East River outside the United Nations for two hours around midday. The ship flew the flag of the protest campaign, called See Change.

"I think we need to call public attention to the status of the Holy See at the United Nations," said the Catholic group's president, Frances Kissling, in a telephone interview from the ship. "We're here to make waves and where better to show that we're willing to make waves than on a boat in the East River?"

Kissling's group has acknowledged that changing the Vatican's U.N. status is nearly impossible, but has sought to focus on its role as a religion rather than a state.

The campaign, first widely ignored, has gathered support from activist organizations in Latin America and other regions, and pro-Vatican groups began to protest.

Members of the U.S. Congress earlier this year objected to the See Change campaign and more recently Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, said he opposed any thought of changing the Vatican's status.

Kissling has questioned whether any of the Vatican's political supporters support its progressive stand on social issues and its opposition to capital punishment.

Tensions have risen over the course of the current conference regarding alleged obstruction by the Vatican and other countries on such issues as abortion, sexual rights and a woman's right to protection from violence, including such widely tolerated acts as spousal abuse and marital rape.

More liberal activist groups contend the handful of dissenting nations -- the Vatican, Algeria, Iran, Sudan, Nicaragua, Libya and Pakistan -- are stalling progress as the international conference moves toward its close on Friday. These activist groups have said that the dissenting countries are retreating from language set out in a landmark document on women's rights crafted at a previous U.N. conference in Beijing five years ago.

The meeting in China set out a Platform for Action, prescribing action in 12 critical areas, ranging from women and poverty to women and the environment, the economy and the media. The New York conference was meant to set specific targets for action in these areas, but many participants have questioned whether the strong goals articulated in Beijing will be retained.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan voiced concern over the lack of consensus in a statement issued Thursday, and said any document framed at this conference should adhere to the commitments set out in Beijing.