Press Conference Sponsored By United States Mission
United Nations Press Briefing
United Nations, New York, March 14, 2000

The status of the Holy See as a Non-Member State Permanent Observer at the United Nations should be reviewed, representatives of Catholics for a Free Choice and other women's and civil society groups urged at a Headquarters press conference this morning.

A statement by the worldwide campaign to press for the review, initiated by Catholics for a Free Choice, said that granting government privileges to what was in reality a religious body was questionable statecraft. While the Holy See -- the government of the Roman Catholic Church -- had made positive contributions through the United Nations to peace and justice, that should not be used to justify granting the status of a State to a religious institution, the statement by the campaign, called "See Change", said.

"With non-governmental organization (NGO) status, the Roman Catholic Church would be able to continue to participate in the United Nations -- like the World Council of Churches -- without ambiguity or privilege", the statement said. It called on Secretary-General Kofi Annan to open an official review of the status of the Holy See at the United Nations.

Speakers at the press conference included Frances Kissling, President of Catholics for a Free Choice; Anika Rahman, Director of the International Programme of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy; Amparo Claro, Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Women's Health Network; Bene Madunagu, Chairperson of the Executive Board of the Girls' Power Initiative of Nigeria; and Valentina Leskaj, Executive Director of the Albanian Family Planning Association.

Ms. Rahman, Director of the International Programme of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, based in the United States, said the Holy See did not meet the international law definition of a State. She said international law generally recognized an entity as a State if it possessed four main qualifications: a permanent population; defined territory; Government; and capacity to enter into relations with other States. The Holy See, which became a Permanent Observer in 1964, did not satisfy that definition, she said.

"As an organ of Government for Catholics worldwide, the Holy See cannot be regarded as having a 'permanent population'", she said. As an organ of Government, it did not possess a defined territory. Its mandate was to govern the worldwide church. The Holy See was itself the Government of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican City. It could not therefore be regarded as an entity that possessed a government.

The only characteristic of a modern State attributable to the Holy See was its capacity to enter into relations with other States, she said. "To ensure that the United Nations does not promote one particular religion, religious entities such as the Roman Catholic Church should not be permitted to participate in this forum as a non-Member State".

Ms. Amparo Claro spoke of the "double standard" of the Vatican, which was easy to observe at the current session of the Preparatory Committee for the special session of the General Assembly on women. She said the Vatican accepted the use in its interventions on the Beijing Platform for Action of the term "gender perspective", but not "women's autonomy", "women's freedom" or "women's equality".

It still expected to control women and to decide the topics, activities or image appropriate for them, she said. In the Catholic Church, women could not become priests. Male priests were participating in discussions at the Preparatory Committee; being celibate, they were not the appropriate constituency to discuss women's issues. The situation constituted a lack of respect and justice for women.

Another example of the "hypocrisy and double-standard" of the Vatican, she said, was its stand on the question of women in poverty. The Vatican must be aware that maternal mortality and morbidity had not decreased in Latin America and the women dying in the region were the poorest in society. The Vatican denied the reality of the issue of abortion, which it did not want to be mentioned or discussed. It denied the suffering of poor women and their deaths, and did not accept that women's sexual rights were indivisible from human rights. She wondered why the call for the change in the status of the Vatican was not being considered seriously.

Ms. Madunagu, Chairperson of the Executive Board of the Girls' Power Initiative in Nigeria, said the Holy See had selectively blocked proceedings at the United Nations. On issues that did not have direct bearing on women's health and lives, the Vatican maintained its status, watching Member States engage in constructive dialogue. When it came to issues affecting the rights of women, girls and adolescents, the Vatican imposed its religious values on others with total disrespect and disregard for the secularity of the United Nations and the other religious views, values and individual freedoms. The devastating impact of the Catholic hierarchy's opposition to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS had caused a lot of problems in the developing countries. The hierarchy had coldly reiterated its ban on the use of condoms, which was very disturbing.

Valentina Leskaj, Executive Director of the Albanian Family Planning Association, spoke of the nightmare women and girls had experienced at the outset of the Kosovo crisis. A large number had been raped, she said, adding that 55 per cent of maternal mortality in Albania was caused by abortion. The figure had dropped and women's health had improved considerably with the legalization of abortion there. Her organization had joined in the campaign because of its concerns about deaths of women through abortion.

Ms. Kissling, President of Catholics for a Free Choice, said the Holy See had precipitated the campaign because it had, in many ways, misused its status, which it had obtained, to some extent, by accident. It was that status of a State that the campaign wished to see reviewed. The campaign was not in any way "a threat to any legitimate State" at the United Nations that might hold positions her organization did not agree with. The reality was that the Holy See was a unique entity and therefore the standards that were applied to it must be looked at.

She said the campaign had been going very well, and that almost 400 organizations had endorsed it. The number of people who were now aware of the fact that the Holy See was treated as a State at the United Nations had increased dramatically. No country had spoken out in defence of the Holy See to date, she said, adding that the campaign had been treated at the State level with silence. "For us, this is actually a victory."

She said the introduction of two resolutions -- in the Senate and the House -- of the United States Congress by allies of the Holy See was an attempt to get some public support for the Vatican. In the normal course of events, she believed, the resolutions "would die a natural and quick death". She thought the more than 60 million members of the Catholic Church in the United States would let Congress know that support for the Holy See was not synonymous with support for Catholicism.

She said members of her organization were particularly troubled by the overt threat to the United Nations embodied in the two Congressional resolutions that its relations with the United States would be damaged if it were to take any action to downgrade the status of the Holy See. She added that the resolutions had the support almost exclusively of Republican, anti-choice members of Congress.

Asked whether she really believed that any body could have the status of the Holy See at the United Nations changed, Ms. Kissling said that as a Roman Catholic looking at history, remarkable changes had occurred in life and miracles were possible. She did not think a change could happen in the short term. Raising the issue now was her organization's gift to history. Simply launching the campaign had had an enormous effect already in the way the world community viewed the Holy See at the United Nations. More people who knew that the Holy See had special status were expressing their opinion on that.

The position of the Catholic Church on abortion was not widely accepted, she said in response to a question. There was a widespread view among Catholics that women were moral agents who had the right to make decisions about abortion.

Asked what she had noticed about the response of the Vatican to the campaign, she said that there had been numerous statements explaining its status and describing the Vatican as a State.

She told another questioner that the organizers of the campaign were waiting for a higher number of signatories before submitting their petition to the Secretary-General, although post cards on the campaign had initially been sent to his office. There had not been an official response, and they had not sought one. Her impression was that the Secretariat had been silent on the issue.

Ms. Kissling was asked whether it was not presumptuous of her organization, which did not represent the Catholic Church membership, to challenge the status of the Holy See. Was the organization trying to represent Catholics better than the Pope, who was recognized as head of the church?

She said that if it was the Pope who represented Catholics as a religious leader at the United Nations, then the status of the Holy See was again incorrect. Any person, whether Catholic, Muslim, Hindu or Jewish, had both the right and the responsibility to speak for justice, she added. Their words and positions should stand on their merit.