Religion and Public Policy at the UN

Categories: United Nations

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The Holy See

The term “Holy See” refers to the “see” or “seat”(from the Latin sedes) of institutional authority in the Roman Catholic Church occupied by the Pope and his representatives, whose administrative headquarters are in the Vatican City, an independent territory located in Rome. In 1964 the Holy See was granted permanent observer status in the UN General Assembly as a non-member state, a status it has shared only with Switzerland, which has just voted to apply to become a member state.

Thus the Holy See, although a religious body, differs from religious NGOs, which are limited to consultative relationships with the UN system. As a non-member state permanent observer at the UN, the Holy See does not typically enjoy member-state voting rights, but
it does participate in numerous deliberations and activities involving member states and UN bodies. The Holy See has full membership in some UN specialized agencies, on which basis it participates as a state, with voting rights, at many UN conferences. Other entities holding permanent observer status at the UN include the Mission of Palestine, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the Order of Malta. These differ from the Holy See in that they are not considered “non-member state” permanent observers.

Our interviewees were virtually unanimous in identifying the Holy See as a major religious actor at the UN today. The Holy See has been “terribly effective…in promoting Catholic views, advocating Catholic views, and organizing states that are predominantly
Catholic to support those views,” observes a former US government official experienced in UN work. Of course, recognizing the Holy See’s effectiveness does not necessarily entail appreciating all of its goals or methods. For the most part the UN as a whole sees the Vatican as more of a help than a hindrance because only on this certain set of issues [gender, sexuality, and reproductive health] is it a problem. In many other areas it’s a great provider of humanitarian assistance. It is often an advocate for human rights in a similar context to the UN. It has certainly taken an approach to development that is a people-centered, poor people’s approach to development. And so in many, many areas it is very helpful to the United Nations….”

…Several complain that the Holy See abuses its UN status and employs obstructionist tactics in UN conferences, especially during debates over proposed wording in conference documents. The same official recalls that “In the Cairo conference they were politically
active in securing the support of the Islamic countries and they did that in Beijing as well, and to a lesser extent they did it with all the conferences …they are a polarizing factor on issues of women and population.” Allies of the Holy See may consider its
methods appropriate to its role as “the conscience of the General Assembly,” to quote Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. “The Holy See provides a kind of moral leadership that, really, nobody else has at the United Nations,”
Ruse explains.

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