Skip to main content
Toggle Banner
You can make an impact in the fight for reproductive freedom.

International Campaign Calls Into Question Vatican’s Seat at UN

March 24, 1999

Religious, Women’s, and Health Groups Urge Secretary-General to Open Review

New York—An international campaign to challenge the Vatican’s status at the United Nations was launched today by a coalition of women’s, religious, and reproductive rights non-governmental organizations.  In the space of three days, more than 70 international NGOs from every region of the world endorsed an initiative to call upon UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to conduct an official review of the Vatican’s Non-Member State Permanent Observer status at the UN.

The new initiative will include an international postcard campaign to the Secretary-General, to create public awareness of the Vatican’s unique position at the UN, and dialogue with government leaders to urge a change in role of the Roman Catholic Church at the United Nations.  Endorsing groups include Catholics for a Free Choice, the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network, the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Israel Women’s Network, WomanHealth Philippines, the Center for Health and Gender Equity (India), and the National Organization for Women.  (For a full list, see below.)

“The time has come to challenge this façade of the Vatican as a state,” said CFFC President Frances Kissling. “Why should an entity that is in essence 100 square acres of office space and tourist attractions in the middle of Rome with a citizenry that excludes women and children have a place at the table where governments set policies affecting the very survival of women and children?” asked Kissling. “The question of the Vatican’s status at the United Nations is not an empty political debate.  Vatican positions on issues in the United Nations and in countries across the world have had the effect of increasing the suffering of the world’s poorest women.”

Through a body called the Holy See, the Roman Catholic church exerts considerable power at UN meetings and conferences. As a Non-Member State Permanent Observer, the Holy See can take part in UN meetings and conferences, and is typically granted full status at these events, including a vote on any question that is put to a vote. As the UN generally seeks consensus rather than forcing issues to a vote, this allows dissenting voices a stronger voice than they would normally have.

“The Vatican’s position in contemporary global debate should be extremely humble,” said Amparo Claro, Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network.  “The Vatican does not represent the diversity of opinions that exist within the larger Christian community.  It does not even reflect the multiple voices of the Catholic community.”

At several recent conferences, including the Rio de Janeiro environment conference (1992), the Cairo population conference (1994), and the Beijing women’s conference (1995), the Holy See has used its considerable power to block consensus, despite representing minority views.

As the world’s governments come together in New York this week to review progress toward achievement of goals set at the Cairo conference, the Vatican has a privileged position which it consistently uses to oppose widely accepted health measures such as contraception and sexuality education.

“The role that the Roman Catholic Church has played as an obstacle to AIDS education in Africa calls into question its moral right to a high status at the United Nations,” said Bene Madunagu, Chairperson, Executive Board, Girls Power Initiative, Nigeria.

A challenge to the Vatican’s status at the UN is not a challenge to its right to speak and try to influence policy. “The Vatican is entitled to its views,” Kissling said.  “It is welcome to put forward its views as any other interest group, along with others of the world’s religions, and we support their right to do so.  What is in question is the right of this non-state to occupy a position with governments.”


— end —


Some facts about the Vatican’s status at the United Nations:

  • The Roman Catholic church is a religious society without a political identity under the law. Vatican City is an independent city-state within Rome that serves as the site of the church’s government and is itself governed by the head of the church, the pope. The Holy See is “the supreme organ [of government] of both the Catholic church and the Vatican City State,” according to the authoritative work on the Holy See’s international relations, written by Archbishop Hyginus Eugene Cardinale, who was a Vatican diplomat. Vatican City is temporal and territorial; the Holy See, a more nebulous construct, is religious.
  • Despite its designation as a non-member “state” permanent observer, “the Holy See is not a state,” according to Cardinale. It is a religious entity without defined temporal territory.  Diplomatically, however, many countries treat the Holy See “as being on the same footing as a state” because of the influence of the pope, as leader of Catholics worldwide. According to its Permanent Observer Mission, the Holy See can enter into treaties as the “juridical equal of a state.”
  • The Holy See owes its participation in the United Nations to the membership of Vatican City in the Universal Postal Union (UPU) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which the city-state joined because of its operation of postal and radio services. The United Nations, soon after its formation, invited these organizations and their members to attend UN sessions on an ad hoc basis. The Holy See began attending the General Assembly, the World Health Organization, and the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in 1951 as an ad hoc observer. In 1956, the Holy See was elected a member of the UN Economic and Social Council and also became a full member of the International Atomic Energy Agency.  In 1964, Pope Paul VI named a permanent observer, following Switzerland’s precedent. UN Secretary-General U Thant accepted the designation and announced it within three weeks.
  • “Of course the nature and aims of the spiritual mission of the Apostolic See and the church make their participation in the tasks and activities of the United Nations Organization very different from that of the states, which are communities in the political and temporal sense.” —John Paul II, address to the General Assembly, 1979


Catholics for a Free Choice shapes and advances sexual and reproductive ethics that are based on justice, reflect a commitment to women’s well-being, and respect and affirm the moral capacity of women and men to make sound and responsible decisions about their lives. Through discourse, education and advocacy, CFFC works in the United States and internationally to infuse these values into public policy, community life, feminist analysis, and Catholic social thinking and teaching.


International NGOs Challenging the Vatican’s status at the United Nations

(as of March 24, 1999)

Acción Popular de Integración Social, A.C. (APIS) – Mexico
AFLUENTES, S.C. – Mexico
American Humanist Association – US
Americans for Religious Liberty – US
Arab Commission for Human Rights – France
ARROW (Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Center for Women) – Malaysia
Asociación Mexicana contra la Violencia hacia las Mujeres (COVAC) – Mexico
AVSC International – US
Boston Women’s Health Book Collective – US
British Pregnancy Advisory Service – UK
Canadian Abortion Rights Action League – Canada
Catholics for a Free Choice – US
Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir, Brasil – Brasil
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Bolivia
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Latin America
Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Mexico
Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) – India
Center for Reproductive Law and Policy – US
Center for Women’s Global Leadership – US
Centro de Apoyo a la Mujer “Margarita Magón,” A.C. – Mexico
Centro de Asesoria y Desarrollo entre Mujeres (CADEM, A.C.) – Mexico
Centro de Atención Psicológica y Legal para la Familia, A.C. (Capylfac) – Mexico
Centro de Investigacion y Estudios Sobre la Sexualidad A.C. (CIESEX) – Mexico
Children by Choice – Australia
CIDHAL, A.C. Centro de Mujeres – Mexico
CIDEM (Centro de Información y Desarrollo de la Mujer) – Bolivia
Colectivo de Hombres por Relaciones Igualitarias, A.C. (CORIAC) – Mexico
Colectivo de Investigación, Desarrollo y Educación entre Mujeres A.C. – Mexico
Colectivo de Salud Integral (CONAMUP) – Mexico
Coletivo Feminista Sexualidade e Saúde – Brasil
Comunicación e información de la Mujer, A.C. (CIMAC) – Mexico
Coordinadora Interregional Feminista Rural “Comaletzin” A.C. – Mexico
Coordinación de Organismos Civiles de Mujeres en Veracruz – Mexico
Cotidiano Mujer and Lolapress – Uruguay
DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era) – Fiji Islands
Desarrollo Estratégico A.C. – Mexico
Difusión Cultural Feminista – Mexico
Equality Now – US
Escuela Nacional de Enfermería y Obstetricia, Sede de Prácticas/UNAM – Mexico
Family Care International (FCI) – US
Foro Nacional de Mujeres y Politicas de Población – Mexico
Gender, Ethics and Sexual Health A.C. (GESS) – Mexico
Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida, A.C. (GIRE) – Mexico
Grupo Ome Cihualt – Mexico
Instituto Mexicano de Estudios Sociales (IMES) – Mexico
Irish Family Planning Association – Ireland
Israel Women’s Network – Israel
K’nal Ansetik – Mexico
Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network – Chile
Lugar de la Tía Juana – Mexico
Movimiento Nacional de Mujeres (MNM) – Mexico
Mujeres en Acción Sindical, A.C. (MAS) – Mexico
Mujer Salud y Educación Popular, A.C. (MUSEP) – Mexico
National Abortion Campaign (NAC) – UK
NOW (National Organization for Women) – US
8 de Marzo – Mexico
Organización Movimiento Manuela Ramos – Peru
Population Concern – UK
Programa de Salud Reproductiva y Sociedad del COLMEX – Mexico
Red Nacional de Mujeres Radialistas de Mexico – Mexico
Red Pro Derechos de Educación y Salud A.C. – Mexico
Red de Educacion Popular Entre Mujeres (REPEM) – Uruguay
Salud y Género A.C. – Mexico
Salud Integral para la Mujer (SIPAM) – Mexico
Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Center – Pakistan
The Swedish Association for Sex Education – Sweden
Ticime, A.C. (Centro de Documentación en Partería) – Mexico
WomanHealth Philippines – Philippines
Women Living Under Muslim Laws – France
Women’s Front of Norway – Norway