BY Mirta Moragas Mereles
This article was originally published in La Mala Fe please find the original text in Spanish here.
La Mala Fe is a research portal backed by the Latin American Consortium Against Unsafe Abortion (CLACAI) that aims to inform about the risks, dangers and challenges that affect sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America.
The presence of the Holy See in global and regional spaces dealing with human rights such as the United Nations Organization (UN) and the Organization of American States (OAS) is questionable from several points of view. First, the Vatican City does not meet all the requirements that a Nation-State must meet to be considered as such in accordance with international law. Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States establishes that the requirements that a State must meet as a body of International Law are: a) Permanent population; b) Delimited territory; c) Government; d) Ability to enter into relations with the other States.
The Holy See, whose capital is the Vatican City, does not have a “permanent population”, all the people who live there hold diplomatic functions linked to the Catholic Church. Its territory is also limited to the Vatican city which only has historical or administrative buildings of the Catholic Church and is not the permanent seat of its population. Its government is constituted by the clergy of the Catholic Church and, therefore, cannot be recognized as a State that has a government. The only requirement that the Holy See meets is that of the ability to enter into relations with other States. Pope Paul VI was able to establish the first mission as “Permanent Observer” of the Holy See to the United Nations, and after this, the Holy See became a Non-Member Permanent Observer State.
The presence of the Holy See as a Permanent Observer at the UN has been criticized by various voices, including Catholic voices. There are additional concerns added to the criticism about the lack of requirements to be considered as a State,and these are much more related to the role of the Holy See in the UN. This year, Catholics for Human Rights, who have been challenging the status of the Holy See at the UN, presented a report where, among other things, they point out that the policies and objectives of the Holy See at the UN are basically anti-women’s rights and anti-equality. As an example, they cite the obstructionist role that the Holy See has fulfilled in conferences such as the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994, which pioneered the recognition of reproductive rights.
The efforts of the Holy See to hinder the agenda of the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 are also cited. As a more immediate background, the aforementioned report cites the traditional obstructionist role in spaces such as the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW), where it constantly seeks to weave alliances to propose regressive language on women’s rights issues.
On the other hand, the report speaks of the conveniently elusive behavior of the Holy See: behaving as a State to obstruct the advance of rights, but hiding in its spiritual and religious mission to evade its obligations, including the fulfillment of the few international human rights instruments which they have ratified, such as the Convention on the Rights of children. As an example, the report cites the Vatican’s lack of commitment to the investigation of cases of sexual abuse of children, whose perpetrators have been priests of the Catholic Church.
Several of these arguments could be extrapolated to the OAS space. The Holy See has the status of permanent observer in the OAS since 1978, a space reserved only to States that are outside the Americas. In this sense, the arguments regarding the lack of compliance with the State requirements under international law presented at the UN are also valid for the OAS. Likewise, arguments regarding obstructionist law policies could also be considered. For example, at the OAS General Assembly of 2015 during the Secretary’s dialogue, where the General and the Assistant Secretary General with the Permanent Observer States, Monsignor Joseph Grech, representative of the Holy See, said that the OAS should not “pressure” the countries that protect “life from conception.” Additionally, the Holy See has as its permanent mission member Gualberto García Jones, who is part of the the International Human Rights Group, an anti-rights organization based in Washington, very active in the OAS, and mainly dedicated to work on anti-abortion and anti-LGTBI rights.
The Permanent Observer status gives the Holy See access to spaces reserved for States, which places the Catholic Church in a privileged position to promote their religious dogmas in spaces where human rights policies are discussed. In Latin American and Caribbean countries, which are considered of great Catholic tradition, the Catholic Church is not only a religious actor, but also fundamentally, a political actor. According to the Latinobarometro 2018 report, the public perception is that the Church is the most reliable institution in Latin America, with 63% of the population trusting the Church as an institution. On the other hand, the privileged access that the Catholic Church has in these spaces of democratic states silences or marginalizes dissenting or progressive voices within the religion and prevents a broader dialogue on the link between freedom of belief, conscience and religion with other human rights.
The fact that the Vatican has decided to have a permanent seat before the OAS, reveals its intention to deepen its obstructive influence on rights. This decision is of particular relevance after the OAS General Assembly (AG) approved for the first time this year in Medellin, Colombia, “a regional dialogue on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief”. The privileged position of the Catholic Church within the OAS, reinforced by this decision of Pope Francis, could be expected to have a negative impact on the discussion of religious freedom and human rights in the inter-American space.