Since 1964, the Holy See has held Permanent Observer status at the United Nations. As the central government of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy See is the only religious institution that enjoys this status. It maintains full diplomatic relations with 177 countries out of the 193 member countries of the U.N. In addition, every pope who has reigned since the Holy See received its permanent observer status has addressed the U.N General Assembly. The Holy See justifies its seat at the United Nations through its claim of having global moral authority.
In reality, though, the Holy See functions as a politically-motivated member state in this arena. Despite not having an official vote, with fully functioning missions (or staffed offices) at the UN sites in Geneva and New York, it does not have an official vote, yet it exerts remarkable power as it influences policy development, negotiation positions and even the language used by other UN members. The Holy See participates in many human rights discussions and is an engaged voice in conferences and meetings, development of treaties, negotiations of resolutions and agreements, and in discussions about the UN’s budget and infrastructure.
The Holy See functions as a state whose power cuts across geographic boundary. Its reach is broad and its command, given its global influence, sometimes coercive. Despite its projected image of being a “neutral force for dignity” and representing the voices of “the vulnerable,” it functions as one of the most powerful political entities within the UN system. Its presence and its ideological groundings affect the development of and discourse about human rights standards.
In certain areas, and particularly in relation to gender and sexuality, this influence serves to limit rather than enhance protections; in many instances, the Holy See’s positions further entrench discrimination, allow violence and serve to deny information and services. Women and young people, and those who may identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) often bear the brunt of the Holy See’s efforts to integrate its ideological commitments into the UN human rights system. For years, organizations have argued that the Holy See should not hold the status of Permanent Observer and that the UN should be a site of secular decision-making. Alternatively, some have asserted that Christianity and Catholicism should not be given preferred religious status to the exclusion of other religious entities. They claim that this privilege is discriminatory.
In addition, concerns about the Holy See’s role in the UN are compounded by the relative impunity and lack of accountability it enjoys. Few governments are willing to comprehensively challenge the Holy See or to hold it accountable for not adequately complying with the human rights obligations that come with UN participation. Nor have they held the Holy See to account for human rights violations it -- and the individuals who represent it -- have perpetrated or suppressed information about. This, of course, is of particular interest given charges against it of torture and crimes against humanity in terms of sexual violence and the detail that has finally surfaced in recent days (and months and years) about clergy and sexual abuse of children, as well as sexual assault of nuns. Governments tend to not hold the Holy See accountable for these behaviors and its discriminatory positions.
The Holy See is a completely male dominated institution. There are no women who are in top decision-making positions. Every facet of Church governance and Holy See diplomacy is led entirely and only by ostensibly celibate men. In both the Vatican's teaching authority and the Holy See's structure of governance, women have never had a voice in developing doctrine or any decision-making authority. Yet, the Holy See is particularly active in the arenas of women’s rights and rights of children, rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and to contraception and sexuality education. In fact, overall, it has tenacious interest in areas of sexual and reproductive rights and health. Much of its involvement promotes “the” (monolithic heteronormative) family, anti-abortion and fetal rights (or rights of the unborn child) sentiment.