Historical introduction

to the Multilateral Activities of the Holy See


The bilateral diplomacy of the Holy See is rooted in distant history. From the earliest centuries of the existence of the Church, even before the birth of modern Nation-States, the Holy See has made use of special envoys, and eventually of Nunciatures or embassies. On the part of the Holy See, the discernment and interest to be engaged in international organizations started after World War I. At that time, States such as Germany requested that the Holy See consider its possible participation in the League of Nations Conference. Subsequently, support was given for the employment of a priest advisor at the International Labour Organization (ILO); such an appointment was first made in 1926 by then Director General Albert Thomas. It was Pope Pius XII, however, who formulated an organic doctrine of the Church’s involvement in international life. In his speeches, most especially in the Allocution of 24 December 1939, “The pacific coexistence of peoples,” and in his Radio Messages, he outlined the essential characteristics for developing the future international order. It seemed logical, therefore, that informal contacts with the new United Nations organizations should begin immediately after the founding of the organization in 1945, and indeed they began on the two issues of refugees and of the holy sites in Palestine.

At that time, because of its international standing and network for social assistance, the Holy See was among fifteen States invited by the U.N. Economic and Social Council, through Resolution 393B (XIII), to serve as members of an Advisory Committee on Refugees, a major human and political problem left over from World War II. In 1947, a delegate of the Holy See was charged to go to Latin America in order to make contact with Governments and Catholic organizations and thus to ensure their full acceptance of the plan for resettlement devised by the then International Refugee Organization. Due in part to these contacts and relationships, in 1951, when the U.N. General Assembly decided to convene a conference of plenipotentiaries with the task “ to consider the Draft Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the draft Protocol Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons,” an invitation to participate was extended to some States that were not members of the U.N., including the Holy See, which, in fact, participated with full rights. This was one of the first intergovernmental conferences in which the Holy See took part. The Conference produced one of the first conventions that the Holy See signed and subsequently ratified. This also marked the first occasion on which the United Nations Organizations called upon the Holy See to take a full part in one of its organs, and such confidence has been maintained ever since.[1] The UNHCR continues to serve as a forum where the right to protection of refugees and displaced persons is sustained on the juridical level and in the field. In April of 2007, at the international conference, convened in Geneva, on the plight of four million Iraqis uprooted within their country or forced into exile, I had the opportunity to speak up for the Holy See and remind the community of nations of the collective responsibility to respond to so much suffering.[2]

As a member of the ‘Family of Nations’, the Holy See was invited to the 1955 Conference on the peaceful uses of atomic energy in Geneva and participating countries, even those from Eastern Europe, appreciated the presence of a spiritual ‘power’. Then, in 1956, the Holy See adhered to the Treaty and became a full founding member of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It already was a member of two other technical organizations, the International Telecommunication Union and the Universal Postal Union, which, since 1947, had been integrated as specialized Agencies of the United Nations.

The first specialized Agency of the United Nations, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), was formally established October 16, 1945, with its headquarters based in Rome since 1951. Its goal is to improve the standards of nutrition and quality of life, the production and distribution of agricultural products, and the condition of rural populations. The highly humanitarian objectives of the FAO could not escape the sensibility of the Holy See. Although the status of Permanent Observer was inexistent in the Organization’s statutory norms, it was created deliberately for the Holy See in 1948 by reason “ of the special circumstances characterizing the Holy See, and without relations to the territorial extent of the Vatican City over which it exercises its sovereignty.”[3] Regular and frequent exchanges between the FAO and the Holy See are favored by physical proximity, but, most of all, by the common goals that include food security, the right to water, a better deal for the still enormous rural population.

The Catholic tradition always has placed a high value on education and, over the centuries, the Holy See has pursued the establishment of universities and lower-level schools, and, even at the present time, it continues on this path. The most recent Statistical Yearbook of the Catholic Church as well as information from the Congregation for Catholic Education provide some significant data in this regard. Between 40 and 50 million primary and secondary school children are estimated to be educated in Catholic schools worldwide. Some 1,300 Catholic Universities render their service through the formation of youth and the advancement of knowledge. New Catholic universities are opening up in Africa and on other continents. In addition, for the preparation of Church personnel, there are many ecclesiastical universities and institutes of higher education.[4] Thus it seemed quite “natural” for the Holy See to accredit a Permanent Observer to the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), since it has priorities similar to the provisions contained in UNESCO’s charter: “…to contribute to the maintenance of peace and security by furthering collaboration between nations through education, science and culture in order to ensure universal respect for justice, law, the rights of man and fundamental freedoms for all.” In 1952, the Nuncio to France at that time, Angelo Roncalli, future Pope who took the name of John XXIII, was accredited as the first Permanent Observer to UNESCO and, subsequently, in 1953 a separate Representation was established.

The social question brought about by the industrial revolution of the 19th century prompted the Holy See to address, in a systematic way, issues such as the workers’ struggle for a just wage, the value of work, the relationship between capital and work, the condition faced by workers in their employment environment. After the social question, others followed: the situation of women, the communications revolution, the disarmament question, the ecological question. Labor relations were changed in the process, but their importance remains as a critical chapter in human experience as well as in the social doctrine of the Church. Several papal encyclicals were dedicated to the significance of work and to its function for the dignity of individuals and for the common good of society. The first Director General of the International Labour Organization (ILO) was quite aware of the close association of the purpose of his organization with the vision of the Holy See with regard to human work and workers’ rights. On several occasions, ILO groups and Directors were received by the Popes; the social documents of the Church were reported or commented in the official journal of the ILO, the International Labour Review. In 1967, an exchange of official correspondence took place between the ILO Director General and the Holy See and led to the agreement of extending to the ILO the accreditation of the Permanent Observer to the United Nations Office in Geneva “since the Holy See and the Organization have very similar and often the same preoccupations in the matter of social policy.”[5] The regular interventions of the Holy See at the annual ILO Conferences include discussion of topics relevant to th evolving circumstances in the world of labor, including the significance of work , the rights of workers, the responsibility to create new and decent jobs, fair conditions of employment, and the role of labour unions.[6]

Since 1952, the Holy See has always been represented, as an Observer State, at the World Health Assemblies. It was invited to the WHO Assembly in Rome in 1949, and its participants were received in audience by Pope Pius XII. In the field of health, especially with regard to some areas of human behaviour, ethical differences between the Holy See and the international community have become strident, and, in high-handed fashion, the media love to focus on these differences. But, in this vast area of human concern, there exists real potential for collaboration on most issues that affect the health of people, from poverty, to HIV and AIDS as well other pandemics such as malaria and tuberculosis. It would suffice to keep in mind some recent data. The Catholic Church is engaged, to a significant degree, in the care of AIDS orphans and patients as well as in HIV prevention activities, and 26.7% of the world’s treatment centers for people living with HIV or AIDS are Catholic-based[7]. Through its care institutions, which include some 5,236 hospitals, 16,679 dispensaries, 656 leprosaria, 14,794 homes for elderly and chronically ill, some 10,000 orphanages and as many nurseries and 28,751 special re-education centers and other related institutions throughout the world, the Church assists literally millions of needy people.[8]

The advancement of international public health aims at reaching the people at the grassroots level. In pursuing this objective, governmental and civil society structures and networks are equally valid and therefore deserve equal attention and support from the international community. The Holy See is there to remind everyone that the best way to keep the human person at the center of concerns is through respectful cooperation.

The uneven, but steady, historical journey that has led the Holy See to engage in direct and wide-ranging relations in the intergovernmental arena shows how its role articulates and supports the activity of the whole Church, which it represents. This role of the Holy See adds, moreover, as mentioned, a spiritual and ethical dimension to the debates regarding the tough problems confronting the human family. In this spirit and in mutual understanding of their respective identities, an exchange of notes, dated respectively 16 and 28 October 1957, settled the question that the Holy See, and not the Vatican City State, is represented by delegations accredited by the Secretariat of State to the different sessions and the various organs of the United Nations. In 1964, a Permanent Observer was accredited to the United Nations headquarters in New York and, in 1967, one was appointed to the Geneva Office of the United Nations. Finally, in 2004, U.N. Resolution 58/314, passed by consensus in the General Assembly, formally defined the participation of the Holy See as an Observer State in the work of the United Nations and gave it practically all the rights of U.N. Members, except the right to vote, a position that the Holy See has chosen in order to remain super partes.[9]

Why is the Holy See engaged in international life?

The reasons that prompt the Holy See to actively participate in the daily struggles of the human family are neither economic, nor related to the military, nor political. Pope John Paul II gave an answer when he told the various diplomatic missions participating at his installation as Pontiff:

“…there can be no true human progress nor durable peace without the courageous, loyal, disinterested search of a growing cooperation and unity among the peoples. For this reason the Church encourages every initiative that can be undertaken, every step that can be realized, both on a bilateral and multilateral level.” He added that respect for the fundamental demands of the human person is required. “Christians are more attentive to this vocation of men and women to cooperation and to unity because, in the plan of salvation, the Gospel message reveals to them that Jesus of Nazareth died ‘to gather into one the dispersed children of God’ (John 11, 52)….The Church…in the same way is convinced to be able to contribute effectively to this work of reconstruction of the human family and of its history, thanks to evangelical love (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 40). It is for this reason also that the Holy See establishes relations with each of your Governments and takes part in the activity of international organizations.”[10]

This line has been a consistent line of thinking since the beginning of the Holy See’s involvement with international organizations, especially during the twentieth century. It is developed fully in landmark documents like the encyclical Pacem in Terris, the Constitution Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II, other encyclicals like Populorum Progressio, Centesimus Annus and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, just to mention a few, in various speeches by the Popes, and recently, for example, in the Letter of Benedict XVI to the Chancellor of Germany on the occasion of the June 2007 G-8 meeting. Basic themes running through these statements and inspiring service include the unity of the human family, its common destiny, the inalienable dignity of every person, created in the image of God, and attention to the poor and least privileged.[11]

Today three main areas of concern seem to dominate and guide the involvement of the Holy See in the international organizations: human rights, peace, and solidarity.

Human rights, a global language.

The list of resolutions of the U.N. Human Rights Council[12], established in 2006, offers a panorama of the sensibilities of the international community. After the crimes and horrors of the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. in 1948, gave rise to several institutions and international treaties, including the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, of which the present Council is the successor. The defense and respect of the human person was set at the center of concerns, as the U.N. Charter also had indicated in its Preamble:

“We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, and for these ends to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.”

In these words, one finds provision for a new model of international relations, in which the principle that regulates them is no longer force, but such fundamental principles as respect for human rights, auto-determination of peoples, equality among all States, justice and equity in their relations, solidarity and cooperation, and good faith. It is worth noting that the language of the U.N. human rights discourse and that of the Holy See and of the social doctrine of the Church coincide to a very significant degree.

At present, one observes increasing efforts to change the content and meaning of the words used so far in conventions and declarations; this probably is due to pressure from some trends in Western public culture. In its interventions throughout the U.N. system and in intergovernmental bodies, the Holy See upholds the original ideals of the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration and consistently points out the four pillars on which the social order should rest. These were formulated as follows by Pope John XXIII in the encyclical Pacem in Terris:

“…nations are the subjects of reciprocal rights and duties. Their relationships, therefore, must likewise be harmonized in accordance with the dictates of truth, justice, willing cooperation, and freedom. The same law of nature that governs the life and conduct of individuals must also regulate the relations of political communities with one another.”[13]

Exactly because of this attention, without distinction, to the rights of every human person the Holy See, through its active participation in the regular and special sessions of the Human Rights Council, for example, argues on the basis of natural ethic and of the reason common to all of us. It does so on behalf of all categories of people in need of protection because of their minority status or the prejudices of history. Thus, the subject of interventions on the part of the Permanent Observers of the Holy See often include such urgent themes as the integrity of the family as basic unit of society and the situation and special needs of women, children, migrants and refugees. These categories of people constantly should be kept before the eyes of the international community; this is obvious from the evidence of available United Nations data. Just to take the case of children, the world still tolerates today that 300,000 child soldiers, some as young as eight years, are exploited in armed conflicts; that 10 million children are victims of today’s sex industry; that an estimated 250 million children are engaged in child labour, with nearly 70% of them working in hazardous conditions; that 3.2 million children under 15 years of age are living with HIV and only a small number of them have access to life-saving anti-retroviral medications.

Freedom of religion takes a privileged place in the Holy See interventions. For example, it would be interesting to analyze in detail the lively exchange that took place in the Human Rights Council following Pope Benedict’s lecture in Regensburg (12 September 2006) and the position taken by groups of States and by the Holy See with regard to freedom of religion and freedom of expression as well as on the role of religion in public life.


In the social teaching of the Church, one will find the recurrent theme of peace, which is characterized as a deep aspiration of every human being, a gift from God. Pope John Paul II wrote:

“It must be forcefully repeated: authentic peace is only possible if the dignity of the human person is promoted at every level of society, and every individual is given the chance to live in accordance with this dignity. ‘Any human society, if it is to be well-ordered and productive, must lay down as a foundation this principle, namely, that every human being is a person, that is, his nature is endowed with intelligence and free will. Indeed, precisely because he is a person he has rights and obligations which flow directly and immediately from his very nature. And these rights and obligations are universal, inviolable and inalienable.’ The truth about man is the keystone in the resolution of all the problems involved in promoting peace. To teach people this truth is one of the most fruitful and lasting ways to affirm the value of peace”[14]

The Church educates to achieve peace. But the social teaching of the Church also has moved along the road of concrete international engagements and has done so together with other countries. The awareness of the tragedies generated by all conflicts, especially after World War II, led the human family to identify the top priority in the world as the development of conditions for a just and durable peace. The Holy See therefore took the decision to sign, ratify and accede to practically all the treaties relating to disarmament. Of course, this was not done in order to disarm the ‘Vatican divisions’ but to encourage the international community to set up and strengthen ethical and pragmatic norms that would make it possible to live together in peace.

In this perspective, the Holy See is a State Party to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and State member of the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA), to the Convention on Biological Weapons (BWC), to the Convention on Chemical Weapons (CWC), to the Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel mines, and to the Convention on certain conventional weapons and its Protocols (CCW).

On a regular basis, the Holy See takes part in the activities of the Conference on Disarmament as an Observer State. I will mention, for example, only two areas in which the Holy See exerts active efforts to promote effective answers on the part of the international community. The first such example is found in the Ottawa Convention which deals with anti-personnel mines that provoke serious humanitarian consequences in many countries. The Holy See, State Party to this Convention, looks at this international instrument as one of the most successful in the area of disarmament. The contribution of the Holy See is expressed, in particular, by its commitment on behalf of the victims of anti-personnel mines and by its participation in the Group of contact seeking to universalize this Convention and thus by making good use of its bilateral relations to convince, as much as possible, those States that are not yet party to the Convention to join the 153 that already are.

The second example lies with the problem of cluster munitions which, since the Second World War, have been used with devastating humanitarian results for thousand of persons, particularly for children, and with destructive effects on vast surfaces of land that thus remain unusable for agriculture. The Holy See is of the opinion that the negative humanitarian consequences of these weapons far surpass their military benefit. In recent years, with the goal of arriving at an international agreement in this regard, the Holy See has called repeatedly for a moratorium in the use of these arms. In 2006, together with other five countries, the Holy See signed a document asking the CCW to adopt a specific mandate to negotiate a new treaty on cluster munitions. Thus, within the CCW framework and outside of it, the Holy See continues to participate actively, and in concert with a growing number of other States, in order to advance negotiations and reach some measures that can end the disastrous effects of these weapons.

The expansion of the concept of peace is another pertinent contribution of the Holy See to the international debate. Peace is not seen simply as the absence of war, but as an orderly system of just relations sustained by a spiritual dimension and the generosity of love. Pope Paul VI spoke of development as the “new name for peace” because “extreme disparity between nations in economic, social and educational levels provokes jealousy and discord, often putting peace in jeopardy.”[15] Again, in this area, the Holy See and the international community are speaking on the same wave length. A few months ago the U.N. Deputy Secretary General commented:

“Peacekeepers and preventive diplomacy remain essential tools in our efforts to silence guns and implement ceasefires, but by themselves they are not enough to counter humanity’s worse instincts…the search for a durable peace…requires the spread of values, attitudes and behaviours and embrace tolerance, justice and respect for human rights.”[16]


If a culture of peace is a requirement for its achievement, a culture of solidarity is equally necessary for the proper functioning of the global economy. Since the first great encyclical of Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, issued in 1891, the theme of economic relations among States have formed a major chapter of the Church’s social doctrine, and this preoccupation is articulated in a similar manner by some of the international organizations. In the U.N. family of agencies, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, established in 1964, promotes the “development-friendly” integration of developing countries into the world economy. UNCTAD has progressively evolved into an authoritative knowledge-based institution, the work of which aims to help shape current policy debates and thinking on development. Within the work of UNCTAD, one notes a particular focus on ensuring that domestic policies and international action are mutually supportive in bringing about sustainable development. UNCTAD also seeks to serve as a forum for intergovernmental deliberations aiming at consensus building, by undertaking research, policy analysis and data collection and by providing technical assistance tailored to the specific requirements of developing countries. The Holy See is a member of the UNCTAD Assembly and pays special attention to the needs of the least developed countries.

From July 1997, the Holy See has been a Permanent Observer to the World Trade Organization (WTO), to its Ministerial Conference, to its General Council and subsidiary bodies. This position is somewhat exceptional, since the Holy See is the only Observer country that does not have the obligation to start negotiations for membership, as is the case with every other State. The goal of the organization is the integration of all countries into a system of mutual exchanges based upon rules of trade. “At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. The goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business.” In this way, the WTO becomes the barometer of globalization that, beyond commercial and economic plays, shows the challenges posed by political decisions. The Holy See follows the main debates from the particular lens of the need to include the poorer countries and to advocate for fair treatment of such countries so that the benefits of globalization may be fairly distributed. It is not rare that the great powers cajole and coerce the smaller countries which disagree with them into accepting the same rules even though these latter have the burden of a very uneven starting point. On the occasion of Ministerial Conferences, but also in other moments, the point of view of the Holy See is made known: the centrality of the human person before all the rules and commercial mechanisms; the duty of subsidiarity for States and for international institutions; the responsibility of solidarity toward the less advantaged. The 1967 encyclical of Pope Paul VI remains very timely forty years after it was issued. It also offers some food for thought with regard to trade when it says:

“ Efforts are being made to help the developing nations financially and technologically. Some of these efforts are considerable. Yet all these efforts will prove to be vain and useless, if their results are nullified to a large extent by the unstable trade relations between rich and poor nations. The latter will have no grounds for hope or trust if they fear that what is being given them with one hand is being taken away with the other… It is evident that the principle of free trade, by itself, is no longer adequate for regulating international agreements. It certainly can work when both parties are about equal economically; in such cases it stimulates progress and rewards effort. That is why industrially developed nations see an element of justice in this principle. But the case is quite different when the nations involved are far from equal… Now in trade relations between the developing and the highly developed economies there is a great disparity in their overall situation and in their freedom of action. In order that international trade be human and moral, social justice requires that it restore to the participants a certain equality of opportunity. To be sure, this equality will not be attained at once, but we must begin to work toward it now by injecting a certain amount of equality into discussions and price talks.” (56-61)

Open markets and globalization can be positive developments if both accept an ethical dimension that not only adjusts their excesses but enhances the quality of the human presence.


[1] Henry de Riedmatten, «The Part Played by the Holy See in International Orgnaizations. » Concilium, vol.8/6 (October 1970), 74-93

[2] «Rispondere alle necessità immediate degli sfollati e ricostruire l’Iraq sulla base della riconciliazione,” L’Osservatore Romano, maggio 2007, p. 2. Text in English.

[3] Quotated in Vincenzo Buonomo, «The Holy See in the Contemporary International Community: a Juridical Approach According to the International Law and Practice,” in Civitas and Justitia, 04/II/1, p. 38

[4] Holy See Secretariat of State. Statistical Yearbook of the Church, 2003. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006 . Silvano M. Tomasi, c.s., “ Christianity before the Challenges of the Modern Era: the Perspective of the Catholic Church.”Inter-parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, 12th General Assembly. Geneva, 2005.

[5] David A. Morse, Director General, to His Eminence Cardinal Amleto Cicognani, Secretary of State, 10 July 1967, with attached Memorandum.

[6] Cfr., for example, L’Osservatore Romano, June 15, 2006, for the statement made at the 95th Session of the International Labour Conference

[7] United Nations General Assembly. High-level meeting and comprehensive review of the progress achieved in realizing the targets set out in the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS. Statement by Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, President of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care. New York, 2 June 2006.

[8] Holy See Secretariat of State, 203 Statistical Yearbook of the Church, op. cit., p. 356-366.

[9] U.N. General Assembly. Fifty-eight session. Agenda item 59. A/RES/58/314. 16 July 2004.

[10] Discorso di Giovanni Paolo II ai Capi di Stato e ai Rappresentanti delle Missioni straordinarie, 23 ottobre 1978

[11] For an exhaustive review and reporting of original texts of the Holy See’ areas of concern and of the philosophical and theological foundations on which rest s such concern, cf. André Dupuy. Words that Matter: The Holy See in Multilateral Diplomacy. Anthology (1970-2000). New York: The Path of Peace Foundation, 2003. Pp. 752.

[12] United Nations General Assembly. Sixtieth session. A7RES760/251. 3 April 2006

[13] John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, n. 80

[14] John Paul II, Message for the XXVIII World Day of Peace, 1995, n.1

[15] Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, n. 76 (1967)

[16] United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Asha –Rose Migiro. UN News Service, 27 February 2007.


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