Italy Pushes For Enhanced Vatican Role in World Health Assembly & WHO Executive Board
St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, Italy.

Italy is pushing for the Vatican – a steadfast opponent of sexual and reproductive health rights – to have an enhanced role and greater privileges at the WHO member state meetings of the World Health Assembly and its governing Executive Board, according to a copy of a draft resolution, seen by openDemocracy.

A handful of other European countries, including conservative Hungary and Poland, are understood to be co-sponsors of Italy’s draft decision that would go before the 74th session of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the governing body of the World Health Organization (WHO), meeting from 24 May-1 June

The measure would give the Vatican added rights to participate directly in WHA and Executive Board debates with member states, as well as the right to “co-sponsor draft WHA resolutions and decisions that make reference to the Holy See”.

The Vatican’s right to intervention would be immediately “after the last Member State inscribed on the list”, according to the draft, and “seating for the Holy See shall be arranged immediately after Member States.”

Effectively, the proposal also formalises a decades-long ad hoc arrangement in which it has been invited to the WHA every year at the discretion of WHO’s Director-General, under the rules governing “observers of non-Member states and territories” giving the Holy See a permanent seat at the table.

The Vatican also would have speaking priority over the other entities that currently attend the WHA as observers, upon DG invitation, including:  Palestine (Palestinian Authority, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the South Centre, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union.  In the past, Taiwan has also been an observer; its exculsion from an invite over the past several years has prompted heated debates and sharp criticism from the United States and other allies.

Worries About Hidden Agendas On Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights

Since February, Italy has been led by a coalition that includes both the right-wing Lega party and the centre-left Democratic Party. The government’s key, stated goal is to tackle health, economic and social crises related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Italy’s move to advance a decision formalizing the status of the Holy See at the WHA to participate shoulder to shoulder with member states in debates and meetings, including those of policy and budget committees, has alarmed advocates of reproductive and sexual health rights. 

Jessica Stern, executive director of the LGBTIQ rights group OutRight Action International, contrasted the WHO’s mission to support the health of all people with the Vatican’s “exclusionary” position towards sexual minorities. 

“The WHO is no place for religiously-based exclusion, especially in the midst of a pandemic which has disproportionately harmed those who are most vulnerable, including LGBTIQ people and women,” she said. 

Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, said the Vatican has tried to thwart progress on women’s and LGBT rights at the UN for decades. Church doctrine on sexual and reproductive health issues, Manson added, “has life or death consequences, particularly in the poorest parts of the global south. It’s very serious.”

When Italy’s initial draft of the proposal was first shared with government delegations earlier this month, it proposed giving the Holy See the right to co-sponsor decisions on any topic whatsoever – potentially including measures referring to the right to abortion, contraception and LGBT rights.

Holy See to ‘Co-Sponsor’ Resolutions?

Italy later backtracked on that initial draft – with the current, more limited text, referring only to the Vatican’s right to co-sponsor those “[WHA] resolutions and decisions that make reference to the Holy See”. 

Effectively, the proposal also formalises a decades-long ad hoc arrangement in which it has been invited to the WHA each year at the discretion of its director-general, under the rules governing “observers of non-Member states and territories” giving the Holy See a permanent seat at the table.

The Vatican already holds a similar role at the UN General Assembly. However, rights advocates are still concerned – because of how the Vatican has used other UN bodies to “obstruct” resolutions and decisions on sexual and reproductive rights. 

Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF), argued: “Pope Francis gives the Vatican a softer image, but its international diplomacy and the content behind it hasn’t changed.”

“With such an institutionalised status at the WHA, as opposed to courtesy invitations, the Holy See could start acting here as it does elsewhere in the UN and that could cause trouble for sexual and reproductive rights,” Datta warned. 

Italian journalist and activist Nicoletta Dentico, who heads the Global Health Programme at Society for International Development, said that while “faith-based entities should be allowed to express their points of view at UN agencies, they should “in no way play an enhanced role” as it remains unclear to whom they are accountable. 

“The Holy See should not have the same status as member states on health issues,” she added, both because of its “viewpoint on sexual and reproductive health and women’s health rights,” as well as the fact that the Vatican also serves as a private healthcare provider, with a vast network of hospitals and clinics around the world. 

Anti-rights Track Record

The Vatican has long opposed access to abortion, contraception, surrogacy and in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) – as well as marriage and adoption for same-sex couples. 

Stern at OutRight Action International cited as examples previous Vatican guidance “denying the existence and rights of transgender and intersex people”, and advocacy at the UN “against numerous gender and LGBTIQ equality initiatives”.

Gualberto Garcia Jones, the Holy See’s legal officer at the Organization of American States (OAS), is also on the board of CitizenGO – which launched a 2020 petition to defund the WHO over “promoting Communist China’s false COVID-19 information”.

Several Vatican officials were also listed as speakers in the programme of the 2019 summit of the World Congress of Families. This is a network of anti-abortion and anti-LGBT rights movements, founded by US and Russian ultra-conservatives. 

Negotiations over Italy’s resolution are ongoing behind closed doors and positions appear to be changing rapidly – both within the European Union and internationally. An informal meeting over the text was held on Thursday morning. 

None of the states believed to be co-sponsors of the resolution, including Italy, responded to requests for comment. The Holy See also did not reply. 

Additional reporting by Nandini Archer, Lou Ferreira and Elaine Ruth Fletcher


Image Credits: DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0, Pixabay.

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