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Why does the Military Order of Malta have sovereignty, even though it lacks a territory?

  • 02 Aug 13
knights of MaltaThe Sovereign Military and Hospital Order of Malta of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, better known as the Military Order of Malta, is a Catholic order founded before the capture of Jerusalem in the year 1099. Currently, its central headquarters are found in Rome, Italy.
Since 1994, the Military Order of Malta appears in the position of Permanent Observer before the organisations of the United Nations and keeps permanent delegations before international organisations with headquarters in New York, Geneva, Paris, Rome and Vienna.
The Military Order of Malta is a supranational institution that, without abandoning the defense of Christian ideals, consecrates its energy and resources to humanitarian and social assistance, becoming the only religious Order of the Catholic Church to be, at times, a Catholic Order of Knights.
The life and activity of the Military Order of Malta are governed by the Charter Constitution, approved by the Holy See and the Code of Rohan, promulgated b the Grand Master Frey Emmanuel of Rohan-Polduc in the XVIII century. The Military Order of Malta is present as a complete international legal entity. This entity is proven by the existence of the right to active and passive legation, of “jus contrahendi”, the right to issue passports, the prerogative of immunity enjoyed by the Grand Master and the external representative bodies, by the existence of an internal organisation that gives life to recognised legal persons on the par with foreign legal persons, by the existence of its own distinct jurisdiction, and by the power to confer medals.
During its multi-century life, the Military Order of Malta has acted independently from any State. It is not a governmental organisation or institution, but it has affirmed – in the Constitutions it has produced during the years – its own sovereign quality, a greatly important affirmation for evaluating the system’s independence. The Military Order of Malta is also sovereign in its international relations and its own internal legislation. Belonging to the Order is not incompatible with the duties that citizens and subjects have toward their own States. Even when the Order enjoyed a territoriality, army and fleet, it was always strictly neutral in wars between Christian powers. In the environs of international law, establishing diplomatic relations between a State and the Order of Malta simply implied recognition of its status, but in no way did it involve accepting the Order’s legal norms into its own territory.
The Order’s life and activities are governed by its Constitutional Charter and its Code. The current head of the Order is the 79th Prince and Grand Master Frey Matthew Festing, elected for life by the Full Council of State. The Government Council is the advisory body of the Sovereign Council; it advises on political, religious, hospital and international matters. An Auditors Court exercises control over economic and financial questions. Legal questions are submitted to the Legal Council, whose members are nominated by the Grand Master and the Sovereign Council. The jurisdictional operation is exercised by the Magisterial Courts.
Today, most of its 13,500 members are laymen, all dedicated to exercising Christian virtues and charity.
On August 24, 1994, the General assembly of the United Nations resolved to invite the Military Order of Malta to participate in its session and work periods as an observer. The proposal was supported by 71 countries and approved without needing to vote. The Order accepted the invitation and nominated a representative, with the rank of Ambassador, who took office on September 26 of that same year. “In recognition of your absolute sovereignty as a member with full equality of the international community…” was spoken of in the attachment to the petition. It was also declared that he members of the order are loyal citizens of their respective countries; this loyalty is not compromised by the fact that they form part of the Order, which constitutes a supplementary multinational honor.”
The Military Order of Malta has representation in many other international organisations, among which the Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Health Organisation (WHO), The Red Cross, the FAO, the UNESCO, European Council.
Currently, the Military Order of Malta maintains diplomatic relations with 104 countries on 5 continents. In the case of the Americas, the Military Order of Malta maintains diplomatic relations with Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Surinam, Uruguay and Venezuela.

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