Sovereign Military Order of Malta - International Status of The Order

International Status of The Order

See also: Foreign relations of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, List of Permanent Observers of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta to the United Nations, List of diplomatic missions of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, and List of diplomatic missions to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta

With its unique history and unusual present circumstances, the exact status of the Order in international law has been the subject of debate. It describes itself as a "sovereign subject of international law." Its two headquarters in Rome — the Palazzo Malta in Via di Condotti 68, where the Grand Master resides and Government Bodies meet, and the Villa Malta on the Aventine, which hosts the Grand Priory of Rome — Fort Saint Angelo on the island of Malta, the Embassy of the Order to Holy See and the Embassy of the Order to Italy have all been granted extraterritoriality.

However, unlike the Holy See, which is sovereign over Vatican City and thus has clear territorial separation of its sovereign areas and Italy, SMOM has had no territory since the loss of the island of Malta in 1798. Currently SMOM has only the properties with extraterritoriality listed above. Italy recognizes, in addition to extraterritoriality, the exercise by SMOM of all the prerogatives of sovereignty in its headquarters. Therefore, Italian sovereignty and SMOM sovereignty uniquely coexist without overlapping. The United Nations does not classify it as a "non-member state" or "intergovernmental organization" but as one of the "other entities having received a standing invitation to participate as observers." For instance, while the International Telecommunication Union has granted radio identification prefixes to such quasi-sovereign jurisdictions as the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority, SMOM has never received one. For awards purposes, amateur radio operators consider SMOM to be a separate "entity", but stations transmitting from there use an entirely unofficial callsign, starting with the prefix "1A". Likewise, for internet identification, the SMOM has neither sought nor been granted a top-level domain, while Vatican City uses its own domain (.va).

There are differing opinions as to whether a claim to sovereign status has been recognized. Ian Brownlie, Helmut Steinberger, and Wilhelm Wengler are among experts who say that the claim has not been recognized. Even taking into account the Order's ambassadorial diplomatic status among many nations, a claim to sovereign status is sometimes rejected. The Order maintains diplomatic missions around the world and many of the states reciprocate by accrediting ambassadors to the Order.

Wengler—a German professor of international law—addresses this point in his book Völkerrecht, and rejects the notion that recognition of the Order by some states can make it a subject of international law. Conversely, professor Rebecca Wallace —writing more recently in her book International Law—explains that a sovereign entity does not have to be a country, and that SMOM is an example of this. This position appears to be supported by the number of nations extending diplomatic relations to the Order, which more than doubled from 49 to 100 in the 20-year period to 2008. In 1953, the Holy See proclaimed that the Order of Malta was a "functional sovereignty"— because it did not have all that pertained to sovereignty, such as territory. On 24 June 1961, Pope John XXIII approved the Constitutional Charter, which contains the most solemn reaffirmations of the sovereignty of the Order. Article 1 affirms that "the Order is a legal entity formally approved by the Holy See. It has the quality of a subject of international law." Article 3 states that "the intimate connection existing between the two qualities of a religious order and a sovereign order do not oppose the autonomy of the order in the exercise of its sovereignty and prerogatives inherent to it as a subject of international law in relation to States."

SMOM has formal diplomatic relations with 104 states and has official relations with another six countries and the European Union. Additionally it has relations with the International Committee of the Red Cross and a number of international organizations, including observer status at the UN and some of the specialized agencies. Its international nature is useful in enabling it to pursue its humanitarian activities without being seen as an operative of any particular nation. Its sovereignty is also expressed in the issuance of passports, licence plates, stamps, and coins.

The SMOM coins are appreciated more for their subject matter than for their use as currency; SMOM postage stamps, however, have been gaining acceptance among Universal Postal Union member nations.

The SMOM began issuing euro-denominated postage stamps in 2005, although the scudo remains the official currency of the SMOM. Also in 2005, the Italian post agreed with the SMOM to deliver internationally most classes of mail other than registered, insured, and special-delivery mail; additionally 56 countries recognize SMOM stamps for franking purposes, including those such as Canada and Mongolia that lack diplomatic relations with the Order.

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