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Full Access The International Legal Status of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta

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The International Legal Status of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta

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Abstract The Order of Malta is an entity which established its own states on Rhodes (1310–1522) and Malta (1530–1798). Since 1834, it has been located in Rome. Today, the Order is universally regarded as a subject of international law. The Order exercises right of legation and ius contrahendi. It still is not a primary, i.e., sovereign, subject of international law. Paradoxically, it is its distinguishing feature, i.e., being a religious order that prevents it from being genuinely sovereign. Sovereignty means independence from any external power. In the case of any order of the Roman Catholic Church, this is absolutely impossible. The Order’s Grand Master can be elected only from among religious in terms of canon law who have made vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and is fully subordinate to the Pope. Yet the Order undoubtedly is a secondary subject of international law whose status is determined by its recognition by primary subjects.

1. FN11) See e.g. Edward Potkowski, Zakony rycerskie [Military Orders] (2005) pp. 86 and 122.
2. FN22) For more on the functioning of military orders in the context of activities of other orders within the Roman Catholic Church, see Fr Joachim R. Bar, Prawo zakonne po Soborze Watykańskim II [Law of Religious Orders after the Second Vatican Council], (1977) pp. 26, 30 and 31.
3. FN33) Ludwik Ehrlich, Prawo narodów [The Law of Nations] (1932) p. 152.
4. FN44) The current official name of the Order, specified in its Constitutional Charter of 27 June 1961 is: Sovrano Militare Ordine Ospedaliero di San Giovanni di Gierusalemme detto di Rodi detto di Malta (The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta). Texts of the Order’s Constitutional Charter and Code, annexed to the Charter:
5. FN55) Jarosław Sozański, Suwerenny Zakon Kawalerów Maltańskich jako podmiot prawa międzynarodowego [The Sovereign Order of Malta as a Subject of International Law] (manuscript of the Ph. D. thesis – Institute of International Law, University of Warsaw, Rome–Warsaw 1989/1990) p. 65. See also: Józef Łaptos (ed.), Historia małych krajów Europy [The History of Small States in Europe] (2002) p. 287.
6. FN66) Sozański, supra note 5, pp. 66–67.
7. FN77) Gabriel Ollivier, Histoire abregée de l’Ordre Souverain de Malte (1965) p. 20.
8. FN88) Sozański, supra note 5, pp. 69–70.
9. FN99) Remigiusz Bierzanek, Janusz Symonides, Prawo międzynarodowe publiczne [Public International Law] (1998) p. 56.
10. FN1010) Podręcznik Związku Polskich Kawalerów Maltańskich [Manual of the Polish Association of the Order of Malta] (1932) pp. 10–11; Jonathan Riley–Smith, The Knights of St. John in Jerusalem and Cyprus (1967) p. 15.
11. FN1111) Wojciech Góralczyk, Stefan Sawicki, Prawo międzynarodowe publiczne w zarysie [An Outline of Public International Law] (2011) p. 178.
12. FN1212) Richard Barber, The Knight and Chivalry (1970) p. 315.
13. FN1313) Sozański, supra note 5, p. 69.
14. FN1414) Ibid. p. 71.
15. FN1515) Ibid.
16. FN1616) Ibid. p. 69.
17. FN1717) Tito Manlio Gazzoni, L’Ordine di Malta e le sua Carta constituzionale (1973) p. 6; Riccardo Monaco, Considerazioni sulla sovranité dell’Ordine di S. Giovanni di Gerusalemme detto di Malta (no year of publication given) p. 5; Podręcznik Związku Polskich Kawalerów Maltańskich, supra note 10, p. 12.
18. FN1818) Sozański, supra note 5, p. 72. See also Noel Cox, ‘The Acquisition of Sovereignty by Quasi-States: The Case of the Order of Malta’, 6 (1–2) Mountbatten Journal of Legal Studies (2002) pp. 31–32; Francesco Gazzoni, Ordine di Malta (1979) p. 39.
19. FN1919) Sozański, supra note 5, pp. 74–75.
20. FN2020) Ibid., p. 76. See also Catalogue of the Records of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in the Royal Malta Library, vol. 1 (1963) p. 31 et seq.
21. FN2121) Gazzoni, supra note 18, p. 15; Michel de Pierredon, Histoire politique de l’Ordre Souverain de Saint–Jean de Jerusalem de 1789 a 1955 (1963) p. 7 et seq.; Sozański, supra note 5, pp. 163–164.
22. FN2222) Charles D’Olivier Farran, ‘The Sovereign Order of Malta in International Law’, 3 International and Comparative Law Quarterly (1954) p. 13. See also Sozański, supra note 5, pp. 76–77.
23. FN2323) Marcello Marrocco Trischitta, The Knights of Malta. A Legend Towards the Future (2000) p. 36. For more on the Order’s status under international law after the loss of Malta, see Alejandro J. Rodríguez Carrión, Lecciones de derecho internacional público (1998) p. 165.
24. FN2424) Aldo Pezzana, Il fondamento giuridico e storico della sovranité dell’Ordine Gerosolimitano di Malta, (no year of publication given) p. 20.
25. FN2525) Ibid. p. 21.
26. FN2626) Sozański, supra note 5, p. 81; Pezzana, supra note 24; De Pierredon, supra note 21, p. 41 et seq.
27. FN2727) Barbara Mielnik, Kształtowanie się pozapaństwowej podmiotowości w prawie międzynarodowym [The Development of Non-state Subjectivity in International Law] (2008) pp. 141–142. Joint chambers of the Italian Court of Cassation held on 14 July 1953 that the Order was a subject of International law “recognised by other members of the international community”. Text of the ruling, in 1 Revue Critique de Droit International Prive (1955) p. 159 et seq. See also information on the Order’s website:
28. FN2828) Pezzana, supra note 24, p. 27. For more on the process before the Cardinalitial Tribunal see also Tadeusz Breza, Spiżowa Brama [The Bronze Gate] (1968) pp. 259–266 and 504–519, and Sozański, supra note 5, pp. 85–86.
29. FN2929) Marrocco Trischitta, supra note 23, p. 42; Mielnik, supra note 27, p. 140; Monaco, supra note 17, p. 7 et seq.; Sozański, supra note 5, p. 104.
30. FN3030) Cezary Berezowski, Zagadnienia zwierzchnictwa terytorialnego. Z teorii prawa międzynarodowego [The Issue of Territorial Sovereignty. From the Theory of International Law] (1957) p. 27.
31. FN3131) Ibid.
32. FN3232) Julian Makowski, Podręcznik prawa międzynarodowego [International Law Textbook] (1948) p. 96.
33. FN3333) Ibid., p. 59.
34. FN3434) Ibid., p. 96.
35. FN3535) As E. Potkowski points out, “the Knights of St. John have returned today to the tradition of their founders and are engaged only in charity work: they run hospitals and shelters for lepers in Africa, and their ambulances bring medical assistance to the wounded in many countries of the world affected by armed conflicts”. Potkowski, supra note 1, pp. 160–161.
36. FN3636) Source:
37. FN3737) Mielnik, supra note 27, p. 140.
38. FN3838) Ibid., p. 141.
39. FN3939) Ibid., p. 97.
40. FN4040) Ibid., p. 275. See also Gazzoni, supra note 18, p. 112.
41. FN4141) Jarosław Sozański, Ochrona prawna inwestycji zagranicznych [Legal Protection of Foreign Investments] (2002) p. 41.
42. FN4242) ‘Codex Iuris Canonici auctoritate Ioannis Pauli PP. II promulgatus’, in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 75 [1983], II, pp. 3–317.
43. FN4343) Bar, supra note 2, pp. 72–73. The author makes this comment referring to the Code of Canon Law of 1917. (Codex Iuris Canonici, Pii X Pontificis Maximi iussu digestus, Benedicti Papae XV auctoritate promulgatus, in “Acta Apostolicae Sedis”, 9 [1917], II, pp. 3–321). The same norm was retained in Can. 120 § 1 of CIC/1983.
44. FN4444) For more on the legal and actual powers of the Pope in this respect, see Mario Costarella, I Cavalieri di Malta nella tradizione e nelle opere (1956). See also Anna-Karin Lindblom, Non-Governmental Organizations in International Law (2005) pp. 64–65; Sozański, supra note 5, pp. 122 and 151. The amendment of the Order’s Constitutional Chapter made by the Chapter General of 28–30 June 1997 was published in the Order’s Official Journal only after eight months. This is, apparently, how long it had to wait for approval of the Holy See.
45. FN4545) Article 62 of the Code of the Order.
46. FN4646) Membership in the Order of Malta: Regulations and Commentary, Promulgated by H.M.E.H. the Prince and Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing and approved by the Sovereign Council on February 18, 2011 (2011) p. 91.
47. FN4747) Article 2 § 1 of the Constitutional Charter of the Order.
48. FN4848) Article 4 § 3 of the Constitutional Charter of the Order.
49. FN4949) Article 14 of the Constitutional Charter of the Order.
50. FN5050) Article 15 § 2(g) of the Constitutional Charter of the Order.
51. FN5151) Articles 6 and 11 § 1 of the Code of the Order.
52. FN5252) Article 16 of the Constitutional Charter of the Order.
53. FN5353) Article 22 § 2 of the Constitutional Charter of the Order.
54. FN5454) Article 150 § 1(b) of the Code of the Order.
55. FN5555) Article 28 § 3 of the Constitutional Charter of the Order and Article 222 § 1 of the Code of the Order.
56. FN5656) Władysław Czapliński, Anna Wyrozumska, Prawo międzynarodowe publiczne. Zagadnienia systemowe [Public International Law. Systemic Problems] (2004) p. 135.
57. FN5757) For more on the concept of sovereignty see, e.g. Jerzy Kranz, Państwo i jego suwerenność [The State and its Sovereignty] 7 Państwo i Prawo (1996) p. 3 et seq. The substantial dependence of the Order on the Holy See has been pointed out by such authors as, e.g., Antonio Cassese, who even talks of the Order’s “ephemeral status as subject of international law” in this context. Antonio Cassese, International Law (2005) p. 132.
58. FN5858) Franciszek Andrzej Dziuba, ‘Relacje Zakonu Maltańskiego ze Stolicą Apostolską’ [The Order of Malta’s Relationship with the Holy See] 3 Forum Iuridicum (2004) p. 130.
59. FN5959) Sozański, supra note 5, pp. 274–275.
60. FN6060) Béat de Fischer, ‘L’Ordre Souverain de Malte aujourd’hui’, 1 Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge (1975) p. 5.
61. FN6161) Alfred C. Breycha-Vauthier,’ L’Ordre S.M. Jerosolymitain de Malte. Evolutions recentes’, 16 Zeitschrift für ausländisches öffentliches Recht und Völkerrecht (1955/1956) p. 509.
62. FN6262) Generally speaking, there is no doubt about this in the international law doctrine. However, authors who speak on this topic usually do not say whether it is a primary or secondary status. See, e.g. Czapliński and Wyrozumska, supra note 54, p. 132; Matthias Herdegen, Völkerrecht (2000) pp. 86–87; Ján Klučka, Medzinárodné právo verejné (všeobecná časť) [Public International Law (General Part)], (2004) p. 83; Jerzy Pieńkos, Prawo międzynarodowe publiczne [Public International Law] (2004) pp. 63–64. On the other hand, Jan Białocerkiewicz, while listing the acts referring to the Order as sovereign, does not classify it in any way that would clearly indicate the kind of subjectivity in international law we are dealing with in this case. Jan Białocerkiewicz, Prawo międzynarodowe publiczne [Public International Law], (2007) pp. 140–141. A.-K. Lindblom defines it as an “NGO”. Lindblom, supra note 44, pp. 370–371.
63. FN6363) Sozański, supra note 5, p. 273.
64. FN6464) The Constitution of the USSR granted Union Republics of the USSR – in addition to sovereignty and statehood – the right to enter into multilateral and bilateral international agreements, join international governmental organisations and maintain diplomatic and consular relations with “other” states. Two Union Republics of the USSR (Belarusian SSR and Ukrainian SSR) were among the UN founding members, even though according to the UN Charter only states could be members of this international organisation. The sovereignty of the Union Republics of the USSR was described in the international law doctrine. This, however, does not change the fact that in international law sovereignty is objective. Calling itself a sovereign subject or being called sovereign by others does not mean that such an entity is indeed sovereign under this law. For more see Karol Karski, Międzynarodowe aspekty prawnego statusu republik związkowych ZSRR [International Aspects of the Legal Status of the Union’s Republics of the USSR], (1991); Karol Karski, Proces rozpadu Związku Radzieckiego [The Process of Dissolution of the Soviet Union], (1992).
65. FN6565) Janusz Gilas, Prawo międzynarodowe [International Law] (1999) p. 119.
66. FN6666) Ibid.
67. FN6767) Sergei B. Krylov, Podmioty “międzynarodowego prawa przyszłości” [Subjects of “the future international law”], in V.N. Durdenevsky and S.B. Krylov (eds.), Podręcznik prawa międzynarodowego [Manual of International Law] (1950) p. 128.
68. FN6868) Lindblom, supra note 44, pp. 370–371.

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Affiliations: 1: Department of Public International Law, Institute of International Law, Faculty of Law and Administration, University of Warsaw Warsaw Poland


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