Sovereign identity and the Knights of Malta

Palazzo_di_Malta,_Roma 2

While looking into passports for sale the other day (not for me, you understand… not yet, anyway), I came across a name that I had heard before but knew very little about. So I did some digging and almost had my mind blown.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta – also known as the Knights of Malta, or Knights Hospitaller – is a religious order with ties to the Holy See that dates back to the early 12th century. But, it is also an independent, sovereign subject of international law.

Its mission is still, almost 1000 years later, to care for the sick and infirm, especially those displaced by conflict. As well as its 13,500 members, it has 80,000 volunteers and employs approximately 25,000 medical personnel.

So, it is an NGO with sovereign status. It can negotiate with other governments as a sovereign entity. Other global NGOs such as Caritas, Greenpeace and Médecins sans Frontières need the backing of a sovereign power. The Knights of Malta don’t, because they are one.

It doesn’t have any territory, except for two buildings in Rome, both of which have extraterritorial status (which means that they are technically not part of Italy – much like embassies).

In 1998, however, it signed a treaty with Malta for the use of the upper portion of Fort St. Angelo in the city of Birgu (for the next 99 years). Technically, this will also be a sovereign territory, but the Order will not be able to grant asylum to anyone, and Maltese law applies. At the moment, it appears to be used for historical and cultural activities.

And get this: the Sovereign Military Order of Malta can issue stamps, currency and passports.

Three of them, to be precise. The Order issues passports to the Grand Master, the Deputy Grand Master, and the Chancellor of the Order.

It has diplomatic relations with over 100 states, including the European Union, which means embassies. It also has observer status at the United Nations (along with the Red Cross, the Council of Europe, the African Development Bank, the European Organization for Nuclear Research and a host of other not-for-profit academic and regional associations), which entitles it to participate in the work of the UN General Assembly.

What I find most intriguing about this is the concept of sovereignty being granted to an organization that has no territory and no citizens (sort of). True, it was granted almost a millennium ago, and no government has dared to attempt to alter that.

Personally, I hope that they never do. I find the mix of chivalry and honour, combined with the long reach of history, totally captivating.

And the notion that sovereignty does not always require the traditional parameters of borders and citizens opens up a new understanding of what could become possible as identity is redefined.

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