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The Knights of Saint John; Chivalry and the Sovereign State


When you think of the word knights, what comes to mind? I can imagine you would conjure up images of shining armor, lords and ladies, castles and kings; certainly not beaurocracy, charity fundraisers, and lots and lots of red wine. But, in this day and age, the modern knight is most often found hoisting a tray of hors d'oeuvres than a broadsword. In this, we find the most important, yet most unexpected, duty completed by organizations such as the Sovereign Military order of Malta defines itself. The order claims to have been founded in the 11th century, so it is an absolutely ancient organization, yet it has permanent observer status at the UN and is considered a sovereign entity under international law (without having any land), giving it the right to maintain diplomatic relations with other countries. Why is the order being given such rare treatment under international law, and is it right that such an order so linked to religion has such treatment?

A brief history of the Order

The Order has both a defined history and a less defined history; the history of its supposed predecessor, the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights Hospitaller was founded by Blessed Gérard de Martigues, a brother in the Benedictine order, who was given funding to develop a church, convent, and hospital to take care of pilgrims of all religions in the Holy Land. The order of St John of Jerusalem, the monks who ran the hospital, became independent and Blessed Gerard served as its first rector. With the political climate of the day (Islamic attacks on the new Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem), the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s constitution required the order to maintain a force of men to defend the poor, the sick, and the Kingdom’s territory, making it both a monastic and a knightly order. The order functioned mainly as a military institution until the invasion of Malta by Napolean in 1798. In 1879, the order was restored by Pope Leo XIII, with its main function now being its hospitaller missions. This has continued till the present day, with the order having run hospitaller missions in the 1st and 2nd world wars. As can be seen in the information above, the Order has always had two main functions, being Humanitarian, medical & social assistance, as well as the protection of the poor.

Reasons behind, and moral support for, the Organization’s Special Treatment

The reason for the organization's special treatment is related directly to its humanitarian function. If we view the main function of the order to be humanitarian, then we can understand the practical reasons why the UN and other institutions decided to designate the Order as a sovereign entity under international law. Due to the order’s sovereign status, it has a degree of independence from other nations such as Italy (where it is headquartered). Due to this independence, the Order is uniquely suited to act as an impartial, politically neutral source of humanitarian support, as well as a possible backchannel communication mechanism between nations. Such an organization would be vital in, e.g., civil wars, where a party must be seen to be independent of the other side in order to move freely without interruption. Any interruptions in a war zone could mean vital support can't get to the people who need it, possibly meaning people die. The practical and moral need for the organization's independent status can clearly be seen.

Moral issues can be seen in the inherently catholic nature of these organizations. The independence and impartiality of the order would be threatened if they had a bias towards Catholics, hurting the whole reason behind the order’s special status. However, the actions of the order have (for thousands of years) been without bias against other religions. The order’s very first operations in Jerusalem were without bias and some of their most recent activities (for example, their Bethlehem operations) have continued this centuries-long tradition of impartiality. This trend has had no indication of having been cut short, so I can reasonably assume that there has been no bias in the organization’s activities.


As can be seen from the order’s history and track record, the Order of Malta’s special status under international law is justified through its uniquely unbiased, impartial position in the world order and is morally justified due to its unbiased operations.


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