What’s the smallest country in the world?
By area or population?
Was it really that easy?
What makes a country a country?
The issue is defining what a country is, and some argue that the Vatican doesn’t fulfill that criteria.
The first problem is that it’s not a member of the United Nations. Technically, it’s not even a non-member state—that would be the Holy See, which the United Nations describes as “a nearly 2,000-year old term that refers to the international sovereignty of the Pope, or leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican City State is the geographic property that ensures that sovereignty.”
But UN membership is not required to be called a country. Few would argue that Switzerland wasn’t a country before it joined the UN in 2002, or that Italy only came into existence when it joined in 1955.
One of the most common ways to define a country is by using the Montevideo Convention, which was signed between several North and South American countries in 1933. According to Article One of the Convention: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”
Of these, the Vatican has a permanent population of around 1000 people (although, due to the odd way the Vatican is structured, only about half the population actually has Vatican citizenship), a clearly defined territory, a government, and has relations with many other states. As such, it probably is a country.
What about the Sovereign Order of Malta?
There is one group that makes the question a bit more complex: the Sovereign Order of Malta (SOM), also known as the Order of St. John.
Tracing its history to 1048, the Order was officially founded by Papal Bull in 1113 and took control of Malta in 1530. Then they lost Malta in 1798 and found themselves in Rome, where they occupied the Magistral Palace and Magistral Villa in Rome. In 2001 they came to an agreement with the Maltese government to take control of a fort in Malta.
All of this leads some to claim that they are the smallest nation in the world, with an area of at best a couple of buildings and a population generally stated as three people (although approximately 13,500 people are members and an additional 80,000 volunteer). It also has the rarest passport in the world, with only the Grand Master possessing a permanent passport, although 12 people also have temporary passports.
But it’s debated whether it truly can be considered a country. Going back to the UN argument, it has the same classification as entities like the Red Cross and the International Olympic Committee. A 2017 article in The Spectator argued that the order is essentially a religious order under the auspices of the more internationally recognized Holy See, and as such shouldn’t be considered a separate country.
The Spectator's argument boils down to the lack of a population, the lack of any territory to call its own (compared to the situation where the Holy See owns the Vatican), and a fairly recent controversy surrounding the Order.
In 2016, Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager was ousted by the order for his part in an alleged scheme to promote condom use in Myanmar. After the firing, von Boeselager appealed to Pope Francis, who appointed a five-member committee to investigate. After some fighting over sovereignty, the Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing (Fra’ is a title in the Order of Malta) was forced to resign and von Boeselager was reinstated.
The Spectator’s point in bringing this up is that “the Order’s claim to be independent has a dubious foundation—the Knights cannot be, for they owe ultimate allegiance to the Pope and the Vatican State. It follows therefore that it is a vassal and not a sovereign state.”
Not everyone agrees with that sentiment, so the Sovereign Order of Malta exists as an asterisk on the smallest nation trivia.
What if I don't like either claimant?
Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.