Bold Abortion Talk From Chair of UN Committee for Social and Economic Rights

By Stefano Gennarini, J.D. | October 19, 2016

A deserted conference room at UN headquarters was treated to an unusually candid description of how UN treaty bodies promote abortion and homosexuality yesterday at UN Headquarters in New York.

Responding to a question from New Zealand about what the Kiwi delegate referred to as the “sexual and reproductive health gap” at the United Nations the Chair of the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), Mr. Waleed Sadi, had this to say:

Some of the reasons (for the sexual and reproductive health gap) are religious. Take the issue of abortion. We cannot ignore that… (he mentioned recent debates about abortion in Poland) Sometimes its religious. Sometimes it traditional. Let’s be candid. In countries that belong to the Islamic faith we find it hard to refer to the right to abortion.

There is more to it (sexual and reproductive health).

There is also access to ways to have safe sexual relations. At what age we even discuss rape. We also talk about gay and lesbian rights. These issues are hotly disputed and discussed in traditional societies. These countries are not about to change their positions because of our General Comments. General Comments are just an instrument of change. It is going to take time. It is a matter of friendly persuasion, keeping the momentum of pressure on countries and to show them that adherence need not come in conflict with traditions.

The Kiwi delegate was lamenting the inability to get the broader UN membership on board with the entire “sexual and reproductive health” agenda of the UN bureaucracy and donor states, including abortion rights and homosexual rights.

He referred specifically to the inability of New Zealand to get the Human Rights Council to even take note of CESCR General Comment 22 recently in a resolution on maternal health. General Comments are exhaustive interpretations of single articles of a human rights treaty that UN treaty bodies began to issue systematically only in recent years.

General Comments have progressively expanded from succinct single page clarifications of definite issues about implementation that come up in the reports of state parties to extensive, prescriptive, and detailed comments on how states should interpret the provisions of UN treaties. UN committees like to refer to these comments as “authoritative jurisprudence”—a very ambiguous appellation since “jurisprudence” means binding precedent in common law countries, and UN committees do not have any authority to bind state parties to their interpretations of UN treaties.

Sadi described the exercise of writing General Comments as “putting flesh on a skeleton.” He explained bluntly that “many countries fail to comprehend the full import of the provisions” or “understand what the covenants are about.”

Mr. Sadi, a Jordanian human rights professional who works for the Jordanian foreign ministry and has been in and out of the UN treaty body system over the past four decades, complained about “lack of interest in reporting” to the treaty bodies.

He said the failure of the United States to ratify the UN treaty on social and economic rights was partly to blame, and lamented that Bernie Sanders did not raise the issue of ratification during his election campaign.

He also complained about the lack of attention that states attribute to UN treaty body opinions.

The problem is States rarely refer to our General Comments. They don’t figure highly in government responses. This is something we try to market.

It was revealing that the room where the remarks echoed emptily was scarcely occupied. No more than fifty lower level delegates were in attendance—the kind that only take note of what other delegation say without delivering remarks themselves.

The questions from delegates were also slow to come.

All in all, Mr. Sadi only had to deal with 5 questions. Considering that there are 194 UN delegations that could have interacted with him, it demonstrates a remarkable low level of esteem, and perhaps even a lack of courtesy, for Mr. Sadi and his committee. The few delegations that actually care at all what the treaty bodies have to say rushed to the room at the last minute when their interns told them the time for questions had come. Even the question from New Zealand was late in coming, and just barely avoided the gavel.

It is no surprise that states did not ensure delegates attended the session.

UN treaty bodies were squarely warned last year not to issue unfounded opinions that unilaterally seek to impose obligations on states that were never agreed, such as in the case of General Comment 22 and what it says about abortion and homosexual rights.

Delegations from many corners of the world expressed their disappointment that UN treaty bodies were trying to impose never agreed obligations on member states, that could not be fairly derived from good faith interpretations of UN human rights treaties.

Mr. Sadi addressed these accusations head on.

Some states feel that we are trying to legislate human rights principles beyond the treaties. Making new rules… Some General Comments are rather lengthy. We really have to be careful not to give the impression we are going beyond.

But it looks as though member states have caught on to the deception and are now responding to UN treaty body overreach by ignoring their presence in New York altogether.

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