UN Population Commission Shell shocked By Resistance To Sexual Agenda

By Stefano Gennarini, J.D. | April 18, 2015

The end to the 48th Session of the UN commission on population and development (CPD) was somber. The atmosphere in the room was muted and still. After two weeks of negotiations an agreement could not be reached on how to integrate population policies in the post-2015 development agenda—the purpose and theme of the commission this year.

You could hear a pin drop as Nigeria informed the chair of the commission that her chair’s text of the draft resolution needed just a few tweaks that would only take 10 minutes. She would have none of it.

The Belgian chair’s voice was frail but unyielding. It seemed on the cusp of breaking when she announced that her chair’s draft would be withdrawn rather than accept any last minute changes. She was not willing to accommodate concerns of African countries about the terms like “comprehensive education on human sexuality” (CSE) and “reproductive rights” (RR). The terms are associated with controversial notions of sexual rights for children and promoting social acceptance of homosexuality. Rather than qualify or delete those terms she scuttled her draft.

The Chair went against the advice of the Netherlands, U.K., Germany, and some Nordic countries, who suggested that 10 minutes more of discussion might have been a better solution than having no outcome at all, even though in UN-speak 10 minutes can quickly become an all night session. The Dutch outlined their position, which included “safe abortion” and CSE.

Ambassador Usman Sarki, from Nigeria, and the Dutch representative sat next to each other and exchanged pleasantries even as their statements outlined completely divergent positions. They called each other “brother”, “friend” and “neighbor.”

Sarki, who is widely recognized as a diplomat of high stature, had gently tried to persuade the Belgian chair to be accommodating when asking for changes to the chair’s text, but delivered sharp remarks after the chair withdrew her draft.

“We came to the meeting with an open mind,” he said, adding that from the outset they had to deal with drafts “replete with controversial issues that have in the past not only proved difficult to deal with but are also extremely divisive in nature.”

He warned for the future that delegations and UN officials “should refrain from putting language in drafts on which there is no consensus” and not to deviate from “universally agreed human rights, free from all undue influence, pressure, and coercion.” He lamented how powerful countries manipulate UN negotiations.

He concluded saying that the lack of an outcome was not to be seen as a failure. “Member states have resisted the imposition of unhelpful ideas and concepts on all the membership.”

Jon Wilmoth, the UN official who leads the UN population division said he felt “shell shocked” in his subdued closing remarks. He spoke of “wondering about the way forward” and using next year’s negotiations on the working methods of the commission as a time to “reflect on the role of the commission.”

Babatunde Osotimehin, head of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) said he “regretted” that an agreement could not be reached in off the cuff remarks chiding countries for not being “tolerant.” He was angrily pointing the finger at countries from Africa that do not waive their concerns with the population polices and sexual and reproductive health policies hatched at UN headquarters, Brussels and Washington D.C.—heavy on contraception, but light on education, health, and infrastructure.

UNFPA mounted a full court press on African Capitals during the negotiations for CPD. It is their special focus each year and have the resources and personnel to influence Capitals around the world thanks their $1billion budget. Last month they held a special one-day retreat for African delegates in New York to try and soften resistance to their proposals. African delegates privately complained about unprecedented pressure, especially on CSE from UNFPA in Capitals and in New York. The backroom pressure from UNFPA actually spilled out unto the floor of the conference room.

“Does UNFPA think they can do this because Nauru is the smallest member state?” the delegate said, accusing the agency of “harassing” their Capital to change their position on reproductive rights and CSE and maligning their delegation at the UN. The delegate angrily said this was “unacceptable.” Pressure from UNFPA is especially controversial, because it is entirely funded by voluntary contributions, and is seen as more accountable to the donor states than the full UN membership.

A heavy dose of reality suddenly hit the several dozen activists in UN conference room 4 as they realized that not everyone thinks like them.

They are brought to UN headquarters in droves every year by groups that promote abortion and UN style family planning around the world under the banner of sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. Wealthy donor governments as well as middle-income countries fund the groups, and they come to New York to lobby for more policies that will fund their organizations. But their activism has reached the limits of what is acceptable in many parts of the world. Especially their focus on children.

CSE is a term with a history of controversy. The term is associated with sex education that promotes the moral equivalence of any kind of sexual activity, including homosexual behavior, teaching children as young as 4-5 about masturbation, and that they have a right to choose their gender. These are only some of many brow-raising elements in a WHO-Europe guideline for CSE disseminated widely last year. But even this is tame compared to the materials put forward by CSE advocates.

The African Group made strong reservations to a General Assembly UN resolution adopted in the Fall that mentions CSE, and said the term was not consensual language—“consensus” in UN-speak is language that once agreed is set in stone. This time round, at CPD, they were not content with just making reservations. They wanted to delete it and leave other mentions of sex education that are not associated with early sexualization and the normalization of homosexuality and transgenderism. But the Belgian chair would have none of it.

The resoluteness of the African groups was made stronger still by recent open attempts to use the new UN development framework that is being negotiated this year to promote social acceptance of homosexuality and abortion. Countries that rely heavily on foreign and multilateral assistance are extremely defensive when aid comes with strings attached. Using the development framework to promote controversial social policies was the final straw.

For Africans, UN policy is especially important because they are so dependent on international assistance from donor countries and the UN system. While countries that are better off economically and have stronger governance are able to define any term of UN policy as they wish, Africans heavily rely on how their development partners interpret UN policy. Oftentimes donor countries are able to sanitize controversial terms in UN resolutions, by masking any controversial intentions. Their intentions are now open for all to see, and countries are not so naive. They are not concerned with the health and wellbeing of children and poor populations as much as promoting their own notions of sexuality through UN policy.

The meeting ended with a plea from Ruben Escalante from El Salvador, the delegate who led negotiations on the draft making a plea for countries to speak to each other and listen to each other’s positions.

“It’s surprising how easy we forget that there are more people in the room!” he exhorted. “Sometimes we expect that we are the ones to be approached.” He said, countries should not impose anything, but that others should not hold the rest back too.