'Reproductive Rights' Speech Fails at UN Commission on Population and Development

Africa Group Stands Firm in Opposition

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Push for SRHR Derailed at UN CPD Meeting 

The 48th Session of the Commission on Population and Development (CPD), ended last Friday and was viewed as one of the last opportunities to send a strong message of support for the inclusion of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and its myriad of related issues including abortion, in the Post 2015 agenda. Official speakers, invited experts, and many NGOs staging side events, attempted to present, as fact, the opinion that SRHR is central to development and must be the cornerstone of the new development goals. Their attempts failed as countries were divided on the issues and could not agree on an outcome document.             Developing countries sought an outcome that included key development issues and were frustrated at the profusion of references to population control, adolescent sexual activity, abortion, and comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) for children. The UN press office released a statement summarizing the meeting entitled: Commission on Population and Development Unable to Agree upon Proposed Resolution, Reproductive Rights among Points of Contention.

          Throughout the negotiations, the CPD facilitator, Rubén Armando Escalante Hasbún (El Salvador), refused to allow debate on contentious paragraphs in the outcome document related to «sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights» and CSE claiming that country positions were well-known. Instead, countries with opposing views were instructed to meet and reach agreement on the issues themselves rather than take time during negotiations.  

          Following eight days of closed door negotiations on other paragraphs in the draft document an official Chair’s proposal was presented on the last day of the meeting since Member States could not reach agreement on a consensus document. The Chair implored delegations «to go along with the text».  They did not and shocked many in the room, including UNFPA and the Commission. 

          The African Group, represented by Nigeria, was the first to speak and requested an additional ten minutes for discussion. Nigeria’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Usman Sarki, speaking eloquently and diplomatically, stated that the text could not be a «final text» as it still contained «notions, positions and language» that the African Group could not support and language that would impose «impossible and unacceptable commitments» upon Member States. He implored the Chair to «go the extra mile» and «allow further negotiations to remove objectionable elements.» (UN Web TV coverage)    

          The request was refused by the Chair of the Commission, Ms. Bénédicte Frankinet (Belgium), who surprisingly withdrew the text and instead called for a summary of the draft’s negotiations. She expressed the opinion that the text was the best attempt «to reconcile very opposite positions on the issues before us». Ambassador Sarki expressed his disappointment and explained that the African Group did not request nor want the text to be withdrawn; it only desired a brief period for discussion to make the document acceptable.

          The action by the African Group, and the support it received from other countries, demonstrates the growing SRHR and CSE fatigue of many developing UN Member States. Ambassador Sarki stated that in the future UN officials «should refrain from putting language in drafts on which there is no consensus» adding that Member States «have resisted the imposition of unhelpful ideas and concepts on all the membership.»

         A delegate from the Pacific Island nation Nauru expressed national outrage at UNFPA for its attempts to «discredit» his government, for «harassing» its capital to change its position on reproductive rights and comprehensive sexuality education, and for using the regional UNFPA office to pressure the Nauru government. He asked: «Why does UNFPA think it can do this? Is it because we are the smallest Member State?» The delegate stated that Nauru’s Permanent Representative wanted the record of CPD to include Nauru’s opposition to UNFPA’s actions and pressure on its country.

         Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA, stated in his remarks that he regretted the text was not adopted and that inside is «all the things we wish to see» in order to jump-start a transformation to a sustainable world in Post 2015. Clearly, he was not listening to the African Group’s criticism of the text for it contained «things» that African and a large number of other Member States do not wish to see in their countries or in Post 2015.

          PNCI suggests that UNFPA’s Executive Director and other UN officials listen to what countries say they really want and need for development, and stop trying to impose their population control and SRHR agenda on sovereign Member States, and in the case of Nauru–and perhaps other countries–stop the harassment and pressure to abandon values and beliefs that respect life from conception and values the critical role of the family.   

           NGOs promoting SRHR were stunned at their historic loss. One activist group from the Netherlands present at CPD explained on its website: 

«On one side, a heavy weight representing like-minded countries standing firm for the human rights of all, including sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR); while on the other side a heavy and intimidating African Group, supported by the Arabs, looking to restrict such rights on religious, cultural and traditional grounds.

What happened next is historic and has never happened in the 21 year history of the CPD. After brief deliberations, the Nigerian representative on behalf the African group protested and called for ten more minutes to discuss the content of the text. He wanted additional changes to the chair’s Resolution. The Chair however stuck to her part of the deal: Take it or leave it, and before we knew what was happening, the Chair withdrew her text. Thus, the faith of CPD48 was sealed: no Resolution for the first time in its history…lacking a Resolution may have implications for future sessions of the CPD.»  

          The failure to reach consensus at CPD sends a strong message to the United Nations that countries have had enough of the pressure to conform to a «radical foreign agenda» at a crucial time as the process to determine the Sustainable Development Goals continues through July with the General Assembly adopting the goals and targets in a special session in September.   

           Many nations simply want and need access to food, water, sanitation, life-affirming health care, education and employment–all essential for the health and dignity of individuals and critical to development. They view people as part of the solution and not as the problem.  The UN ought to listen.       

This article is reprinted with permission from the Parliamentary Network for Critical Issues.

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