Cairo +5: The Vatican at the United Nations
Frances Kissling
Conscience, Summer, 1999

When the nations of the world came together five years ago at a United Nations conference in Cairo, they forged what commentators everywhere have called a “remarkable consensus” on population and development issues. The International Conference on Population and Development issued a “Programme of Action,” which reflected an ethical approach that, among other things, put women’s needs and rights at the center of population and development programs. With its permanent observer status among governments at the United Nations, the Vatican had tried to act as spoiler in Cairo, attempting — and failing — to block a worldwide consensus on a new structure for population and development programs, based on women’s empowerment, universal and voluntary access to contraception, and improved reproductive health for all.

Five years into the Cairo Programme of Action, the United Nations conducted a review and appraisal of its implementation, ending with a final preparatory meeting and a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly June 24 through July 2 in New York. During the review process, the Vatican remained active — especially at the final preparatory meeting — but again fell short, on the whole, of thwarting progress.

The Vatican was beyond the fringes of the consensus, joined by only a handful of conservative countries, principally Argentina, Guatemala, Libya, and Sudan. Because the UN works on a consensus basis, even a small group of outnumbered delegations can have a controlling presence.
Judging by its numerous interventions, the Vatican came to the June meeting with the goal of obstructing progressive understanding of what would be necessary if the Programme of Action were to be fully and fairly implemented.  This included the provision of emergency contraception to refugees, which the Vatican opposes; the definition of human rights, which conservative delegations like the Vatican’s insist should not include reproductive rights; addressing unsafe abortion as a major public health issue, in light of the fact that 80,000 women die every year as a result of illegal and unsafe abortions; the provision of condoms for protection against HIV/AIDS, which the Vatican protests; adolescent rights to privacy and confidentiality in reproductive health matters, a concept the Vatican delegation worked against feverishly; and the inclusion of sexuality education in school curricula.

The Vatican delegation insisted on the primacy of parental rights over adolescents in access to reproductive health care and services, to the apparent exasperation of other delegations. The Mexican delegate drove the somber delegates to laughter when he made sport of Vatican delegate John Klink’s stated concern that “as a parent”(a phrase he seemed to repeat endlessly), he did not understand how he was expected to know if his children were “building bombs in the garage,” but would not know about their reproductive health. “I, too, am a parent,” said the Mexican, “but we’re not talking about bombs in garages here, we’re talking about medical services.”

The June preparatory meeting was not supposed to be necessary. Earlier meetings had been expected to prepare a report, to be presented to the General Assembly at the end of June, that would propose actions for further implementation of the Cairo plan. But as anyone who has ever tried to write a document by committee knows, the process was complex and laborious, especially given the UN commitment to working until consensus has been achieved. The preparatory meeting process is committee-writing writ large. All 183 country members of the United Nations are invited to take place, and most do. The chairperson guides member states paragraph by paragraph through the draft report, while delegates offer ideas, concerns, and even copy edits. Representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) watch and listen from a visitors’ gallery and roam the floor and the halls, offering information and advice to delegations.

At the final meeting, Chairman Anwarul Karim Chowdhury of Bangladesh presided over a restive group of delegates who were faced this time with a real, and looming, deadline. Unlike previous meetings, the 133 developing countries banded together for negotiating purposes under the aegis of the misnamed G-77, the developing country counterpart to the industrial nations’ bloc, the Group of 7 plus Russia. With a few exceptions, the developing nations spoke only as a unified group for most of the meeting through their chairwoman, the delegate from Guyana. With a force this large, the G-77 was the dominant voice, a fitting situation given Cairo’s emphasis on improving health and women’s lives in the developing world. Other active delegations included the European Union, also speaking as a unified group, the United States, Norway, Canada, Libya, Sudan, and the Holy See, as the Vatican is known in UN circles.

The Vatican delegation was made up of five individuals, two women and three men — including two priests. Almost all the Vatican’s interventions were made by Klink, a New York businessman who, according to the Holy See mission, was officially an “advisor” to the delegation. Klink and other Vatican delegates could often be observed conferring with Austin Ruse, the head of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (CAFHRI), an ultraconservative NGO that focuses on the United Nations. CAFHRI publishes a weekly newsletter that rails against “radical feminist lobbyists,” reproductive rights, and “radical social agendas,” such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Especially encouraging among organizations that supported the Cairo Programme of Action was a new emphasis on challenging the Vatican. Both the Youth Delegation and a wide coalition of women’s organizations issued open letters questioning Vatican positions in light of the church’s social teaching and preferential option for the poor. With each Vatican intervention, references to The “See Change” Campaign were made and there was a growing recognition of the importance of reviewing the Vatican’s status at the UN.

Sadly, however, one was left with a sense that little happened at these five-year review meetings for ICPD that would improve women’s and children’s lives in the real world. Yes, the Cairo Consensus held — the ultimate document contains neither significant losses nor significant gains. Women deserve and need much more from the UN than holding the line. Yes, Cairo is working in many countries thanks to women’s health advocates and family planning providers who work to make reproductive health and rights a reality. But women’s, sexual and reproductive rights are human rights and that, I am afraid, will take a much longer time to be recognized at the United Nations.
Frances Kissling is president of Catholics for a Free Choice.