The UN: Is the world ready to work for women?

Reflecting on the UN 47th Commission on Population and Development, SivaThanenthiran says that if member states are willing to work with and for women and girls, they need to demonstrate this more clearly than they have done in the past few years.

Siva Thanenthiran
6 May 2014

Women’s NGOs turned up in full force at the 47th Commission on Population and Development in April only to find a genuine discussion and debate on the critical issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights sidelined.

In the lead-up to 2015, every single international event is perceived as a critical battleground calling upon women’s NGOs to actively participate in these events, sometimes even at our own cost. The organisation I work for – the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women is a regional organisation which works at national, regional and global levels. Because our work traverses many different arenas, we are familiar with but torn by the tensions between local and global needs especially when these imply an investment of resources and time.

At the beginning of 2014, we met with all our partners across the region to discuss a common strategy of participation in key global meetings in the coming two years. Although many partners felt very strongly that global players often call on their local counterparts for support at these international meetings, this support is not reciprocated when and where the frontline battles take place. But in the interest of defending the sexual and reproductive health and rights agenda,  our partners agreed to engage. Thus is with anticipation as well as  trepidation that we entered into the battleground of the 47th Commission on Population and Development (CPD).  Asian governments are known for their reticence, but this time our partners were able to strategically place themselves in key national delegations – Nepal, Mongolia, the Philippines and Fiji. We were also able to forge good working relationships with the Cambodia, Vietnam and Lao PDR delegations.

This year’s Commission on Population and  Development had a key reference document produced by the comprehensive ICPD Beyond 2014 review process called the ‘Framework of Actions.’  This is an evidence-driven report of the gaps in the implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action. It was mandated by the General Assembly resolution. For those advocating and working for a comprehensive Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights agenda,  these gaps  have become familiar over the years. Hence it was deeply satisfying to witness that these issues were finally being discussed and recommendations being made in a seminal UN report. This presented a platform for discussion and action for member states – something many of us have long been waiting for. But these are not new battles: they already existed at the time of previous conferences in Cairo in 1994 and Beijing in 1995 – access to safe and legal abortion, non-discrimination on the basis of sexuality, young people’s access to comprehensive sex education, information and services - and they persist because member states continue to frame sexual and reproductive health and rights agendas within ideological and religious parameters rather than health, rights and equity parameters.

However CPD 47 was mired in its own difficulties and controversies, beyond the perennial issues that needed urgent attention and discussion. The lack of agreement in the bureau of the Commission (every year a bureau is elected from among the members of the commission including a Chair and two co-chairs) on whether there would be a procedural outcome or a substantive outcome was turned into an opportunity by the opposition to make it look like the Uruguay Chair was forcing text onto the bureau representatives and onto the work of the Commission. Only a week prior to the CPD the Chair insisted on a resolution in the bureau despite the disagreement of the Africa Group. The selection of the facilitators – one from Denmark and the other from Georgia, added fuel to the fire, as an indication of  having a Northern agenda imposed upon the South. More careful thought being given to this selection might have helped. However, the Chair was probably ill-advised. And in the end, though he started off boldly enough he was unable to defend his actions, and each consequent step made the process veer further off the tracks.

In addition  the logistics left much to be desired. For the first time in the course of the previous six CPDs I have attended, NGOs were allocated a small number of tickets issued on a first come first serve basis; and the others were carted off  into an NGO ‘overflow’ room.  All of us who have participated in these events  know that the full participation and presence of NGOs is essential. In the regional population conferences by ESCAP in Bangkok and ECLAC in Montevideo, our right to space, to attend, participate and speak were successfully defended and the strong regional outcomes testify to that. I fully expected the same would be true in New York but was severely disappointed. Even worse was the failure to allocate a room large enough for negotiations, and one whole day of negotiations was therefore lost. These are all critical factors which enable the facilitation of negotiations around crucial issues that spell life and death for women and girls.

In the course of the week we witnessed a process that unravelled very quickly. The discussions and negotiations on the text were poorly facilitated -  allowing all present have their say but without any resolution or consensus. On the last day, the Chair carried out separate and secret negotiations with selected ‘regional’ representatives consisting of individual member states such as Oman and Pakistan (a non-member of the commission, much to the consternation of the Philippines and the Pacific island countries.) Hence at the end of the week, the process revealed itself as flawed and indefensible. This was reiterated in the comments of the member states at 7.00 am on Saturday morning when the meeting finally ended. The Philippines delegation in their comments to the Chair said “Consensus despite poor process, no meaningful engagement and inclusion is not the way to move forward. Our obligations start with ourselves and with our governments. Our governments will not be pushed backward.”

Yet though the Africa group was led by a small number of aggressive member states (Kenya, Cameroon, and Egypt) who dominated the discussions, there was still much support in the room for SRHR from other African member states (Mozambique, Liberia, Ghana, Zambia and South Africa.) It was difficult for progressive states to break with the group on the actual content of the SRHR issues because the problems of process and procedure mentioned above undermined discussions on SRHR. In such situations ensuring the integrity of the process is crucial to ensuring strategic discussions and negotiations. The 47th CPD failed to provide this opportunity.

However member states should not be let off the hook. Admittedly, many participate in the spirit of consensus decision-making, but a few, vocal member states – Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Nigeria, return to the scene, time and again, misusing the process and misrepresenting even the sexual and reproductive health policies which are in force in their own countries – for example HIV/AIDS policies which would specifically mention vulnerable groups such as sex-workers, transgender people and men having sex with men, non-discrimination on the basis of SOGI and their rights to services. These are un-elected bureaucrats who use critical spaces such as the CPD and the CSW to further an agenda which is not true to the ground realities and does not reflect the needs and preoccupations of citizens in their own countries.

Who then holds them accountable for their actions?

The disconnect between the delegations from the capitals of member states and the Permanent Missions of their countries was blatantly evident during that week. Government delegations from Africa were reading out statements in support of SRHR in the plenary session while the negotiators were singing a completely different tune in a different room.

On the other hand we also need to recognise that some member states were working genuinely in order to advance the SRHR agenda, wanted an honest discussion about the issues on the table and a process which would enable negotiations to take place. These member states were trying their very best to utilise this space to set standards and move ahead and support women and girls. It was rewarding  to see member states from the Asia-Pacific region – the Philippines, Nepal and Mongolia and all of the Pacific island countries trying to raise the bar in the room on the inclusion of the language sexual and reproductive health and rights (all), access to comprehensive sexuality education (Philippines), access to safe and legal abortion (Nepal), non-discrimination on the basis of SOGI. I have never been more proud to be from the region. But at the same time to see Egypt where the Cairo consensus was formulated, and Bangladesh which was influential in Cairo twenty years ago, adopt positions not to push the agenda, is a signifier that progress does not always travel a linear path.

It is especially infuriating that UN member states lost a critical opportunity, yet again, to achieve consensus about standards  and to send a very important message to those member states who reserve the right to harass, report on, imprison, even execute members of targeted population groups.

We can easily infer from this that if international processes and negotiations continue along this path, the world is only going to see ‘sub-par standards’ emerge from this process. The Cambodia representative remarked that the standards being discussed were lower than existing national standards in his country. What level of programmatic and policy direction would be set by these so-called ‘standards’?  A number of member states are currently using this space irresponsibly and hypocritically to push their own diplomatic and geopolitical objectives rather than engaging in a serious discussion of the issues on the CPD agenda which have a direct bearing on gender equality and women’s rights.

Are member states ready and willing to work with and  for women and girls? If they are, they need to demonstrate this more clearly than they have done in the past few years. If the UN absolves itself of its responsibility to uphold the rights of the world’s citizens, it will not be able to enable the transformation the world so desperately needs.



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