Last Minute Backroom Negotiations Leave Witnesses Baffled at UN Commission on Population and Development

Observers were left scratching their heads trying to figure out what went wrong in the final few hours of the United Nations (UN) Commission Population and Development (CPD), which ended last Friday at UN headquarters in New York. After three days of marathon negotiating sessions, the UN Commission on Population and Development came together in the final plenary to adopt an eight-page text on “Health, Morbidity, Mortality and Development.” Despite reassurances from governments that controversial language regarding “sexuality education” and “reproductive rights” would not be included in the final document, in the final few hours of the conference, behind closed doors, the controversial language came back into the document.

Despite an all night session that ended at 4 in the morning on the last day of the session, negotiators were far from reaching an agreement.  Delegations were mired in battles over contentious language ranging from development funding to sexual and reproductive health and even to “foreign occupation,” a reference to Arab and Muslim disputed land in Israel. A bloc of nations pledged they would fight off any attempts to push an abortion agenda despite strong pressure from the European Union, the United States and others.

At the Friday afternoon plenary session, the Chairman introduced a proposed text that had widespread support. However, South Africa, Brazil, and Cuba, refused to accept the text without additional language on development. In exchange for these development paragraphs, South Africa and its two allies were able to convince the Group of 77 (G77) bloc of developing countries to accept several new paragraphs proposed by Portugal that included numerous references to “sexual and reproductive health” and language on comprehensive sexuality education for young people. Although several countries opposed this new package, the eleventh hour agreement went through nonetheless.

Immediately following adoption, several delegations underscored that the text should in no way be interpreted in a manner that affected the right to life, and registered their reservations on the use of terms including reproductive rights.  Other speakers reaffirmed that the text’s interpretations of any positions taken on sexual and reproductive rights and services must be understood within the context of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

A Holy See representative said his delegation was committed to improving global health. Reiterating reservations made at the ICPD, he stressed that nothing in the resolution created any new rights, including any recognition of the right to abortion.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which led the effort to link “sexual and reproductive health” rights with maternal mortality at CPD, was exuberant with the outcome: “The many hours of tough negotiations have paid off -– we have an agreed document,” said Werner Haug, speaking on behalf of UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Obaid.

In contrast, Jeanne Head, UN representative for the National Right to Life Committee, expressed her dismay at the outcome to the Friday Fax. “Although flawed, the original text on which negotiations were based and the text presented by the Chairman after negotiations failed on Friday morning provided a fairly balanced approach to achieving the MDG [Millennium Development Goals] health related development goals. But, once again, ideology trumped common sense. Delegates proved again, especially those advocating an abortion agenda, that they cared more about promoting their agenda than about saving lives, particularly the lives of women and children.”

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