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Cairo Plus Five--and How It Almost Failed.

The Earth becomes home to six billion humans this year. In 1960, there were three billion and in 2030 there could be eight billion to nine billion. With nearly all the increase occurring in the poor countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America; with 585,000 women dying annually from complications of pregnancy and childbirth; and with twenty million unsafe abortions taking place each year, governmental members and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of the United Nations decided to take action and organized the UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

The initial gathering was held in Cairo, Egypt, September 5-13, 1994. By all accounts the conference was a remarkable achievement, hailed as a model of cooperation between UN officials, governments, NGOs, and aid agencies. Remarkably, some 179 nations reached consensus on a progressive sixteen-chapter Programme of Action. Some twenty delegations, however--cardinal among them the Holy See (as the Vatican is called at the UN) and some Muslim countries--expressed "reservations" about portions of the Programme. These concerns were based upon institutionally held religious convictions.

According to the Women's Environment and Development Organization, the ICPD Programme represented "a seismic shift in the thinking on health and population policies. It challenged traditional family-planning approaches that focused on averting births rather than human well-being. It affirmed women's unencumbered right to reproductive choice and freedom." A few specifics of the Programme include:

* integrating population, production, and consumption dynamics into sustainable development policies

* providing universal reproductive health services by 2015

* developing policies and programs that support sexual education

* prevention of the abuses of women and girls, including prostitution and female genital mutilation

* the use of technology and international cooperation to foster science-based development policies

* the education and empowerment of women to make reproductive decisions.

The numerous action recommendations situated reproduction in the wider context of economic opportunity and exploitation. The Programme clearly demonstrated the philosophy that individual moral action must be understood as the result, rather than the cause, of cultural, political, and, above all, economic policies.

As with other UN conferences, a five-year follow-up conference was scheduled, to be held June 30-July 2, 1999, at UN headquarters in New York City. In preparation for Cairo Plus Five, a forum was held at the Hague March 22-April 1 of this year. It was there that the first serious signs of trouble surfaced and almost sabotaged Cairo Plus Five. Although delegates weren't supposed to renegotiate the text of the Programme of Action, a coalition of Catholic and Muslim states effectively tried to do just that. Throughout the review, the Holy See, Algeria, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Nicaragua, and Sudan raised arguments and objections about the terms choice, sex education, and especially parental consent. Most of their objections dealt with proposals on the health impact of unsafe abortion, the provision of sexual health education and services for adolescents, and safe and effective contraceptive and family-planning methods. China and some of its allies also raised objections to parts of the Programme.

Frustrated delegates, especially NGO observers, charged that the Hague forum was being held hostage by this small band of right-wing states that had raised the same objections at the 1994 gathering. Unless consensus could be reached on a final document to be presented in New York, Cairo Plus Five would fail and all the advances made previously would be lost. Because the consensus method of decision-making (in contrast to voting) was used, it became possible for a small group of delegates to prevent the overwhelming majority from proceeding with the preparation of a final text. In addition, more than 100 representatives from conservative and anti-choice organizations--including the International Right to Life Federation (a Rome-based coalition), Opus Dei, Human Life International, and the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute--lobbied government delegates in an effort to derail the Programme of Action.

They almost succeeded. The Hague forum failed to produce a final document by its March 30 deadline. The deadline was extended to April 1, but it didn't help. Things became so strained that a demonstration--a violation of traditional "gentlemanly" protocol--was held by a coalition of women NGOs. If nothing improved, Cairo Plus Five would fail.

Immediately upon my arrival in New York on June 30 at Cairo Plus Five (I was serving as an alternate delegate for the American Humanist Association), I sensed something was terribly wrong. I had been attending UN conferences as an NGO delegate for various organizations since 1978 and could tell something was up. I soon learned that a final Programme of Action was still being negotiated and that a group of Catholic and Muslim delegations was working to impede the progress of the conference.

Many of the 400 registered NGO delegates (representing 300 organizations) were furious, and an air of desperation could be felt. "We might lose everything," one delegate said. "Why can't they focus on all the good that came out of Cairo?" I met an old friend in the hallway and she said to me, "I'm so ashamed to be a Catholic. The Vatican--especially as an observer state--has no right to block an entire conference."

Cairo Plus Five had two simultaneous tracks of sessions: the UN General Assembly and the Committee of the Whole. The first included the scheduled testimony of 191 nations, five observers, and five NGOs. Initially only fifty passes were made available for the NGOs at the General Assembly, despite 400 available seats, but a protest eventually yielded more. The second track was the Committee of the Whole, consisting of meetings of both large and small groups of NGOs and others. Since it was not possible to attend both tracks in their entirety, I listened to only a few General Assembly speakers and then attended the committee meetings. (The General Assembly speeches and other relevant documents are available on the United Nations Population Fund website:; select ICPD+5.)

There was considerable drama at the various NGO meetings since, as of July 1, there still was no final document to be presented to the General Assembly for a vote. So when the NGOs learned they would be not be allowed to make presentations to the General Assembly that day, despite five being scheduled, we sent a unanimous resolution to Didier Opertti, president of the General Assembly Special Session. The resolution observed that NGOs had been "crucial to the implementation of the Cairo+5 process" and resolved that "the President and the Bureau of the General Assembly Special Session assure that NGOs have an opportunity to speak in a Plenary Session." Three eventually did.

A second event on July 1 that signaled the NGOs' dissatisfaction with the obstructive practices at this gathering was the terse but extremely direct remarks of Daniel C. Maguire, professor of theology at Marquette University, delivered before the Committee of the Whole. Maguire is a Catholic theologian trained at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and is president of the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health, and Ethics, an international NGO consisting of over 100 theologians of the world's major and indigenous religions. He accused the Vatican of "misrepresentation of the Catholic traditions and teachings on abortion," stating that the Catholic church "has always housed a pro-choice, as well as a no-choice, position on abortion." He cited as an example St. Antoninus, archbishop of Florence, "who in the fifteenth century defended a woman's right to abortion if needed to save her life." Maguire called upon Vatican officials to "stop their dogmatism, a dogmatism that offends many Catholics and most of the world's religions." He concluded by urging the Vatican to "surrender [its] privileged position at the United Nations." The Holy See is the only religion that has Permanent Observer status at the UN. Maguire's intervention was greeted with hearty applause.

A third event that day--by far the most dramatic--was the release of "An Open Letter to the Vatican," initiated by women NGOs from Latin America and the Caribbean. In a series of direct and biting questions, they pressed the Vatican for answers:

* How can a church that holds life as a fundamental value be unmoved by the deaths of thousands of women, many of whom leave orphaned children?

* Why do Vatican representatives insist that only parents can supervise the education, health care, and reproductive and sexual health of young people when it is widely known that many cases of sexual abuse, particularly incest, take place in the heart of the home?

* Given that the Vatican is not a nation-state, is not involved in the implementation of the Cairo Programme of Action, and, by its very nature, does not have women or children or sexual or reproductive problems, why is the Vatican delegation interested in blocking advances in contraception, sexual education, and HIV prevention that are beneficial to millions of women, especially to millions of the world's poorest women?

* Why do Vatican representatives to this conference, who speak about the problems of migrants and allocation of resources and who insist on respect for national sovereignty, seek to impose their religious ideas and moral rules on a world that is plural and diverse in its beliefs?

This letter was originally signed by forty-seven Latin American and Caribbean organizations, from Mexico to Chile. Eighty-one other international NGOs from the women's coalition also supported the letter.

One of those coalition members is Catholics for a Free Choice USA, led by Frances Kissling, who has long been a critic of Vatican policy on women's reproductive rights (including birth control and abortion) and social justice issues. Her leadership at Cairo Plus Five was very evident, and it was obvious that she and her organization enjoyed a great deal of respect and support from the NGO delegates. Kissling invited me to a luncheon at the UN for progressive religious NGOs. Several of the seventeen people present--including Buddhists, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews--lamented the fact that so often all religions are tarred with the same reactionary brush as the Vatican on population and development issues. Participants noted that in various traditions, such as Muslim and Catholic, there is a wide array of viewpoints on women, birth control, and abortion. Indeed, as one of the NGO plenary speakers stated, "The biggest Catholic countries are in consensus about what compassionate Catholicism means" and that today "the Holy See can no longer speak for most Catholics."

As July 2--the third and final day of Cairo Plus Five--dawned, a final Programme of Action had not yet materialized. Clearly concerned that the Vatican's obstructive practices might affect the success of this and future conferences, a letter signed by a vast majority of the NGOs was addressed to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The letter stated:
 Regrettably, a process designed to be a review and appraisal of the
 implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action has become a reassessment of
 the fundamentals that were resoundingly agreed and firmly established in
 Cairo.... We believe that the review and appraisal mandated by the General
 Assembly has been diverted from its original intention during the
 preparatory process [that led to the conference].

The letter concluded by asking the secretary-general to hold a "consultation" to review Cairo Plus Five and what impact it would have on the World Summit of Social Development and the Beijing Platform for Action. Diplomatically speaking, this and our previous letter to Didier Opertti constituted an almost open rebellion.

So how many battalions did the Vatican have at this conference and how did they fare? It started out with a few but, by July 2, the coalition of Catholic and Muslim delegations had collapsed. The Vatican's alleged numerous NGOs at the conference surfaced visibly in force (about twenty representatives) only at a press briefing held with the U.S. Department of State across the street from the UN. But by late that afternoon, a final Programme of Action was approved. In the end, only Argentina, Nicaragua, and a few NGOs--such as Right to Life International, the Catholic Family Rights Institute, and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta--stood with the Vatican to express "reservations" about the final document. Even the Muslims supported the Programme. The Vatican's battalions were in retreat--and bitter retreat at that.

In a most interesting final intervention, Archbishop Renato R. Martino, head of the Holy See delegation, actually accused others of seeking to undo the ICPD. He observed that negotiations at the Hague forum took
 a step backward, placing unbalanced emphasis on population issues at the
 expense of development.... Thus, the Holy See has found it particularly
 disconcerting that some delegations, mainly from Western states, have
 sought in these negotiations to undo the careful balancing needed between
 adolescents' need for privacy and confidentiality with parental rights,
 duties, and responsibilities--prior rights as affirmed in the Declaration
 on Human Rights.

After noting the Holy See's reservations to the approved final document, Martino stated, "This does not mean that the Holy See can simply walk away from the work begun in Cairo, the work proceeding here and which will continue into the future." But "walk away" is just what a great many NGOs want the Vatican to do.

So was Cairo Plus Five a success? By all accounts it was. In his summary remarks to the General Assembly, Ambassador Anwarul Karim Chowhury of Bangladesh, president of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Whole of the special session, noted that reaching consensus had been "extraordinarily difficult" because delegates "repeatedly ran into contentious issues" in the course of negotiations. He noted that the final 106-paragraph document "renews our commitments, evaluates our attempts, and gives direction on how to proceed for achieving more." Specifically, Chowhury noted that Cairo Plus Five led to a
 focus on attaining more in our efforts for equality and empowerment of
 women ... emphatic pronouncements for women's rights ... strong language
 for enduring discrimination against the girl child ... benefits of
 public-private partnership and collaboration with civil society.

Translation: the progressive forces won.

In the General Assembly, nation after nation affirmed the final Programme of Action and many commented on their own programs to limit population growth through development. NGOs--especially women's organizations--overwhelmingly supported Cairo Plus Five and can take real satisfaction in knowing that, although the job has only begun, it is off to a good start.

And, above all, it will continue.

Joseph J. Fahey is professor of religious studies and former director of the Peace Studies Program at Manhattan College in New York City. He serves, with Beth Lamont, on the NGO delegation of the American Humanist Association to the United Nations.3
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Title Annotation:United Nations' International Conference on Population and Development
Author:Fahey, Joseph J.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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