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UN and Family Policy

 

 

Ambassador Ellen Sauerbrey

  BIO

U.S. Representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women

This year we celebrate the Tenth Anniversary of the International Year of the Family. The United States actively supported the passage of a resolution at the UN General Assembly last fall commemorating this United Nations year and is continuing to work to rally worldwide interest in reviewing and reforming government policies in order to strengthen the family. May 15 is International Day of the Family. It would make an important statement if the leader of every country represented here were to issue a May 15th proclamation on the importance of the family!

The President is engaging the United Nations on a host of issues that impact families and human dignity, including seeking a ban on human cloning, focusing international dollars on ending mother-child transmission of AIDS, prohibiting US dollars from funding abortions overseas, and abolishing human trafficking. And speaking of cloning, I want to congratulate Costa Rica for the tremendous leadership taken in introducing the UN resolution.

International surveys have found that a majority of people around the world believe a family created through marriage is the fundamental unit of society, and that it is better for children to be raised in a household that has a married mother and father. At the recently concluded Commission on the Status of Women meeting, the United States was successful in inserting positive references into the Agreed Conclusions regarding the importance of both fathers and mothers to the well being of children, and of the need to develop policies, programs and school curricula that encourage and maximize the involvement of both parents in achieving positive results for children, families and communities. We also were successful in adding language recognizing the importance of including fathers as well as mothers in programs that teach infant childcare.

The first important international recognition of the family by an international organization took place in 1948 when the “American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man” was issued in Bogota, Colombia. This document had a significant influence on the UN’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” adopted later that year. Both of these documents recognize the individual as a part of the family unit, and they define the family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society and entitled to protection by society and the State.”

Under Article 18 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, States Parties “undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” The International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights called for “special protection accorded to mothers during a reasonable period before and after childbirth.”

However, over the past twenty years, some UN agencies and committees have taken a very different view of the family. At a conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1997, Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School described her first encounter with how the UN promotes norms, which move away from the importance of the family. When she first read the draft conference document prepared by the UN Committee on the Status of Women, she wrote:

“I could hardly believe my eyes. How was it possible that the proposed program of action for a women'sconference barely mentioned marriage, motherhood, or family life anywhere in its 149 pages? And that when marriage and family life -- and even religion -- were mentioned, they were presented mainly in a negative light -- as sources of oppression, or obstacles to women's progress?”

Recent conferences, such as the Special Session on Children, the Second World Assembly on Ageing, and the World Summit on Sustainable Development, have begun to address every aspect of family life, from marriage and childbearing to health care, education, and religion. The documents flowing from them often play a role in shaping national policies.

It is a terrible mistake to ignore what happens at these UN conferences because international statements matter a great deal. It matters because modern international law now deals – not only with the obligations of states – but with the shape of the family and the rights of individuals, including children. As provisions are negotiated, some will argue that the words that are used – the norms that are suggested – may become legally binding in the future. Each internationally negotiated document builds upon language used and objectives sought in preceding conference documents and – as a result – becomes an important link in a chain that will impact on societies around the globe. It is a terrible mistake to ignore, then, what happens at these UN conferences.

International customary law has been slowly developed over time through the uniform, consistent practice of nation states. Recently, however, some legal scholars have argued that international customary law may be developed (at least in significant part) by the repetition of agreed language at UN conferences, a proposition the United States government wholeheartedly rejects. Those who are concerned with preserving the traditional family need to pay close attention, not only to national laws, but also to international treaties and declarations coming out of conferences and how they are being implemented.

While working to improve the social, economic and political status of women – a goal that is quite worthy of praise – in UN terms, the current reference of choice to family is “family in its various forms,” an undefined term the can include any group that wants to call itself “family.” The extended family, related through blood or marriage, is an important tradition in many cultures. However could the modern concept - recognizing many variations of relationships- lead to a shift away from marriage and the role of two parents as preferable foundations for child-rearing, as established norms of “international customary law”?

At many UN conferences, the international “solution” to women’s problems has been to discourage childbearing and to devalue the role of parenthood – particularly that of mothers. One element driving this ideology is opposition to population growth, which is seen as an obstacle to development and a symptom of oppression of women. Thus UN documents have promoted “reproductive services” to space childbearing, curb population growth and free women from the home.

Contrary to widespread discussion of a “population explosion,” most Western democracies need children – and need them badly. Fertility rates in the entire developed world are now well below replacement levels. As populations age, young workers are not available in sufficient numbers to support the health care and income security needs of the elderly. In Western countries, current public programs for these purposes are coming under increasing demographic pressure, and require far-reaching overhauls or exorbitant tax burdens to maintain financial soundness. In low-income countries, where coverage by public pension and health systems is limited, the issue of how to take care of the elderly becomes all the more pressing.

The attempt to disparage maternity is particularly troubling. The Committee charged with implementing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or “CEDAW” frequently labels motherhood as a stereotype that holds women back. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that motherhood deserves special protection and care, the Committee has complained that these efforts are “paternalistic,” or –worse – that encouraging motherhood discourages women from seeking (ostensibly more valuable) paid work. To help mothers enter the work force, UN reports promote changes in domestic law to increase government managed day care. For example, the CEDAW Committee recommended that Slovenia create “more formal and institutionalized childcare establishments for children under three years of age as well as for those from three to six.” In 1998, the Committee criticized the Czech Republic for “the increase in over-protective measures for pregnancy and motherhood, as well as early retirement policies for women”. In 1999 it criticized Ireland’s Constitution for “promoting a stereotypical view of the role of women in the home and as mothers.” In 1998, it told Peru to “review its law on abortion and ensure that women have access to full and complete health services, which include safe abortion.” In 1999 it told Chile it was “especially concerned at the laws prohibiting and punishing any form of abortion. The Committee considers these provisions to violate the human rights of women.”

While notable advances made for women in economic, cultural, social and political spheres should be applauded and continued, the world community should not make such successes contingent upon diminishing the status of motherhood as an important choice women may often wish to embrace. For that matter, the importance of responsible fatherhood should be increasingly stressed as well. Marriage – defined as the voluntary union of a man and a woman – has been linked to procreation and the rearing of children from the dawn of time. The international community will place the societal and cultural strength provided by the family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society,” as recognized by Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in peril if it abandons this reality.

Another trend has been attacks on parental authority, and the assertion that children should be granted broad autonomy rights, free (to one degree or another) from parental control, guidance and support. One of the principal tools used to achieve this result is the Convention on the Rights of the Child or “CRC.” The CRC, cited as the centerpiece for the “rights-based approach” at a Special Session on Children, represents an international attempt to ensure children’s well being. This laudable goal is repeated in the preamble to the Convention, where children’s rights to “special care,” “assistance,” “protection,” “safeguards,” and “consideration” are emphasized. However, the Convention then veers off by granting – not protective rights for children – but autonomy rights that may actually harm rather than strengthen the child.

During last fall’s UN General Assembly, a resolution, introduced by Benin, entitled “Importance of the role of parents in the care, development and well-being of children” failed because of hostile amendments that undermined the spirit of the resolution. Indeed, a “non-paper” circulated by UNFPA stated that to “ … strengthen the ‘unique role’ of parents in the care, control and development of children undermines the importance of considering the multiple places and institutions where children can also receive protection and guidance including schools, clubs and community members such as mentors, peers, community leaders …”. However well intentioned, no international law – including the Convention on the Rights of the Child – should be construed to deprive parents of the responsibility to determine what is in the best interests of their offspring. The Convention, beyond question, is well intentioned, but, its sweeping and unprecedented creation of autonomy rights for children may, in the long run, threaten children’s well-being.

One of the most potentially harmful autonomy provisions contained in the Convention is the right to privacy. CRC Article 16 states, “no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence.” Given the growing complexity of privacy laws, this sweeping grant could cause problems for parents and schools who wish to limit children’s access to – among other things – pornography on the Internet. By preventing “unlawful interference” with a child’s “privacy,” CRC could place even the basic ability to monitor children’s activities – vital for effective and responsible parenting – in serious doubt. The CRC Committee interprets the Convention to suggest that the government in Belize, for example, create a structure to permit children to challenge their parents in court. It recommends that the State create an “independent child friendly mechanism … to deal with complaints of violations of their rights and to provide remedies for such violations.”

There are heated debates at many UN Conferences about the rights of adolescents to reproductive health services. Since parents have primary responsibility for the well-being of their children, it is important that they be involved in decisions that affect children and adolescents in all aspects of sexual and reproductive health, as well as all other aspects of children’s lives and education. At the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean Ad Hoc Committee on Population and Development meeting in Santiago last month, the United States spoke against a political declaration because, among other problems, it failed to recognize the rights and responsibilities of parents in decisions affecting the sexual and reproductive health of their children. Governments must help support families by promoting policies that encourage parents to communicate with their children concerning responsible sexual behavior and delaying the onset of sexual activity. The United States continues to support and promote abstinence as the preferred, most responsible, and healthiest choice for unmarried adolescents.

Continued discouragement of childbearing, disparagement of religion, intrusion upon parental authority, and emphasis upon the autonomous child are not in the best interests of children, parents, the family or the international community. Instead of continuing on this misguided course, Member States should emphasize the importance in the United Nations’ work of childbearing, parental authority and responsibility, marriage and protection of our children within a loving family.

The United Nations is working on the ground in many countries to improve health, access to food, literacy, and other areas that impact the family. It offers much hope in addressing crises and problems that cut across international boundaries. The United States believes strongly that strengthening the family is fundamental to achieving all the goals for which the United Nations was created.

Members States at the UN come under extreme pressure to join consensus with their region, which means taking positions on social issues that are in direct conflict with the policies of their government and even their national constitutions. Countries that care about marriage, parenthood, and the family should resist such pressure. They should band together when issues of importance to the family are debated at the UN.

Thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you.

 

 

 

 

 

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