UNFPA welcomes summit outcome

Posted: 9 September 2002

Author Info: Source: This report is based on the news service of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) which drew upon UNFPA, Reuters, Planetwire, and UN Wire.Visit IPPF's Website at IPPF

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has welcomed world leaders' reaffirmation of goals linking poverty eradication and environmental protection to health, including reproductive health, and women's empowerment, but crticised he downplaying of population.

"We are gratified that the summit recognized women's rights to be an important aspect of sustainable development," UNFPA's Executive Director Thoraya Obaid said in New York. "This will boost the global effort to promote gender equality and universal access to reproductive health care."

Emphasizing that "eradicating poverty is the greatest challenge facing the world today", the World Summit action plan endorses the UN's Millennium Development Goals for addressing poverty. It supports actions, among others, to promote equality for women; eliminate violenceand discrimination against them; and improve their status, health and economic welfare through equal access to economic opportunity, land, credit, education and health care services.

The chapter on health calls for strengthening countries' capacity to deliver basic services for all and promote healthy lives, including reproductive and sexual health. It upholds the commitments made at recent United Nations meetings including the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and its five-year review in 1999.

Human rights

The plan reaffirms the targets for reversing the AIDS pandemic set at last year's General Assembly special session, in particular a 25 per cent reduction of HIV prevalence in young men and women aged 15-24 in the most-affected countries by 2005, and globally by 2010. It urges implementation of national prevention and treatment strategies and increased international cooperation against AIDS, and calls on countriesto meet agreed commitments to support the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, while promoting access to the Fund by the neediest countries.

Health service delivery, the plan states, should be "in conformity with human rights and fundamental freedoms" and consistent with national laws and cultural and religious values. The human rights reference was includedafter behind-the-scenes negotiations in the final hours of the 10-day conference.

This was widely understood as a reaffirmation of international consensus agreements, notably the ICPD's endorsement of the right to reproductiveand sexual health, encompassing access to family planning information and services, safe motherhood, prevention of sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS, and elimination of sexual coercion and violence.

Health care

Conservative delegates backed by the Vatican and the United States, among others, fought until the last minute to keep a reference to human rights out of the list of elements that the document said should be considered in providing health services to women. Without such language the document would have named only "cultural and religious values" as considerations,leaving countries free to continue such practices as female genital mutilation or denying health care to women as cultural values.

The Bush administration said it opposed adding the language on procedural grounds. But "When it became the only issue that hadn't been decided, they couldn't openly oppose human rights" said one human rights advocate.

Delegates from South Africa and Barbados were among the strongest advocates for including the human rights phrase in the draft document'sParagraph 47, which describes elements that should be considered in providing health care for women as part of promoting sustainable development.

Canada and European Union states successfully added in a reference to "human rights and fundamental freedoms" alongside an existing phrase saying people should have access to medical services consistentm with "cultural and religious values." They had argued that without it women could find human rights to contraception and abortion denied them. The most vocal opposing delegates included several from Egypt and Argentina.

Defeat on this issue would have represented a rollback on women's rightsmfrom language approved by UN conferences in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1999 and 2000. Opponents of women's rights would also have cited the Johannesburg language as the new standard for documents from future gatherings.

Population question

A virtual silence on rapid world population growth at the Earth Summit reflects a change in the way governments and society view the question of how to tackle poverty and protect the planet, delegates said. Rising world population was at the centre of talks at the last such U.N. summit in Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago but was scarcely mentioned in Johannesburg.

Some argued the absence of debate on population showed reluctance to tackle issues, like contraception and abortion, that can pit social and religious values against human rights. But others said silence on population was a recognition that more people do not always mean more poverty.

"It is widely recognized that population is rather the result of poverty and not the cause," said Chee Yoke Ling of group Third World Network. She said the Johannesburg Earth Summit had chosen to focus rather on alleviating poverty through stressing access to healthcare, clean water and improved trade between countries. If these goals were achieved, the resulting improvement in prosperity would tackle population growth, she said. "The people are upgraded in the quality of life and don't have as many children."

Others stressed that poverty alleviation and population growth had to be tackled hand-in-hand. "We cannot reduce poverty and protect natural resources without addressing population issues," Kunio Waki, deputy executive director of UNFPA, told a session during the 10-day summit. "The last two generations of women have chosen to have smaller families, and the next will do the same if they have access to ducation, health services and family planning, and if they are confident the children they do have will survive."

Dr Steven Sinding, Director-General of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF)made the same point in a letter to The Guardian newspaper: "Everyone agrees that population is central to what this summit was meant to address, yet it was not on the agenda." click here to see his comments in Voices from the Summit

UNFPA spokesman William Ryan said that while the organisation believed more could have been said on population growth at the summit, the fact it endorsed previous agreements on human rights was encouraging.

Success or failure?

Business, Western powers and the United Nations have called the summit a success, stressing the first-ever such mention of renewable energy and a large number of public-private partnerships in support of sustainable development objectives. Most nongovernmental organizations, however,have criticized the summit outcome for doing too little to protect the environment and reduce poverty, singling out for criticism the United States, which is accused of systematically opposing new targets and timetables.

The World Wildlife Fund issued a statement typical of NGO responses to the action plan, calling the document "notably lacking in clear targets and timetables on a range of crucial issues."

The NGOs accused the Bush administration of abandoning a tradition of US environmental leadership and of failing to address the crucial issue of the United States' own consumption and production habits. They said US business, the world's environment and Bush's Republican Party will pay the price of US stonewalling.

"For all of his good intentions, Secretary Powell's speech makes clear that the Bush administration has written off the planet," said National Resources Defense Council International Program Director Jacob Scherr.