High-level dignitaries from across the world converged at United Nations headquarters in New York City earlier this month to adopt a political declaration during the 57th Session of the Commission on Population Development (CPD). This year’s political declaration was especially significant, given that this fall, the UN will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action (ICPD).

One hundred seventy-nine UN member and observer states adopted the ICPD Programme of Action in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994. While no new international human rights were created, the political commitments that states made in the ICPD are influential in setting international and national policy, health programs, financing measures, and other initiatives in areas related to population and development.

As one of the most prominent functional commissions of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Commission on Population and Development has the mandate to monitor, review, and assess the status of implementation of the ICPD. Regrettably, for many of its sessions, the Commission failed to find consensus. CPD outcome documents are important because they take stock of the priority theme and contain a set of concrete recommendations to be implemented by states and nongovernmental actors at the international, national, regional, and local levels. The sources of the CPD’s failures stemmed, in large part, from the attempted inclusion of ideological and non-consensual concepts rejected by a large number of States.

Promises and Pitfalls

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Likewise, thirty years on, the rest of the world has the benefit of hindsight in realizing the promises and pitfalls inherent in the ICPD agenda. Even in its initial form, it was far from a perfect document: some of its terminology and content was vague or even contested.  Thus, numerous states made reservations or interpretive declarations on the ICPD, including on terminology related to what is referred to as sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights (SRHRR), marriage and the family, the right to life, and gender.

The ICPD also contained ambiguous or conflicting language on demographic policy. For example, it called for efforts to “slow down population growth,” supported measures to “stabilize” the world population, and for countries to address “imbalances” between demographic rates and social, economic, and environmental goals. It was unclear what this all entailed or would encompass. 

Nevertheless, the document did make important concessions on population and development policy. This was an improvement to the population control measures of earlier decades with roots in the eugenics policies of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger or the discredited theories of Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich. These practices, more often than not, targeted persons who were racial minorities, poor, indigenous, disabled, or otherwise considered socially unfit. In contrast, the ICPD put the human person at the center of development and rejected any form of targets or quotas in demographic goals and coercion in family-planning programs.

The ICPD also contained important caveats on abortion. In particular, it specified that in no case should it be promoted as a method of family planning. Furthermore, it urged governments to reduce recourse to abortion. States also agreed that any measures or changes related to abortion “can only be determined at the national or local level according to the national legislative process,” as opposed to through the promotion of a nonexistent international human right to abortion. 

These caveats guarded against the attempts of UN agencies misrepresenting the voices of its member states or the judicial activism of certain national and regional human rights courts legislating from the bench to renegotiate the substance of treaties and push for laws and policies that could not be otherwise won via the democratic process. 

On education, the ICPD took into account the “rights and responsibilities of parents” and recognized that responsibility for the best interests of the child “lies in the first place with the parents.” The ICPD also called on governments and nongovernmental organizations to promote programs directed at the education of parents in their attempts to support their children’s learning and growth.

Such support could look like, for instance,  capacity-building programs, home visits and community meetings, and other forms of material support. Crucially, recognition of parental rights also hinders attempts to promote so-called “comprehensive sexuality education” (CSE) that sexualizes children and subverts parental rights to provide appropriate direction and guidance to their children that are recognized under international human rights law.

Additionally, while declaring that in different cultural, political, and social systems, various forms of the family exist, the ICPD also reaffirmed that “the family” is the “basic unit of society, and as such should be strengthened,” is “entitled to comprehensive protection and support,” and that “marriage must be entered into with free consent of the intending spouses,” specifying in this regard that “husband and wife should be equal partners.” That is consistent with international human rights instruments that affirm “the family” and entitle it to protection from society and the state against ideological attempts to redefine it.

The ICPD was also significant in calling out harmful and unethical practices such as infanticide and prenatal sex selection, in which “son preference” may curtail girls’ access to food, education, and healthcare, and acknowledged how the use of technologies to screen for fetal sex can result in the abortion of female children. In certain states and regions, sex ratios at birth are highly skewed, but calling out such practices now seems to be more taboo and sacrificed at the altar of abortion “rights.”

Finally, the ICPD acknowledged that implementation of its commitments is “the sovereign right of each country, consistent with national laws and development priorities, with full respect for the various religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds of its people, and in conformity with universally recognized international human rights.” Unfortunately, the problem in recent years is the deliberate discounting of the positions of states that value the dignity of human life from conception to natural death, protection of the family and parental rights, and sovereignty, among other concerns.

Addressing Challenges in Population and Development

Such provisions were hard-won by diplomats decades ago. Indeed, they are an explicit recognition that Western, progressive elites do not have a monopoly in defining how human rights and development priorities will be addressed globally. However, as old challenges remain and new challenges arise, it is the responsibility of a new generation to ensure that UN bureaucrats and technocratic specialists do not co-opt the next thirty years of the ICPD for their own ends.

While the old population and development paradigm was couched in the language of population “targets” and “quotas,” and used coercion to attain its goals, the new population paradigm now uses the seductive language of autonomy, rights, and individualism. The end result can be just as perilous and even more corrupting to societies, because a conception of rights that is unmoored from a grounding in human dignity or any sense of duties can do more harm to the people and societies such policies are meant to help. In a certain sense, the ideas in the ICPD were influenced by, or were precursors to, the in-vogue degrowth, net-zero, or Zero Population Growth (ZPG) movements.

For example, we are only beginning to understand the deficiencies of such an emphasis. The problem that certain regions of the world are facing now is not burgeoning populations but well-below-2.1 replacement level population—accompanied by all the social, economic, and cultural dislocations that follow such a new reality. For far too long, many demographers and statisticians insisted on the benefits of the “demographic dividend,” without realizing that, at some point, it turns into a “demographic deficit” that must be repaid. National efforts to address population decline show mixed results, with some countries experiencing fertility gains while other efforts show the limits of a top-down approach to population and development policy.

Additionally, the increasing prevalence of artificial reproductive technologies is redefining previously fundamental relationships that bound families and nations together. At the other end of life, the specter of euthanasia and assisted suicide treats human life as disposable rather than calling us to radical solidarity with those who are sick, suffering, or otherwise have a disability.

On the other hand, other regions face continuing challenges with underdevelopment, poverty, migration, human trafficking, organized crime, conflicts, and humanitarian disasters that show there is still much left to be accomplished without the need to emphasize the narrow agendas of a certain few. In this respect, the need for capacity-building programs, technology and development assistance, foreign direct investment, the engagement of civil society and nongovernmental actors, and other resource mobilization at the national and international levels should be uncontroversial. The international community can do much to partner with countries to meet their population and development needs.

States must ensure that the UN system as a whole stays away from ideological agendas and meets the authentic needs of the world.


Promoting Development and Respecting International Human Rights Law

The proliferation of “new rights” claims that have no basis in international human rights treaties, or that are neither fully consistent with those originally defined nor always acceptable, turn the once-noble human rights project on its head and threaten to sideline sincere development concerns along with them. For example, to assume that we can realistically meet population and development challenges with more of the same old, failed CSE, abortion, and contraception policies, is a form of ideological colonialism. If anything, such so-called “solutions” treat the human person as the problem rather than the solution. They also ignore the boundless human potential for experimentation, innovation, and creativity to address society’s most pressing problems.

To outside observers, all of this may seem like “inside baseball,” far too removed from the ordinary cares of people around the world. That criticism may be partly true. But it is also important to recognize that the development of international law is an accretive process that consolidates over many, many decades. Apparently small changes in that law today will have vast consequences in the future. Proponents of radical anti-life and anti-family agendas understand this point, which is why they have succeeded at advancing their cause worldwide: they are playing the long game. 

Take for example Fos Feminista, formerly known as International Planned Parenthood Federation Western Hemisphere Region (IPPFWHR). They have lamented what they characterize as the “clear danger that newly adopted conservative, diluted language may become the norm, with qualifying language taking precedence over commitments in the [ICPD Programme of Action].” Why? Because they recognize the continuing importance of the ICPD outcomes document:

Protecting the agreed language within outcome documents is important. . . . The CPD outcome documents are decisions and resolutions that member states have agreed upon at the annual sessions that guide the priorities of the international community on these issues. . . . 

Consequently, gains in language also translate to gains on the ground over a period of time; it is easier to [petition] governments to address issues if they have already committed to them at international political fora. Conversely, it can be challenging to mobilize national commitments to address an issue unless these have been recognized and named in international frameworks.

That is precisely why each of us who cherish the dignity of human life, the family, universally agreed human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the sovereignty and developmental priorities of our respective states cannot relent. To do otherwise would mean that the ICPD Agenda will continue to be selectively and deceptively promoted and implemented to the detriment of people across the world

For future CPD outcome documents and political declarations to be truly consensual and reflective of the priorities of all countries, states must ensure that the UN system as a whole stays away from ideological agendas and meets the authentic needs of the world. This is possible without privileging the myopic perspective of wealthy elites, which didn’t take us far at all thirty years later. That has been a regrettably elusive goal thus far, but one that, if pursued in good faith, can and must be achieved if we are to meet the needs of current and future generations.

Image by Sergii Figurnyi and licensed via Adobe Stock.