Life Watch: Report from an Exotic Place

I used to complain that I lived in an academic enclave, the People’s Republic of Amherst, Massachusetts, a place that is in America and yet not quite of it. And I used to remark that we are not far, however, from an American consulate in Hartford, Connecticut. But in the middle of January, I was drawn to a conference at Brigham Young University, and I could not help wondering why students at Amherst, attracted to junior years abroad in exotic places, could not be attracted instead to spend some time among the Mormons at Brigham Young. They would find, in Provo, Utah, a culture jarringly different from anything that surrounds them now. Apart from being a place pervaded by a serious, religious sense, it is also, in its way, a cosmopolitan place, for the students retain their religious commitment as they almost all go abroad for two years, doing missionary work. More than 50 languages are taught on the campus, and one visitor from the Middle East was rather taken aback to discover that there were, in this campus of 30,000 students, about 2,000 who spoke his language.

That connection between the Mormons and the rest of the world helps explain why the Mormons have been drawn into political involvement at the United Nations, in an alliance with the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute. The conference in Provo was an attempt to firm up a remarkable coalition that has begun to take hold among the Catholic countries in Central and South America, the Islamic nations, and a cluster of countries in Africa. And what brought this coalition together was the sudden awareness of an attack on the family, powered by the “New Class,” that ensemble of politicians and bureaucrats who control the levers at the United Nations. What makes matters worse is that the United States wields the decisive weight at the UN, and American policy in international organizations is being directed by the Hillary Clinton wing of the administration. The channels of money and leverage may be found in the State Department, in the section dealing with development and “the environment,” and in the USAID agency, with its accent on population control. Whether the ostensible theme is the environment or the enlargement of human rights, the concerns seem to come to a wondrous focus in promoting contraception and abortion.

All of this has been in the works, of course, for a long while, and it has been evident in celebrated meetings in recent years in Cairo, Beijing, and Istanbul. But what administered a sharp jolt—and delivered people from their innocent slumber—was a meeting in December 1997 of the Preparatory Conference for a new International Criminal Code. What the Mormon and Catholic delegates encountered was a novel code, containing “crimes” of this kind: “compelled pregnancy”—the crime of “compelling” women to be pregnant, by refusing to provide laws that recognize the right of a woman to end her pregnancy. Who would be guilty of such a crime? The officials of any country who have the responsibility for shaping and enforcing such retrograde laws. Those officials could be threatened with charges brought in an international forum. That might be all the incentive they need to explain to their constituents that they must modify their laws now in order to comply with the new, “advanced” requirements of the international community.

Another provision of this prospective code declared that any discrimination based on sexual orientation should be punishable. In other words, there would be a pretense of fashioning an “international law” that commanded all member-states to incorporate, in their laws, the right to homosexual sodomy, and presumably, then, “same-sex marriage.” It may be a measure of the “New Class,” advancing these projects, that its members genuinely seem surprised when they encounter opposition from Muslims and Catholics. They seem to assume that anyone educated enough to move as a delegate in these circles must be as urbane as they in their emancipation from their religions. And so the president of the United Nations Association of New York was apparently startled when she was told by a young Islamic delegate that the Koran, as a source of Islamic law, prohibits homosexuality. According to the young delegate, she simply suggested to him, with a wink, “that moderate Muslims should interpret [their teachings] in a way that respects every human being’s right to enjoy his or her body without interference or discrimination.”

But these moves at the Preparatory Conference were blocked, and the thoughtful citizen might wonder whether it is a sign of hope or dismay that the main opposition in defeating this scheme came from this cluster of states: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, the Arab Emirates, and Sudan. In defending the moral tradition, where was the West?

The writers and teachers who gather around the journal First Things made an attempt, during the past year, to celebrate and restate the UN Declaration of Human Rights on its 50th anniversary. One concern in that project was that the New Class would seek to hijack the banner of “natural rights” and use it as a lever for pressing, in international fora, the new ensemble of “reproductive rights.” And sure enough, at the end of the year, in December 1998, Mary Robinson, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, issued a statement in praise of that Declaration of 50 years ago. But with penetrating insight, she observed that the world has changed—that it is “more complex.” That complexity now allows us to see rights that went unnoticed in 1948, including the right not to suffer “discriminations on grounds of gender or on the basis of sexual orientation.” Anyone with ordinary powers of inference can see, without strain, just where this project is heading.

The signs were clear enough, at any rate, to alarm people and countries at odds with the ethic of Hillary Clinton and the socialist parties in the West. The Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute was founded a year and a half ago by the engaging Austin Ruse, a convert who had spent his career in publishing before launching this new venture with a presence at the United Nations. There, he connected himself with the Office of the Holy See, and soon he also found Richard Wilkins and Kathryn Balmforth, Mormons and professors of law at Brigham Young who were working with committees of the UN. In June 1996, Wilkins sensed trouble afoot as the New Class arranged a conference on housing in Istanbul. Sure enough, the issue of housing became the vehicle for new rights of abortion and homosexuality. Wilkins sought permission to speak, and the Islamic delegates were startled to find a western academic on their side. For the first time, a coalition came together to block this attempt to impose the agenda of the Left under the imprint of the UN.

Last May, Ruse and the Catholic Human Rights Institute invited me to the UN to make the case for natural law, and they managed to turn out 45 delegations, drawn mainly from Latin America and the Islamic countries. It was an attempt, that is, to sound the themes of a morality grounded in human nature, which would hold true in all places where that nature remained the same. That program, in May, produced a surprising resonance, and it was being followed up now by this conference at Brigham Young, sponsored by the World Congress of Families, a group containing Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims.

At the end of the first day of discussion, a rather westernized delegate from Saudi Arabia expressed an incomprehension evidently felt by others from Pakistan and Egypt: Why, he asked, should we be here defending the family? The family was not under attack in most of these countries. The problem seemed to be invented by the people pressing these new regulations upon us, and why were we so defensive and apologetic? Why weren’t we the ones registering our outrage? Amany Fahmy, a young woman attached to the Egyptian delegation at the UN, remarked that the Egyptians were not suffering any perplexity about “the family,” since they have cultivated a rather settled notion of the family over 7,000 years. She was astonished, she said, to learn the new meaning behind “families”: She had assumed that “families” was simply the plural of “family,” not the mark of new varieties of families, which could include homosexual couplings.

The irony finally broke through. “Cultural relativism” was itself a doctrine formed in the West and projected into the so-called backward countries, most of whom did not see anything the least “relative” or uncertain about their own ways of life. But now there was a new imperialism, every bit as arrogant as the old, seized once again with a sense of its own superiority. And it was determined, as much as ever, to remold the laws of the “primitive” countries according to the design set down by their betters. Yet, wonder to behold, it was the countries of the East now learning to speak their resistance in the language of natural rights, a language that the elites in the West no longer take seriously. In the final turnabout, these countries now offer their remonstrance and manifesto in the name of that God who endowed us with certain “unalienable rights,” anchored in the proposition that “all men are created equal.”

  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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