The UN’s War Against Children

The United Nations (UN) General Assembly is calling world leaders to New York City this month for the 2001 Special Session on Children, a ten-year follow-up to the UN’s 1990 World Summit for Children. The purpose of this year’s session is to “change the way the world views and treats children.” The harsh reality awaiting the special session’s participants who include government leaders, representatives from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), policy specialists, self-described children’s advocates, and a host of preselected youth members of the more radical NGOs—is the widening disagreement among nations over precisely what that changed view of children should be.

The UN seeks to create a universal and autonomous legal standing for children under 18 years of age. Pro-family observers have voiced grave reservations. Is a child a freestanding possessor of rights granted by an international body? Or, as is traditionally understood by Catholics and others, are children’s rights derived from their being made in the image of God and held in guardianship by their parents until they reach the age of majority?

At the center of the controversy is a draft document, “A World Fit for Children,” that is being prepared by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for signing at the upcoming special session. If adopted, the document will serve as the new international guide to child policy.

On the surface, the document appears to be a step in the right direction toward safeguarding the world’s children from abuse: It contains provisions to combat child labor and child prostitution and attempts to guarantee health care and social services for them. However, many antifamily NGOs—typically feminist front groups, population control advocacy organizations, and gay rights lobbying operations—are seizing the opportunity to advance “progressive” goals. They have demanded that the document include language that would remove children from the moral influence of their parents and give them a “right” to abortion. Several Catholic and Islamic countries, as well as the United States, contend that those provisions are an intrusion into national autonomy.

Testy battles over such hot-button issues as the definition of the family, parental rights, national sovereignty, and religious freedom have already been fought at the three preparatory committee meetings (prepcoms) held in June 2000, February 2001, and June 2001 to negotiate “World Fit for Children.” The final prepcom this past June was a stage for fiery exchanges between diplomats as nations wrestled over contentious provisions in the document purporting to recognize “various forms of the family,” “full gender equality,” and a child’s right to such services as “sexual and reproductive health care.”

Radical Agendas

Though the “World Fit for Children” document contains numerous alarming provisions, it also addresses the heart-wrenching conditions in which many of the world’s children live.

The appalling specters of child prostitution and child labor continue to ravage some areas of Asia. Millions of children around the world never receive even an elementary education. Many children lack basic health care, clean water, nutrition, and inoculations. The raging AIDS epidemic in Africa, one of the tragic consequences of the progressive “sexual rights” agenda, remains a great concern: Millions of children whose parents have AIDS die of neglect within months after their parents’ deaths. Young boys are conscripted into military service around the world. Refugee children, too, face dire conditions that make them vulnerable to a plethora of abuses.

These and other scourges that fall on the shoulders of children are tragedies that the Catholic Church tirelessly addresses. The Holy See, in fact, has welcomed the efforts of UN agencies seeking to protect children. But children are still held captive to grave injustices because of various radical political agendas. The ransom demanded of less-developed countries, typically Catholic and Islamic ones, is that they must accept “various forms of the family” or “reproductive health rights” as part of a laundry list of human rights in exchange for the financial aid of the developed world via the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The radical groups have high expectations for the special session. They hope to regain some of the losses they sustained during the UN’s “Beijing +5” conference last year, a five-year review of the Fourth World Conference on Women—better known as the Beijing Conference—held in 1995 in the Chinese capital. Following an attack on motherhood and family values at Beijing, pro-family organizations from around the globe catapulted into action. They formed coalitions to prevent parental rights from eroding even further at Beijing +5 and successfully blocked attempts to insert radical language into the conference’s outcome document that would guarantee abortion as a universal human right. The success of the pro-family coalition at the close of Beijing +5 caused tears of rage for one UN official.

Each UN conference on women or children pits traditional cultures against the near-hegemonic power of the “progressive” nations. Many radical NGOs, such as Catholics for a Free Choice and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, pack these conferences with lobbyists who press national delegates to adopt policies hostile to the traditional family. For example, abortion as a universal right for all age groups has been advanced in the euphemism “reproductive health and rights.” Homosexual liaisons masquerade as “various forms of the family.” Progressive factions push to have these terms inserted into UN documents to lay a foundation for ensuring that these newly crafted rights become part of international law. The attempted systematic deconstruction of the role of women, family, and nation has been the hallmark of UN conferences for more than a decade.

Catholic scholar and Heritage Foundation fellow Patrick Fagan warned of the danger of these conferences in a February 2001 position paper for Heritage: “Few Americans are aware that agencies within the United Nations system are involved in a campaign to undermine the foundations of society—the two-parent married family, religions that espouse the primary importance of marriage and traditional sexual morality, and the legal and social structures that protect these institutions.”

In his paper, titled “How UN Conventions on Women’s and Children’s Rights Undermine the Family, Religion, and Sovereignty?’ Fagan also warned about the “troubling agenda” of radical NGOs at the conferences that use “the political cover of international treaties that promote women’s and children’s rights…to change their domestic laws and national constitutions to adopt policies that ultimately will affect women and children adversely.”

Moderates are often tempted to dismiss UN declarations and treaties, noting that they are not binding on member nations. However, provisions agreed upon by an international body eventually become part of the “customary law” that is subsequently codified in formal international law (see “Stopping the International Criminal Court,” October 2000). The goal of the radical proponents of “child rights” is to turn them into “international human rights” that will supersede national laws. This would benefit radical internationalists in two ways: (1) It would place the next generation’s welfare under the control of a world body rather than a nation-state, and (2) it would serve to advance the growth of a global government.

Sex and Porn

Much of the struggle at the prepcom negotiating sessions was over language in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a treaty drafted in 1989 that outlined absolute rights for children under 18 years of age and was set for ratification and implementation as part of a plan of action adopted at the 1990 World Summit for Children. UNICEF has high hopes of making the CRC which threatens the right of nations to define their own domestic law and policies and would strip parents of their right to raise their children as they see fit—the framework for the upcoming Special Session on Children.

Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, has been urging UN member nations to reference and implement the CRC as preparation for this month’s meeting. Her plans have met obstacles, however. Because the United States and Somalia have not ratified the CRC, and many other nations that did ratify the treaty did so with formal reservations, there have been grave objections to using the CRC as the only template for the “World Fit for Children” document. Since the 1990 summit, several nations that earlier ratified the treaty have had shocking experiences with the CRC monitoring committee, which has ordered governments to take controversial actions to implement the treaty provisions.

An example of the clashes over implementation of the CRC was the battle during the January prepcom over Article 13 of the document, an assault on parents’ obligation to protect and guide the opinions and choices of their children. The CRC says: “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.”

Such a sweeping right, an Islamic delegate suggested, would give children unrestricted access to Internet pornography. Furthermore, critics say, Article 13 would ensure that children have the “right” to view International Planned Parenthood material, which many families would likely find offensive and prohibit. For instance, Planned Parenthood’s “Youth Manifesto” booklet tramples on traditional moral teachings and religious values. It demands that “[y]oung people’s sexuality should have a positive image in society.” It also insists that “[y]oung people must be supported by laws that allow them to act freely in the way they choose to live their lives,” and that they “must be encouraged to know their own sexual rights.” The Planned Parenthood manifesto also provokes youngsters to rebel against religion: “With religious leaders it is necessary to confront their religious principles with the rights of young people to be informed about sexual and reproductive health…. The issue of sexual pleasure which goes hand in hand with self-esteem still needs to be dealt with in greater depth.”

Should a hapless parent oppose his twelve-year-old’s access to the Planned Parenthood manifesto via mail or the Internet, the CRC monitoring committee can invoke Article 13, which gives the UN the power to violate national sovereignty and overturn a parental decision.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton signed the CRC in 1995, but it was not ratified by the Senate. This was due to the refusal of Republican Senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee until Senator James Jeffords’s defection in May, to permit the CRC to come to the Senate floor.

The United States endures a diplomatic chill for its refusal to ratify the CRC. While the U.S. government already guarantees the most comprehensive legal protection for children in the world, in many nations, including some U.S. allies, the CRC provides a much-needed legal basis for addressing the ills and abuse of children. The rolling undercurrent of the negotiations over the CRC since the 1990 World Summit for Children has been the growing alienation of the United States from its traditional allies on a spectrum of “rights” issues unrelated to the physical ill-treatment of children.

The criticisms that other UN member nations have leveled against U.S. human rights positions take on particular significance in the wake of the ouster of the United States from the UN’s Human Rights Commission last spring and the election to the commission of such alleged human rights offenders as Sudan and China. Republican Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey echoed the shock of many members of Congress over the outcome of that election: “The Nazis could serve and be in good standing on the Human Rights Commission.” Taking the other side, Democratic congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia contended that the United States is one of the world’s “worst rights abusers,” citing a UN report to that effect. The opposing views of these two members of Congress are indicative of the growing divide in American culture as well as legal circles about the nature and provenance of “rights.” Furthermore, the UN consistently seeks to set its conference documents in “rights-based language.” The natural question to ask, of course, is: Who will enforce such rights, and how?

Global Nanny

The question of national sovereignty looms large over diplomatic encounters at the UN. That is one reason why the United States under the Bush administration has sought to avoid using the CRC as the foundation for any documents to emerge from the special session. This stance has created even more tension between America and its usual allies. The European Union and others have insisted that the CRC should be implemented as part of the summit.

During the February 2001 prepcom, the European Union warily awaited a signal from the newly established Bush administration as to its position on the CRC. While a new UN ambassador had not yet been confirmed, the administration had already begun an effort to remove pro-choice proponents from U.S. delegations and replace them with pro-life advocates. One new addition to the U.S. delegation was William Saunders of the Family Research Council. Another was Michele DeKonty, a pro-life aide to Helms. Ambassador E. Michael Southwick, deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, presented a U.S. statement on “A World Fit for Children” that sounded a strong caution against adopting the CRC as the framework for the Special Session on Children.

“Finally, I would like to say a few words about the many references to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international instruments in the current text,” Southwick’s statement said. “States may be encouraged to consider ratification of these instruments, but it is wrong to assert an obligation to ratify them. We also believe it is misleading and inappropriate to use the Convention as a litmus test to measure a nation’s commitment to children. As a non-party to the Convention, the United States does not accept obligations based on it, nor do we accept that it is the best or only framework for developing programs and policies to benefit children.

“The Convention on the Rights of the Child may be a positive tool in promoting child welfare for those countries that have adopted it,” the statement continued. “But we believe the text goes too far when it asserts entitlements based on the economic, social, and cultural rights contained in the Convention and other instruments. The human rights–based approach, while laudable in its objectives, poses significant problems as used in this text.”

Cheers rang out from the observers’ gallery as Southwick concluded his presentation. Pro-family NGOs—such as Women for Faith and Family, the World Congress of Families, and International Right to Life—recognized that this statement represented a radically different position from the “progressive” position of the Clinton administration. The U.S. statement referred to the “erosion of parental authority” and suggested that nations should develop objectives pertinent to “their own goals and in line with conditions and circumstances in their own countries.”

The Holy See delegation, led by Archbishop Renato Martino, also expressed a desire for the “rights of the child” to be grounded in the context of the family. Quoting from earlier UN documents, Archbishop Martino said, “The fact [is] that the family is the basic unit of society, and ‘has the primary responsibility for the nurturing and protection of children from infancy to adolescence’ and thus ‘should be afforded necessary protection and assistance so that it can duly assume its responsibility within the community.’ Accordingly, it is critical that children’s rights must at all times be seen in the light of parents’ prior right.”

(The Holy See has ratified the CRC but with important reservations. Among them is its concern that there is no mention in the document of the protection of human life from the moment of conception. The Holy See has also stated that “more specific mention should have been made of the right of parents to provide for the religious and moral education of their children.”)

The European Union’s reaction to those statements by the United States and the Holy See was dour. And during a U.S. press conference two hours later, radical American groups protested when Southwick explained the new American position. Many of those NGOs seek to eradicate what they call “patriarchal family models:’

Many conservative American groups fear that the UN is seeking to become a global nanny, raising the next generation of children to be more loyal to it than to their own countries, because the UN will guarantee them sexual freedoms.

The ‘A’ Word

Other deliberations at the prepcoms were also not without drama. At the June 2001 prepcom, during a late-night negotiating session, the European Union and Canada continued again to press for “reproductive health services” for minors as part of the special session document.

When Terry Miller of the U.S. delegation requested a definition of the word “services” as it is used in the upcoming special session document in the phrase “full gender equality and equal access to services, such as education, nutrition, health care including sexual and reproductive health care,” Andras Vamos-Goldman, the head of Canada’s permanent mission to the UN, replied testily, “The distinguished delegate of the United States knows that, of course—and I hate to use the word—but in ‘services’ is included abortion.”

Stunned and mute—as if the pin had just been pulled from a grenade—the entire assembly sat frozen. Pandemonium followed. “Services” has never been explicitly defined as including abortion in any prior UN conference documents, even the ultraradical 1995 Beijing Platform for Action.

“In that case,” Miller replied, “brackets must go around that word [services].” Brackets around a word or phrase mean that it is not binding but is subject to later negotiation. Miller continued: “Now that we have had the explicit definition of `services’ as including abortion, I would be amazed if my delegation is the only delegation to object to the use of ‘services:”

Msgr. James Reinert of the Holy See delegation added, “My delegation—and personally, I am shocked—will have to reexamine the entire document for the word ‘services’ if it means abortion. Every time the UN uses ‘services,’ if it means basic social services, that is acceptable, but not including abortion.”

Vamos-Goldman tried to control the damage: “It seems that I’ve ignited a firestorm…but I am quite surprised it provoked a storm. It doesn’t mean that different delegations cannot use different interpretations…. We will not feel constrained if they want to define ‘services’ as basic social services.”

But it was too late, and Vamos-Goldman’s slip was a pro-family victory. The duplicitous use of language by the document’s drafters was laid bare for all to see. If UN delegations are free to interpret terms in UN documents as they wish, then why negotiate those terms in the first place? Why insist that certain phrases, such as “various forms of the family,” be inserted in UN documents if they don’t really mean anything? Why don’t Sweden and Holland, which favor gay unions, simply feel free to interpret the word “family” as they see fit and leave the rest of the world to understand “family” in the traditional sense as based on the union of a married man and woman? Indeed, why have a UN document on the subject in the first place?

The assault on the traditional family is far advanced. Pope John Paul II has said that the laity cannot remain idle in these times. Catholics the world over, but particularly Catholic Americans, have a grave obligation to oppose this restructuring of the human family. In Familiaris Consortio, the pope wrote that “the family is ‘the first and vital cell of society’…. It is from the family that citizens come to birth, and it is within the family that they find the first school of the social virtues that are the animating principle of the existence and development of society itself.” Imagine a society animated by citizens raised in a world where the family model given by the Creator is usurped by various deformities of the family. That ought to impel every Catholic to raise his or her voice in determined resistance.

  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

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