Sexuality Policy Watch

Loss and gain in recent UN debates on  ‘the family’

Written by Fábio Grotz (in collaboration with Sonia Corrêa)

New OHCHR Report

Since the heyday of preparation for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD, Cairo, 1994), UN debates on the family have been contentious. However, since then, as morally conservative views became more vocal and articulate in international arenas, the demise of the Cairo definition on ‘various forms of family’ became one of their main targets.

The topic was subject to controversy in early ICPD reviews. For example, at the 47th Session of the Commission on Population and Development that marked 20 years since ICDP and again at the 25th Session of the Human Rights Council, a resolution was voted on and adopted entitled Protection of the family.  The Resolution called for a panel to address the family in the subsequent session held in September 2014, which was only adopted after a No-Action Motion was called to prevent the inclusion of an amendment that would recognize the existence of various forms of the family in the proposed text.

Then, at the Human Rights Council’s 29th Session, a core group of 12 countries — Bangladesh, Belarus, China, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, El Salvador, Mauritania, Morocco, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia — tabled the contentious Resolution draft under the title – Protection of the family: The contribution of the family to the realization of the right to adequate standard of living for its members particularly through its role in poverty eradication and achieving sustainable development.[1]

As analyzed in detail by the Sexual Rights Initiative  and Arc International  the negotiations of the text were extremely difficult because, once again, a No-Action Motion was interposed when countries, understanding that various forms of family exist, proposed an amendment to the text and were defeated. Even though positive language on gender equality, domestic violence, and shared responsibility between women and men in regard to care were incorporated into the text, the final outcome of the negotiations was regrettable. As analyzed by the Sexual Right Initiative:

“The text of this resolution is extremely problematic in that amongst other concerns it sought to elevate the family as an institution in need of protection without acknowledging that families perpetuate patriarchal oppression, traditions and harmful practices, and that human rights abuses do occur within families … Further, the core group continuously did not include in the text the recognition that various family forms exist, despite many delegations requesting them to do so. Without such recognition, it cannot be assured that the family-friendly and family-oriented public policies referred to in the resolution will address the needs of all family members in diverse families.”

Arc International’s final assessment of the process also points towards the many flaws in the text

“….  from the perspective of women’s rights, child rights as well as rights of LGBTI persons. In all three cases, mainstream interpretations of religion/tradition/morals had severely limited the human rights of women, children and LGBTI persons. Any stress on the rights of the family was bound to negatively impact those who, while members of families also at times, suffered abuse at the hands of the family.”

While this outcome is regrettable and the factors that explain it must be further examined, it must be placed against the outcome of the subsequent final negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were held in New York in late July. This is crucial because the problematic perspective on ‘the family’ emphasized in the HRC text has not been transposed to the outcomes.

Alessandra Nilo and partners (in Portuguese) describe how a major point of contention  developed during these negotiations when a new paragraph on ‘family protection’ was tabled by the same group of  countries that sponsored the Human Rights Council resolution.  The language proposed was considered unacceptable by a number of other countries because, in their view,  it disregarded previous definitions of the family in its various forms and concentrated its premises on the realms of LGBTI and women’s rights.  If adopted, the proposition would imply that the ability of countries to strengthen and protect families would be considered an indicator for the SDGs to be measured.  As observed by Nilo and partners, there was no room for adding a new ‘target’ in the section on Means of Implementation.

Brazil was highly vocal[2] in relation to the topic, as evinced by the Brazilian Ambassador’s opinion on the matter:

“(…) Paragraph 44, on the family, should be deleted. This concept is not present in the Millennium Declaration and is not mentioned in the Rio + 20 or the ODS. There is no reason for this addition. The current language of the document is a step backwards compared to the agreed language for more than 20 years at the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development. The current wording does not reflect the fact that various forms of families are already recognized. The reference to the family could therefore open complex and unnecessary discussions at this late stage of the negotiations.

Interestingly enough — as reported by SRI and ARC –Brazil abstained from the last round of the voting for the resolution at the HRC.  Such a discrepancy is a good reason in itself for the geopolitical dynamics underlying these two parallel processes to be looked at more closely.  From the SPW perspective it also seems wise to closely analyze the content of the HRC resolution so that its various contradictions are highlighted. This would prevent it from being misinterpreted or even hailed by those who are unaware of the course of the negotiations.[3]


Read also the Statement issued by Special Rapporteurs on final outcome of the  29th Human Rights Council Session debates on the protection of the family 

[1] The final text of the resolution had not yet been posted at the Human Rights Council website when this comment was written.

[2] This is one reason why Brazil was singled out and attacked by reports on the negotiation produced by well known anti – LGBT and women’s rights sectors.

[3] SPW has plans to develop this analysis in the forthcoming weeks

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