The Earth Summit II — held at the United Nations in New York City from June 23 – 27 — was viewed by environmentalists with a renewed hope and commitment to sustainable development, but after months of arduous negotiations, it was obvious that governments had paid lip service to past financial commitments and priorities for environmental protection.

Nevertheless, there was a concerted effort to proceed on reproductive health issues, in the name of ‘environmental security.’

While government delegations had to work mightily to maintain the wording established in the original Agenda 21 document, the European Union vigorously pursued the transformation of language in two paragraphs, titled: Eradicating Poverty and Population. They attempted to move beyond the language established at the Beijing and Cairo conferences and ignore a state’s right to exclude abortion from its health services.

During negotiations of the draft Earth Summit document, the European Union and the United States introduced amendments to the paragraph on ‘Population’ that eliminated the words ‘family and maternal health’ and replaced them with the terms ‘reproductive health care, including family planning and sexual health.’

To protect their national sovereignty, a group of developing nations insisted on the inclusion of the phrase ‘consistent with the Report’ when referring to the International Conference on Population and Development, Fourth world Conference on Women, and the Conference on Human Settlements. The use of the word Report instead of ‘Program or Platform of Action’ is crucial in recognizing the interpretative statements and reservations made by many countries to these conference documents.

Most of the reservations noted in the ICPD report were directed towards the phrase ‘reproductive health care.’ According the World Health Organization, “reproductive health” includes access to “methods of fertility regulation,” which in turn is defined as including “interrupting unwanted pregnancies,” that is abortion on demand.

While reference to the report would make the text consistent with the practice of recent conference documents, protect the national laws, religious, ethical, and cultural values of countries, and safeguard a nation’s right to exclude the practice of induced abortion from “reproductive health care,” many Western nations (led by the European Union) were adamant in their pursuit of pro-abortion rhetoric and pressuring nations to go against their established laws, traditions and moral values.

Canada (while usually opposed to the pro-life lobby) acknowledged and concurred with the proposal of the G7 nations. Playing the stereotypical role of ‘international mediator,’ the Canadian delegate Ruth Archibald recognized that concepts and concerns regarding ‘reproductive issues’ were well known and sought the inclusion of “consistent with the report” to follow the precedent of previous conferences, recognizing the concerns of many nations.

The final days of negotiation were overshadowed by the controversial policy splits regarding the paragraphs on population and poverty. After intense and arduous discussions during the final days, three paragraphs with reference to the Beijing, Cairo and Habitat conferences saw the reference to the phrase “consistent with the report of …” either within the paragraph, as a footnote or both.

Thus, due to the efforts of a severely outnumbered but dedicated lobby of pro-lifers from around the globe, and the courageous stance of Catholic, Muslim and other developing countries, the European Union was thwarted in their attempts to override the national sovereignty of developing countries and language protecting the sanctity of life prevailed.

Three days prior to the Earth Summit Special Session, the UN General Assembly adopted an Agenda for Development. This unprecedented document on development is a comprehensive framework of objectives and measures recognizing that “the interdependent and mutually reinforcing components of sustainable development are economic development, social development and environmental protection.”

It adds that “The goal of development is the improvement of human well being and the quality of life.” Thus, the components of this development spectrum are far-reaching in their scope. They include such measures as: eradication of poverty, hunger, disease and illiteracy, the provision of adequate shelter and secure employment for all, the preservation of the integrity of the environment and the empowerment of women.

Not all of these goals to achieve sustainable development are as altruistic as they sound. For instance, the State of the World’s Population 1997: The Right to Choose: Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Health by UNFPA (United Nations POpulation Fund) states that “the social empowerment of women clearly contributes to, and depends on, good reproductive health. Since 1982, UNFPA has supported more than 20 projects combining provision of reproductive health services and information with micro-credit activities.”

By linking the empowerment of women to sustainable development, an impetus is provided to advocate the legalization and increased accessibility of abortion services around the globe. Coupling the availability of loans for women to the acceptance of birth control and abortion moves beyond the realm of subtle coercion. This logic promotes the idea that economic development, social integration and environmental sustainability are contingent on the advancement of reproductive rights. In the end, false assumptions create false conclusions and women are increasingly viewed only as wombs and targets.

After four years of negotiations, the agenda has been touted as an indispensable blueprint for achieving sustainable development. Building on the outcome of recent major UN conferences, this document is filled with references to the ‘Programs and Platforms of Action’ of major UN conferences and conventions (re: Rio, Vienna, Cairo, Beijing, Habitat II, World Food Summit, Copenhagen, Convention on the Rights of the Child). However, a serious omission abounds in the agenda for development – there is no reference to the reports of these conferences, which include the Interpretative Statements and Reservations made by numerous countries when the Conference documents were adopted.

Many of these conferences have included many references to anti-life and family rhetoric related to reproductive rights, various forms of the family, gender, and sex education for adolescents.

After a one night blitz of information and early morning pro-life lobbying efforts, eight nations (Malta, Argentina, Lebanon, Guatemala, Ecuador, Islamic Republic of Iran, Syrian Arab Republic and Sudan) stood up in solidarity protecting the sanctity of life during the adoption of this document. Mentioning that population control should not be interpreted as a restriction on life and that all life is valuable, eight government delegates noted their reservations to any references in the Agenda for Development that could be interpreted as undermining national sovereignty and the sanctity of all life.

The purpose of the Commission on Sustainable Development is to follow up, review and assess the progress of Agenda 21. Yet, the Program for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21 includes a section on “International Legal Instruments and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.” This section introduces concepts of appropriate legal and regulatory policies, instruments and enforcement mechanisms regarding environmental and development policies; access to information; access for individuals, groups and organizations to judicial and administrative procedures for legal redress and remedy of actions affecting the environmental and development.

Yet, access to information, in the eyes of the Canadian delegation, did not strengthen the commitments made at Rio sufficiently. Thus, Canada introduced the phrase “including gender disaggregated data.” This proposal was also enhanced by a USA amendment which stated, ‘including information that make visible the unremunerated work of women for use in programme planning and implementation.’

It is important to note that ‘gender’ is a constantly evolving and ambiguous term. While the word ‘gender’ as used in the Platform for Action of the Fourth world Conference on Women was intended to be ‘interpreted and understood as it was in its ordinary, generally accepted usage,’ there is not even a good translation for this word in French or Spanish and it does not even exist in Arabic.

What does gender mean? According the UN Secretary General (2 September 1996)

gender refers to the socially constructed roles played by women and men;

since gender roles are contingent on the social and economic context, they can vary according to the specific context and can change over time;

gender is used to refer to the explanation for observed differences between women and men based on socially assigned roles;

the word ‘sex’ is used to refer to physical and biological characteristics of women and men.

The Canadian delegation said that the Canadian government “[felt] very strongly on this issue,” and that these four words (including gender disaggregated data) “are absolutely essential” to collectively inform ourselves on what the problems are. But what are the implications of using this term as a measure for progress and the equality of women?

Will gender data track that husbands assist in half of household chores or that women are paid ‘equal wages for work of equal value’? How will these Measures be monitored without infringing the privacy of individuals? Is this an attempt to create androgynous behaviour of our society? Will this undermine the role of the family?

There is no need for ambiguity. Gender could be easily replaced by “men and women” or “sex” if the Canadian government was serious about gaining insight into the differing roles and interactions of men and women in society. Obviously this is an attempt to alter relationships between men and women and change the social “arrangements” that have traditionally governed our society.

It is important to remember that only recently did Statistics Canada stop tracking abortions and eliminate this subject from their data collection repertoire. If “including gender disaggregated data” is as essential as it was made to seem at the Earth Summit, shouldn’t the Canadian government insist on compiling information on one of the most frequently performed surgeries on Canadian women (abortion) to access the equality of women in society? As this isn’t the case, it is logical to begin questioning the intent, significance and repercussions of using this phrase.

As the impetus for undertaking reform of the United Nations advances there is also a complementary process to examine the philosophical basis of this institution. At the helm of this rejuvenation process is a Canadian, Maurice Strong, who is Executive Coordinator for United nations Reform. Coincidentally he is also Chairman of the Earth Council which is the organization that has initiated the development of an “Earth Charter.”

The Earth Charter “is an initiative which will outline moral principles for sustainable development including those for gender equality.” As the UN struggles to meet the challenges of the new millennium, it is reasonable that to strengthen the institution, the UN Charter should embrace new concepts, values and ethical principles that were not common concerns in 1948 when it was adopted, i.e. to reflect the goals of sustainable development.

Maurice Strong has stated that the Earth Charter, “will be a set of ethical standards by which people may measure their behavior, and governments their performance.” Such principles include:

#3 – Live sustainably, promoting and adopting modes of consumption, production and reproduction that respect and safeguard human rights and the regenerative capacities of Earth

#10 – Affirm that gender equality is a prerequisite for sustainable development

#11 – Secure the right to sexual and reproductive health, with special concern for women and girls.

Are these the type of practical guidelines that will build a global partnership and improve the quality of human life? Does the linking of reproduction to the carrying capacity of the Earth empower women? Does the provision of reproductive health care to adolescent girls strengthen communities and families? What do sexual rights entail?

The Earth Charter may be promoted as a document that combines common aspects of all spiritual values but its facade is deceiving. Steven Rockefeller, coordinator of the Earth Charter Consultation Process states that what is needed “is a radical change in the fundamental attitudes and values underlying people’s behavior.”

The Earth Charter has been formulated based on the document envisaged in Our Common Future that would set forth “new norms for state and interstate behaviour, to consolidate and extend relevant legal principles in a new charter to guide state behavior in the transition to sustainable development.”

The aim of the Earth Charter Project is to create a ‘soft law’ document that sets forth the fundamental principles of the emerging [global] ethic.” It is hoped that the Charter may also be expanded into a Convention “setting out the sovereign right and reciprocal responsibilities of all states on environmental protection and sustainable development.” A final version of the document is to be prepared by June 1998 (after extensive consultations with interested groups and individuals) and to be widely circulated as a “people’s treaty” in 1998 and 1999 before efforts are made to seek formal UN approval (adoption by the UN General Assembly).

The Earth Charter, as a basic code of conduct is suppose to articulate “fundamental principles of enduring significance and that are widely shared by people of all races, cultures, religions and ideological traditions.” As a ‘people’s charter” this document is suppose to reflect universal spiritual values and “serve as a code of conduct for ordinary citizens, educators, business, executives, scientists, religious leaders and national councils of sustainable development.” Who is the voice of the grassroots movements? Can the values of ordinary people be adequately reflected in the Earth Charter if the co-chairs of the commission include such personalities as: Maurice Strong, Mikhail Gorbachev or Jim McNeil?

The reform of the United Nations is sure to promote the increased involvement of civil society within its structure and programs. The concerns of non governmental organizations will continue to gain a persuasive voice in policy formulation – but whose voice will be represented and what international standards will be obtained?