Surmounting History of Gridlock, Population and Development Commission Adopts First Consensus Outcome Document in Five Years, Concluding Annual Session
Speakers Praise Timely Focus on Links between Food Security, Nutrition, Development
Facing challenging virtual negotiations and a history of gridlock, the Economic and Social Council’s Commission on Population and Development marked a major achievement today as it adopted its first consensus outcome document in five years, at the conclusion of its fifty-fourth session, with delegates praising the timely focus on links between food security, nutrition, sustainable development and the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is now time to work together to build back better, stronger and greener,” said Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), as she reflected on the pandemic’s severe impact on the trajectory of sustainable development. Spotlighting the particular erosion of gains made in food security and women’s sexual and reproductive health, she welcomed the Commission’s adoption of a meaningful, action-oriented outcome that addresses those challenges. She urged Member States to reflect on national experiences shared this week and tackle the “unfinished business” of the landmark 1994 International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, and its Programme of Action. “Millions upon millions of women and girls are still waiting for the world’s promises to be fulfilled and we will not stand silent as we see progress in our shared goals slip away,” she stressed.
John Wilmoth, Director of the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, also delivering closing remarks, praised the Commission’s consensus adoption of an outcome document on the theme of its current session, “Population, food security, nutrition and sustainable development” (document E/CN.9/2021/L.5). Noting that texts adopted by consensus have more weight and can be more influential — both on the ground and in future intergovernmental discussions — he thanked all the participants, facilitators and members of the Bureau for a successful session, which will inform preparations for the Economic and Social Council’s upcoming high-level political forum on sustainable development, the Food Systems Summit and other crucial intergovernmental forums.
Yemdaogo Eric Tiare (Burkina Faso), Chair of the fifty-fourth session, said that, over recent days, the Commission delved deep into the links between food security, nutrition and development. “This week has demonstrated once again the work of this Commission is anchored in solid evidence,” he said, agreeing that its work will help inform upcoming United Nations meetings while providing on‑the‑ground guidance to policymakers, civil society leaders and other crucial actors. Welcoming the Commission’s consensus as evidence that it is “still fit for purpose”, he also praised the session’s greater transparency and the growing engagement of civil society members, national population experts and many other thought leaders.
The representative of France, speaking on behalf of the European Union, praised the consensus reached by Member States despite the persistence of divergent opinions on many issues. Critically, the outcome document reaffirms the continued relevance of the International Conference Programme of Action, which marked a shift towards improvements in individual lives and combating inequality as central drivers of sustainable development. Among other things, it calls on Member States and others to take concrete action to implement the Programme of Action and recognizes the impact of COVID-19 on development indicators, including its erosion of hard-won progress in gender equality and ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights. “Adopting this resolution for the first time in five years […] demonstrates that the United Nations is up to the challenge,” she said, adding that it shows the Organization cares about the specific hardships being faced by individuals and households.
The representative of Morocco, speaking on behalf of the African Group, welcomed the consensus achieved on a significant, well-balanced outcome document, which was realized under Burkina Faso’s chairmanship. The representative of the Philippines agreed, noting that the text successfully achieved a “difficult balance” and reflects many compromises made by all delegations.
The representative of the United Kingdom, drawing attention to the COVID-19 pandemic’s significant disruptions to sexual and reproductive health and rights, welcomed references to those challenges in the outcome document. Among other things, the text calls for efforts to close the gender gap in agricultural productive resources, including through language on land rights, and focuses on the needs of women in their reproductive years. It also reaffirms UNFPA’s critical role in helping Member States implement the Cairo Programme of Action, the Beijing Declaration and Plan of Action and related international agreements. However, he voiced regret that the outcome document fails to include critical references to sexual rights, or to the impact of COVID-19 on the food insecurity of marginalized groups, including: those living with HIV; refugees; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities; and sex workers, all of whom have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
While joining the consensus, many speakers also voiced reservations to specific terms used in the outcome document or to the absence of certain references they viewed as critical.
Mexico’s delegate, while welcoming the Commission’s unity, nevertheless stressed that the outcome document “could have been much more ambitious”. In particular, she described the failure to reference intersecting forms of marginalization as a “missed opportunity to tackle the real facts of the situation on the ground”.
The representative of Australia, speaking also on behalf of Canada and New Zealand, welcomed the document’s references to sexual and reproductive health and rights. She also emphasized the critical role of universal health coverage to ensure that populations enjoy the highest attainable standard of health. However, she said it is disappointing that the document does not include a reference to comprehensive sexual health education or the diversity of women and girls.
The representative of United States, spotlighting truly remarkable gains made since the International Conference on Population and Development, said much remains to be done to achieve concrete progress. He reiterated his country’s position on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which is not binding and creates no obligations or rights under international law. Noting that there are no agreed international definitions for the terms “illicit financial flows” and “right to development”, he added that the United States does not recognize any change to international law regarding the right to food.
The representative of Hungary, welcoming the Commission’s adoption of an outcome document “after four years of intermission”, said the concept of “leaving no one behind” should apply to everyone. Therefore, she warned against singling out specific actors and marginalized groups, such as migrants mentioned in operative paragraphs 8 and 9. Disassociating her delegation from references to the “International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families” — which has only been ratified by a quarter of Member States — she said Hungary interprets the terms “sexual and reproductive health" and "reproductive rights” in the context of the 2030 Agenda, the International Conference Programme of Action and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and in line with its own national legislation.
The Russian Federation’s representative, voicing support for the adoption of a comprehensive, consensus-based resolution, welcomed its references to food security, eliminating poverty and strengthening food safety and social protection measures. However, he expressed regret that the text lacks attention to policies aimed at supporting the family. Several terms used in the resolution pertaining to armed conflicts, teenagers and violence against women — as well as language in preambular paragraph 23 on “voluntary commitments” — cannot be interpreted as a basis for the action of Member States or other United Nations bodies. References to preparatory processes in the text cannot be seen as a guideline for States that did not join in approving them. In that vein, he pointed out that the so-called Nairobi Summit of 2019, which was held outside the United Nations framework, has no bearing on Member States’ commitments.
The representative of Egypt, welcoming the consensus outcome, as well as the flexibility and constructive engagement of delegations that enabled its adoption, echoed other speakers in stressing that language in operative paragraph 13 on universal access to reproductive rights, as well as the definition of “reproductive rights”, must be viewed in line with national legislation.
The representative of Guatemala, while emphasizing that the elimination of gender-based violence and achieving gender equality are key to ensuring food security and fighting malnutrition, nevertheless expressed reservations on preambular and operative paragraphs referring to sexual and reproductive health and rights, for which there is no internationally agreed definition. The representative of Iraq echoed those points.
Qatar’s representative, striking a similar tone, said preambular paragraph 13 and operative paragraph 22 must be interpreted through the lens of national laws. The representative of Nicaragua said the resolution’s language on sexual and reproductive rights paragraphs cannot be interpreted as support for abortion, which must never be viewed as a method of birth control or family planning.
The representative of Brazil, echoing that point, also drew attention to operative paragraph 2 and emphasized that every country has a sovereign right to implement recommendations according to their own laws and values. Meanwhile, Colombia’s delegate, citing operative paragraph 4, said the right to development is not recognized as a human right and remains a domestic matter subject to gradual implementation.
The Permanent Observer for the Holy See welcomed several positive elements in the outcome document, including language reaffirming the right of all people to healthy and nutritious food. However, he expressed regret that it includes unclear, controversial and contentious terms, especially those relating to women and girls and the manifold challenges they face. Also voicing regret over the absence of references to family-sensitive policies, he expressed reservations on the terms “sexual and reproductive health and rights”, which the Holy See views as applying to a holistic vision in accordance with moral norms. Stressing that abortion, as well as access to abortion and to abortifacients, cannot be viewed as a manifestation of those terms, he said there is no change to the Holy See’s long‑standing position on the term “family planning” or to its view that the term “gender” is grounded in biology.
Syria’s representative said his delegation engaged seriously and constructively in the Commission’s negotiations, while raising concerns about the outcome document’s failure to reference States and peoples under foreign occupation, such as Syria. Noting that three foreign entities — namely Israel, the United State and Turkey — are present in his country, he said they have looted Syrian property and agricultural goods with serious repercussions for the population. Regrettably, Syria’s concerns were ignored. As such, his delegation dissociates itself from preambular paragraph 20, he said.
Responding, the representative of Israel voiced regret that one delegation “could not resist the temptation to bring politics” into the work of the Commission. The representative of Turkey, also rejecting Syria’s statement, described it as yet another attempt to draw attention away from the crimes of the Syrian regime “which lost legitimacy years ago”.
In other business, the Commission adopted the procedural part of the draft report of its fifty-fourth session (document E/CN.9/2021/L.3), which was introduced by its Vice-Chair-cum-Rapporteur, Damla Fidan (Turkey).
It also adopted a draft decision titled “Special theme for the fifty-sixth session of the Commission on Population and Development” (document E/CN.9/2021/L.4) — in which it decided to focus on population, education and sustainable development at its 2022 session — and a draft provisional agenda for its fifty-fifth session (document E/CN.9/2021/L.2).
Briefly opening the first meeting of its fifty-fifth session, the Commission elected Enrique A. Manalo (Philippines) as Chair of the session and Andrei Nicolenco (Republic of Moldova) to serve as Vice-Chair representing the Group of Eastern European States. The African States, Latin American and Caribbean States and Western European and Other States groups deferred the nomination of their candidates for Vice-Chairs to a later date.