Disagreeing over References to Comprehensive Sexual Education, Delegates Fail to Adopt Draft Resolution, as Commission on Population and Development Concludes Session
The Commission on Population and Development ended its fifty-sixth session today, unable to adopt by consensus a draft resolution concerning the agenda item on population, education and sustainable development.
The withdrawal of that text took place amidst a heated discussion that touched on substantive and procedural matters. Several delegates objected to the reference to comprehensive sexual education in that text, while also highlighting the lack of transparency with which some of its language was circulated. However other delegates noted that this language was already agreed upon at other times and underscored the pivotal role of comprehensive sexual and reproductive education in empowering women and youth.
“Nobody is happy with this result,” the representative of Senegal said, adding that delegates come from “different horizons and realities”, and it is important to respect all cultures. Noting that certain delegations refused to yield even one comma, he said the Commission should learn from this experience so that it can avoid disunity in the future.
“We can all sense the temperature in the room at this stage,” said the representative of Philippines, expressing the widespread agreement that a consensus-based outcome on this matter is crucial.
“I see no other possibility than to withdraw this text,” Commission Chair Gheorghe Leucă (Republic of Moldova) said after several delegates raised their objections. Prior to its withdrawal, he had urged for its adoption by consensus, calling on the Commission to demonstrate that countries are united in finding pathways out of the education crisis. Noting that he circulated language yesterday that seeks to address “our last remaining differences”, he had called on delegates to demonstrate maximum flexibility, “on behalf of the hundreds of millions of children and adults worldwide who lack access to quality education”.
However, the representative of the Russian Federation, speaking for a number of like-minded countries, noted that the Chair’s email was sent at 10:24 p.m. on the previous day. He expressed concern that, though 22 delegations broke silence over operative paragraph 16 of a previous version of the text, it was retained as operative paragraph 7 in the latest version. Expressing disappointment about the manner in which the Chair chose to address the positions of some delegations in comparison to those of others, he also added that the new operative paragraph 16 has no previous basis in the consultations conducted over the past three weeks.
Also taking the floor a second time to speak in his national capacity, he pointed out the “impossible position” his delegation found itself in, having to analyse new language, sent at a late hour, only in English, the day before a holiday in his country, as well as at the United Nations.
Pakistan’s delegate said coming up with a new paragraph when the adoption is 11 hours away undermines the processes of the multilateral system. Speaking after the withdrawal, she reminded delegates of the 263 million children who are deprived of education. While comprehensive sexuality education may be a priority in some countries, it is regrettable that delegates of those States promoted that priority as if there was nothing else to be discussed on this resolution. What prevents the international community from achieving Goal 4 is not the lack of sexuality education, but the lack of schools and books and water, she stressed.
Iran’s delegate said terms such as sexual and reproductive education are not acceptable to her country, while Nigeria’s delegate expressed concern about the deletion of language regarding the parents’ responsibility and right to guide the religious and moral education of their children, as well as other language relating to women’s and girls’ critical contributions to their families and children.
The representative of Ethiopia said she was not able to get guidance from her capital because of the late hour at which the new language was circulated. She said operative paragraphs 16 and 17 represent a red line that countries such as hers will not cross.
An observer for the Holy See described the failure to achieve an outcome document as the result of persistent disregard of concerns raised by a number of delegations on controversial issues. Sexuality education is one of the most divisive topics in this United Nations forum, she said, stressing that there is no right to sexuality education in international law and States have no obligation to adopt any particular programme of such education.
However, the representative of Sweden, speaking for the European Union, commended the text for its language focusing on ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive health-care services. The reference to evidence-based comprehensive education on human sexuality is language that has been previously agreed by the Commission, she said. Expressing regret that, despite her delegation’s flexibility, an outcome could not be reached, she said it is frustrating that a small number of countries prevented an outcome. She reiterated every individual’s right to quality and affordable sexual and reproductive education.
The speaker for Ghana said comprehensive sexuality education aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes and values to make choices, just like any education. In her country, it helps prevent teenage pregnancies and child marriages while serving as a reminder that access to water in schools is a right. Comprehensive sexuality education helps people choose life over death and good over bad. “My mind goes back to Africa,” she said, adding that information is power. Later, she clarified that she was not speaking on behalf of African countries. She also underscored that she was talking of reproductive health education and services, as based on country norms, and not on comprehensive sexuality education.
The representative of Papua New Guinea expressed support for operative paragraphs 16 and 17, highlighting the rise in teen pregnancy in his country, with young girls dropping out of school and assuming responsibilities at a young age to the overall detriment of their quality of life. With 60 per cent of his country’s population below the age of 25, investing in the quality of life of young people, including in their sexual and reproductive health, is fundamentally important, he added.
Mexico’s delegate, noting that “many hours of work” were put into the text, reaffirmed that multilateral work is crucial to move forward as an international community. “What we talk about here has a direct impact on the ground,” he said, adding that there's no new language in the text which the Chair submitted. Regretting that the text was not adopted by consensus, he said: “Unfortunately divisions and disinformation hindered the aims and mandates of the Commission.”
Canada’s delegate spoke of his mother who emigrated from North Africa and, like many immigrant mothers, prioritized education above all. “Her hope was for us to be more educated than her,” he said. While she would be considered conservative by most standards, he recalled, she also insisted that he take condoms on a field trip when he was 15 years old. Strongly supporting the resolution, he said the Chair is not inventing anything new.
Agreeing, the speaker for Norway said that comprehensive sexuality education is crucial to teach youth how to meet life’s challenges and have healthy relationships. The representative of Australia said that Governments have an obligation to ensure the right to education, adding that comprehensive sexuality education ensures that young people can negotiate respectful relationships.
Denmark’s delegate, underscoring that the Chair’s new language presented a “carefully crafted compromise”, noted that 55 countries expressed explicit support for the text. “In the absence of an agreement you did what a Chair should do,” he said, adding that he finds it difficult to understand why some colleagues are expressing surprise at previously agreed language. The Chair’s text “is not what Denmark had hoped for”, he said, adding that nevertheless he supported its attempt to find a compromise. Moreover, the text contained “a strong sovereignty paragraph” which Denmark very reluctantly accepted in the spirit of compromise.
In her closing remarks, Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), expressed regret over the absence of consensus on the theme of this year’s Commission. She highlighted the importance of quality education and lifelong learning, especially in light of educational setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, quality education, school infrastructure, qualified teachers and digital access have a critical impact on women’s empowerment, healthier lives and economic growth. In particular, she emphasized the power of education in combating gender-based violence and harmful practices. The Commission is the guardian of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, which has bettered millions of lives around the world, she said.
Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, thanked the Chair for his leadership and said that, while the lack of an outcome is regrettable, the session has been rich. Recalling the insights gleaned from experts, civil society representatives and delegates who spoke during the week, she said their conversations touched upon the crucial links among fertility, mortality and migration. Highlighting one such lesson, she noted that the transition from high to low levels of fertility facilitates investment in human capital, which is central to the effective implementation of the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action.
In his closing remarks, the Chair said that, for the first time in 20 years, the Commission has assessed the links between population, education and sustainable development. This assessment comes at a critical time when the world is dealing with an education crisis, which was highlighted during the Transforming Education Summit last year. The debates reflected the wide array of challenges the world faces in providing inclusive and equitable quality education and in promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all, as well as provided practical solutions to address the crisis. Even though States were unable to come together on the resolution, he expressed hope that this session has provided inspiration for the Commission’s future work.
In other business, the Commission also adopted the decision titled “Special theme for the fifty-eighth session of the Commission on Population and Development” (document E/CN.9/2023/L.3), by the terms of which it decided that the special theme for its fifty-eighth session, in 2025, shall be “Ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages”.
Prior to its adoption, the representatives of Egypt, Belarus and the Russian Federation sought procedural clarifications as to the way the agenda item was divided into two subitems.
Members also approved, by acclamation, a draft decision titled “Timing of the consideration of the report on world demographic trends” (document E/CN.9/2023/L.4), by the terms of which, it was decided to change the timing of the consideration of the Commission’s report to odd-numbered years.
Also without a vote, the Commission approved the draft provisional agenda for its fifty-seventh session, to be held in 2024 (document E/CN.9/2023/L.2/Rev.1) and the draft report on its fifty-sixth session (document E/CN.9/2023/L.5).
Briefly opening the fifty-seventh session, the Commission elected Noemi Espinoza Madrid (Honduras) to serve as Chair. It elected Noga Barak (Israel) as Vice-Chair, while Vice-Chairs from other regions will be elected at a later date.
Also speaking today were the representatives of Belarus, Yemen, Mali, Algeria, Iraq, Cameroon, Syria, Gambia, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Libya, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Malaysia, Egypt, Mauritania, Jamaica, Guatemala, Uruguay, Argentina, Costa Rica, United Kingdom, United States, Honduras, Portugal, Netherlands, Belgium, El Salvador, Spain, Dominican Republic, Israel, Colombia, Finland, Chile, Ukraine, Georgia, Germany, France, Mauritania, Bulgaria, Israel, Kenya and Zambia.