Family Guise: Egypt Dumps Problematic Resolution on “Protection of the Family” at the Last Minute during 22nd Session of Human Rights Council

March 22, 2013|By Ryan Kaminski, Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow
During the jam-packed 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the organ’s 47 members considered numerous country-specific and thematic resolutions covering everything from the human rights situation in Sri Lanka to the rights of disabled persons. One resolution, however, stood out in the attention and concern it appeared to garner both from member-states and civil society groups.

Benignly titled “Protection of the Family,” the pithy resolution was advanced by a host of countries not traditionally acknowledged for having strong human rights records. They included Egypt, Mauritania, the Russian Federation, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, among others. Irrespective of its formal diplomatic-speak, the resolution at its core called for a UN panel discussion on “Protection of the Family” as well as for a follow-up report to be completed by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Despite the ostensible simplicity of the document, negotiations among on the proposed draft resolution were complicated and contentious, albeit diplomatically speaking, of course.

Disagreement was evident during informal meetings where diplomats could offer their initial remarks on the resolution on behalf of their delegation. In one gathering, many countries—particularly in the Western European and Others Group and the Group of Latin America Countries—voiced three major concerns with the resolution. First, that it was tabled so late in the three-week session of the Human Rights Council. Another was that it focused on the unit “family” without acknowledging individual family members, and failing to underscore that families come in different forms depending on varying cultural or social contexts. Third, others were concerned by the resolution’s hypothetical impact in terms of promulgating gender stereotypes and lack of clear recognition of the equality between men and women.

Egypt countered, though that resolution should not be changed as it would make the document longer than one page and needlessly complicate its main provision calling for a panel.

Speaking for the resolution’s sponsors, Egypt was adamant the resolution was not attempting to advance any particular framework for understanding the “family” and that the document basically synthesized language from other core UN documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, this point was somewhat contradicted by the same delegation’s preliminary refusal to consider language explicitly acknowledging the diversity of families.

Frowns and the anxious sighing of skeptical NGO representatives, present in the room but unable to make formal statements during the meeting, were frequent.

Coincidentally, a side-event, “Promoting Human Rights and Freedom by Upholding Legal and Social Protection of the Traditional Family,” convened by the Holy See (The Vatican)—which was not a sponsor the “Protection of the Family” resolution—appeared to more or less confirm at least some of the concerns about the proposed “Protection of the Family” resolution. Many of the side-event’s panelists, including two archbishops, explicitly criticized same-sex marriage and unions, arguing for traditional or “natural” marriage.

During the event’s Q&A session, one delegate from the NGO Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom voiced frustration with the conclusions discussed by the event’s panelists, arguing it was unfair for one particular system of beliefs to be advanced upon all UN members and peoples around the world.

At a subsequent meeting, the resolution’s sponsors agreed to some small but significant changes to the resolution’s original text. This included an additional reference to “human rights”, as well as a clause clearly affirming equality between men and women.  

Still, delegations from the European Union, Mexico, the United States, and Uruguay continued to claim that the resolution failed to recognize the diversity inherent to the idea of families as well as the need to protect the human rights of individual members of families, among other concerns.

One proposal was to add the phrase, “bearing in mind that in different cultural, political and social systems various forms of the family exist” to the resolution, considering UN members had previously agreed to this language as early as 2005. In contrast, delegations from Belarus and China posited such changes were irrelevant to the resolution’s purpose of just hosting a panel discussion. As the session concluded it was unclear what, if any, changes would be added the resolution by its core sponsors.

During the final day of the 22nd HRC session, the “Protection of the Family” resolution finally came before the Council for consideration. The Council’s main chamber became especially quiet as Egypt addressed members in what many believed would be a speech rallying votes behind the resolution.

However, in an unexpected move, Egypt’s delegation announced it was postponing “Protection of the Family” from consideration during the current session, despite claiming the document had over 70 cosponsors. Surprisingly, Egypt openly acknowledged the resolution was thought to be a remedy to what it considered an excessive focus on “individual rights” at the United Nations. Egypt’s ambassador also cited concerns about the “polarization” of the Council and its desire to “avoid further divisions” as a result of the resolution. 

Within the Council chamber, an air of tension seemed to lift as it became clear the resolution would not be considered. Groups like the International Service for Human Rights immediately took to Twitter to applaud the decision. As the Council’s president moved on to other items, some attendees quickly did a “thumbs up” while others just grinned—a family feud had been avoided.

Labels: Advocacy

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