UN High-Level Conferences


A high-level UN conference consists of representatives from governments and civil society with the goal of producing an outcome document on a specific theme. Conferences typically include Heads of State and high-level government representatives, and although the documents carry more weight than a commission text, they are still documents of political will, and not binding treaties. A trio of conferences in the 1990s (UN Conference on Sustainable Development, International Conference on Population and Development, and the Fourth World Conference on Women) continue to have considerable influence on current UN processes. These were large, highly attended, global conferences held outside of UNHQ, and are often referred to by the name of the city in which they took place.

United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992)

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development was held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Known as the Earth Summit or Rio Summit, it brought together 108 Heads of State and Government to negotiate the UN’s action plan for sustainable development.[1] The Conference resulted in several consensus documents, including the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, in addition to Agenda 21.[2] The UN Commission on Sustainable Development is charged with monitoring the implementation of the Rio plans of action.

The most recent follow-up was the June 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, which is referred to as Rio+20. This Conference included 57 Heads of State and 31 Heads of Government, and produced an outcome document entitled, “The Future We Want”.[3] The forty-nine page text was negotiated over countless sessions in a six month period—beginning in UNHQ and culminating in Brazil. This text set the UN’s new sustainable development agenda, and solidified the commitment of Member States to create the Sustainable Development Goals.[4] A primary way for civil society representatives to become involved in Rio+20 was to join one of the nine officially recognized Major Groups, which allowed NGOs to strengthen their involvement in the process.[5] The Women’s Major Group and the Youth Major Group were especially vocal in their support of the abortion and population control agendas throughout the six-month period of negotiations. It is important to continue to follow the activities of the Major Groups with regard to on-going sustainable development processes at the UN.

Abortion activists targeted the Rio+20 text with the goal of including at least one reference to “reproductive rights.” They have since proclaimed the Conference to be a failure due to fact that the final text includes no reference to this phrase. The Women’s Major Group notes the following:

“Instead of being priorities at Rio+20, the concerns brought up by civil society groups and women activists were used as bargaining chips by some states to win concessions in what they considered strategic areas. This was, for instance, the case with the demand from women to fully control their bodily autonomy and integrity, which prompted an attack on women’s sexual and reproductive health (and their reproductive rights) by a small but powerful group led by the Vatican, Russia and some Middle East and North African states. Meanwhile, some countries from both the South and North that are traditionally seen as allies in the battle for sexual and reproductive health and rights did not do enough to hold the line…The result was that the final text laid a basis or point of reference that could be used to further erode gains made in other arenas such as the ICPD.”[6]

International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994)

As the title suggests, the aim of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) was to address the relationship between population and development, and to outline Member States’ commitments on a set of goals detailed in the resultant Programme of Action to be achieved over a twenty year period (1994-2014). Commonly referred to as “Cairo”, the document sets forth development goals related to economic growth, education, gender equity and equality, infant, child, and maternal mortality reduction, and the provision of universal access to reproductive health services.[7] It is a document of political will, and does not have binding force; however, it is a highly influential text that plays a primary role in the annual Commission on Population and Development and in the follow-up review conferences every five years.

The Programme of Action includes numerous references to reproductive health, reproductive health services, and reproductive rights. It is considered to be the source of the definitions for these terms, and is frequently referenced in UN documents. To some extent, the effect of Cairo was positive in that it signalled a shift away from population targets, and toward a focus on meeting the needs of people. As noted by the Holy See, “the document is notable for its affirmations against all forms of coercion in population policies”.[8] The text does include references to abortion services; however, the numerous caveats and negative references to abortion make clear that the final outcome was the result of complex negotiations on the part of pro-life allies. All references to abortion are subject to paragraph 8.25, which states that “[i]n no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning…every attempt should be made to eliminate the need for abortion” and that “[a]ny measures or changes related to abortion…can only be determined at the national or local level according to the national legislative process”.[9] Various reservations were made by Member States, which serve to clarify their positions on the text and are useful for recalling their positions in current UN deliberations.

The year 2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of Cairo, and Member States will decide whether to prolong the ICPD’s current goals or open up the document to insert new language. The preferred outcome would be for the ICPD to remain as it currently stands in order to avoid the risk of worsening the text and due to the fact that there are sufficient protections and reservations within the text to continue defending life and the family in follow-up processes.

Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995)

The Fourth World Conference on Women, known as “Beijing”, took place one year after Cairo and reiterated many of the goals of the ICPD in the resultant Beijing Declaration and the Beijing Platform for Action.[10] From Cairo to Beijing, there were no substantive changes in the references to reproductive health, reproductive services, reproductive rights, and abortion. As with the ICPD, the reservations made by Member States are highly instructive and important to make clear the positions of various governments with regard to some of the more controversial issues within the text. Each year, Beijing serves as the foundational document for the Commission on the Status of Women, and is a primary reference for much of the discourse on the rights of women and gender equality at the UN.

The Millennium Summit (New York, 2000)

The Millennium Summit was a high-level conference held at UNHQ that resulted in the Millennium Declaration, which then gave rise to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs consist of eight goals that were designed to guide development aid funding for the years 2000-2015. The goals are as follows: 1) To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, 2) To achieve universal primary education, 3) To promote gender equality and empowering women, 4) To reduce child mortality rates, 5) To improve maternal health, 6) To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, 7) To ensure environmental sustainability, and 8) To develop a global partnership for development. At the World Summit (2005), the follow-up to the Millennium Summit, “achieving universal reproductive health” was added after extremely tense negotiations as part of Goal 5 on maternal health. John Bolton, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, made the following statement: “I do wish to make one point clear: the United States understands that reference to the International Conference on Population and Development, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the use of the phrase ‘reproductive health’ in paragraphs 57 (g) and 58 (c) of the outcome document do not create any rights and cannot be interpreted to constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion.”[11]

[1] UN Conference on Environment and Development, Earth Summit (1992), http://www.un.org/geninfo/bp/enviro.html.

[2] See United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janiero, Braz., June 3–14, 1992, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.151/26/Rev.1 (Vols. I–III) (Aug. 12, 1992)

[3] Report of the United States Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio de Janiero, Braz., June 20–22, 2012, Rio Report on Sustainable Development, A/CONF.216/16

[4] Id. ¶ 245 – 251 (Resolution 1).

[5] United Nations Conference On Sustainable Development, http://www.uncsd2012.org/majorgroupsselected.html.

[6] Strengthening Gender Justice, WOMEN’S MAJOR GROUP (Sept. 2013)

[7] See International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, Egypt, Sept. 5–13, 1994, Cairo Report on Population and Development, Ch. I, ¶ 1.12, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.171/13/Rev.1 (Oct. 18, 1994

[8] See International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, Egypt, Sept. 5–13, 1994, Cairo Report on Population and Development, Written Statement by the Holy See, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.171/13/Rev.1 (Oct. 18, 1994)

[9] Id. ¶ 8.25.

[10] See The Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, China, Sept. 4–15, 1995, Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action

[11] U.N. GAOR, 60th Sess., 8th plen. mtg. at 47, A/60/PV.8 (Sept. 16, 2006)