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An inside look: UN's Special Session on Children

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C O V E R   S T O R Y

An inside look: UN's Special Session on Children

May 8-10, 2002

Earlier this year, the White House appointed Dr. Paul Bonicelli, Patrick Henry College Dean of Academic Affairs, as a private sector advisor to the U.S. delgation to this session. We asked Dr. Bonicelli to share his behind-the-scenes story with Court Report readers.

What was your role as a private sector advisor to the U.S. delegation?

The U.S. has permanent UN staff as well as the U.S. representative to the United Nations. Whenever there are special events at the UN, like a Special Session on Children, the governments create special delegations that include members of their government agencies or departments that touch that issue. In the case of the U.S. delegation, usually private sector advisors are also chosen for two reasons: First, it gives the Bush administration the ability to say, "these people represent the president's values, his ideas on this issue, and we're going reinforce his views by sending them on the delegation." Second, the private sector advisor's job is to advise the delegation.

What was the UN's stated purpose in holding the Special Session on Children? Were they attempting to add language to C/ROC?

Exactly. The purpose was to say, "It's been 10 years since the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted. Let's establish another document that says how far have we come based on what the convention has been able to accomplish. This caused a problem for the United States because we had not ratified C/ROC. President Bush has no intention of seeking ratification for C/ROC. We are not a party to it, we are not beholden to it, we're not obligated to any of its points.

How did this affect the U.S. delegation's approach to the Special Session?

The people working year-round on these committees are constantly trying to pretend that every country involved in the Special Session on children is a supporter of C/ROC. We were constantly having to remind everyone the U.S. is not a party to that treaty, we are not here to live up to its aims, we are here to do something that's good for children. And in doing that, we're also going to remind all of you how much better we treat children in our country, how successful we have been, and how we have helped the worlds' children by the billions of dollars that the U.S. has given over the decades to alleviate poverty, disease, illiteracy, etc.

So did the rest of the delegations have a negative attitude toward the U.S. delegation?

There was a split. Most of the European delegations are made up of a mid-level, mid-career diplomats who are pretty much to the left, pretty secular in their outlook.

Most of the developing nations were opposed to us. But there were exceptions. There's the Holy See (the Vatican) delegate whom we were closely allied with on almost all points. A large collection of Muslim states (that are pro-life and pro-family because of their strict Islamic beliefs) also stood with us. Obviously the last thing the delegate of Sudan, Iraq, or Iran wants was to be on the U.S.'s side, but similarities of religious views were more important than the politics of international relations. There were also delegates from Latin America and Spain who, because they are from conservative Catholic countries and their current governing parties are pro-family and pro-life, allied with us.

In the end, the Spanish delegation was doing all it could do to steer the outcome document in the special session itself toward a conclusion that the U.S. could embrace. The worst thing that could happen (as far as the other delegations were concerned) was for the Europeans to stonewall and force the United States to go home saying, "We're not going to support this document. The special session is a failure."

Do you feel like the efforts of the U.S. delegation were successful?

Absolutely! Why? Because from the first day until the last, the United Nations members understood that President Bush meant it when he said, "I'm pro-life, and pro-family, and my delegation is going to work for pro-life and pro-family positions at the UN. I'm not compromising."

It was an intense week of negotiations—several nights we were up until 5 a.m. Once they even went completely through the night and continued into the next day. In the final hour, the European delegation's will collapsed. They conceded to everything that the United States insisted upon, except for a few minor points.

To put it simply, there had been a point where the Europeans wanted to have recognition of same sex marriage and adoptions for same sex couples. The Europeans also fought for abortion on demand for young girls as young as 12 and contraception for girls and boys as young as 12 years old, with the state guaranteeing that not even the parents can interfere. In other words, consider every radical position pushed at the United Nations, and the anti-family crowd lost on all counts.

So in the end you were able to keep the positive pro-family positions in the final document?

The outcome document was in some places positive and some places neutral rather than being opposed to the U.S. values. And let me explain that. There were some points in the session where the United States wanted a proactive positive statement. For example: marriage is one man and one woman. We never got specific language like that.

However, we got the following compromise: If every United Nations document (including the founding documents, the charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) explicitly make clear that marriage is between a man and a woman, then this year's outcome document can refer to previous UN definitions and the U.S. can accept that. We know that we're not accepting a definition that says two men may marry, and the state has to recognize it.

There were several statements in the outcome document like that. Some of them were positive. For example, homeschooling is never mentioned in the document but the U.S. delegation worked very hard supporting me in trying to get language that made it very clear that homeschooling is a legitimate option. The way that we did that is to argue that there's more than just institutional schooling. So there are references to other kinds of education, other ways of doing schooling—which opens the door to both private schooling and homeschooling.

Then there were positive statements. We made clear that there was no reference to abortion in the document. The most public fight was when the Europeans tried to insert the phrase "reproductive health services" into the session's final document. The United States, the Vatican, and the Muslim nations became very concerned because we believe that what they were really trying to do was insert new terminology that would be loaded with the definition of abortion and contraceptive. We believed that was what they meant, but we couldn't prove it.

So we had a great challenge—trying to figure out politically how to solve this without alienating our allies. The Latin American and the Muslim nations did not want to be seen as being in lock step with the United States. Then, late into the night, in the heat of the argument, a Canadian delegate was asked by the United States: what does "reproductive health services" mean?

To everyone's amazement, he blurted out, "Well, of course, everyone knows it means abortion." In the room at the time, there were about 190 nations represented, and at that point, most of the delegates' chairs were filled. There was an audible gasp, almost cries of anguish. The Europeans knew that the cat was out of the bag. The Islamic nations and the Latin American nations began to immediately demand the floor. For the next hour or so, one after another, they denounced that term, "reproductive health services." They said, "Our constitution forbids that. There is no way that phrase can be in this document because it means abortion—as we have heard from the Canadian delegate." On and on they went.

The United States didn't have to do anything but ask a question to solve its dilemma. And so for the rest of the conference, you had definitions in place. "Reproductive health services" meant abortion, "reproductive health care" did not. In the context of the United Nations, it's a huge victory. Needless to say, the Canadian delegate who made the mistake was not seen again the rest of the week.

With the UN so typically opposed to American values, why do you think that Christians and homeschoolers should get involved in things like these Special Sessions?

I know that there are many who think we should get out of the United Nations. The United Nations was formed as a way for the great powers to have a continually running forum where they can meet and discuss important security issues. When they can agree that there is a particular threat that affects the world—such as World War II or the Cold War—it's easy for them to establish working alliances. When they can't agree, then every nation does what it was going to do anyway—which is to look after its own interests. Thankfully we have a president right now who represents the best of the American tradition saying, "We'll work with others when we can, but when we can't, we do it alone."

All the other things (for example, the idea that the United Nations would be the place where the world's nations come together and solve the problems of children) are really ludicrous. That is not the business of an international organization. There is far too much disagreement among peoples and cultures for them to have a common approach to dealing with children.

So why should we bother? We must recognize that the United States and many other nations acknowledge "customary international law." That means that judges (in the United States and elsewhere) examine outcome documents and treaties issued by the United Nations and other international organizations, whether these documents are right or wrong. In these situations, many judges around the world will say, "Here is a clear document the nations of the world have written up. It is binding international law, and, therefore, I, sitting in my judicial seat in my own country, am going to make a ruling based upon that."

Now most conservative legal scholars think that's a stretch. We should either reject such documents or be sure that our own legislatures, president, and judges understand that these proclamations are not binding on the United States. The U.S. Constitution and the legislation of our U.S. Congress and state legislatures are the only laws binding on the United States. But since we have judges in this country who are going to look at UN outcome documents and base rulings on them, we need to be involved in those processes everywhere they're taking place.

There is only one other option, and that is for our Congress to pass a law that says we will never recognize any of these UN outcome documents. But that's very complicated because the United States is part of the world, part of the heritage of the West that says international law does exist. We mean it when we say there are certain human rights that should be guaranteed and nations are obligated under God to live up those rights. The United States wants to be a world proponent of an absolute standard of law. We must be careful not to look like we don't think these things are important or discard them out of hand.

International organizations are here to stay. And we ought to work with them in a way that preserves our sovereignty and protects our interests. We can do it if we have a president with a backbone who's willing to put America first. That's what we proved in the Special Session for Children.