The Canary in the Coal Mine: Women and Reservations to Post-2015 Development Agenda

Readers may be interested in an update on the advancement of the post-2015 Development Agenda. During its 69th General Assembly meeting this month, a resolution was adopted transmitting to its 70th session an ambitious post-2015 development agenda. That sweeping agenda addresses the elimination of poverty and hunger, environmental sustainability, building a global partnership for development, and advancing global peace and security. The United Nations Secretary General declared the adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as “the start of a new era.” States have been generally self-laudatory on the quality of the negotiation process, the ambition of the goals, and the respect accorded to the unique circumstances of each state as they set their own priorities for implementation.

Behind the grandstanding of state self-congratulation, advocates for women’s rights have been more circumspect. In particular, concerns about the status and advancement of women’s rights through these goals remain real and well-founded. These concerns are highlighted by the scope and depth of international reservations expressed about the SDGs during the 101st meeting. Beyond the platitudes, a close look at the depth of support for gender equality demonstrates a patchy vision of support for advancing women’s rights. At the September 1 meeting, a number of Member States expressed reservations and refined their explanations of positions on the 2030 Agenda, particularly on reproductive and sexual rights.

There were 34 total explanations and reservations, plus two statements following adoption. These included a congratulatory statement by the European Union and reservations expressed by the Holy See. The Holy See articulated its views, confirmed in earlier intergovernmental negotiations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, that “sexual and reproductive health” did not include abortion and that the term “gender” was understood to be grounded in biological rather than social identity.

Many of these statements were made on behalf of groups of countries, including the “Group of 77,” comprised of developing countries and China. A total of 11 statements mentioned gender issues, seven of which stated reservations to them, and four of which advanced support for them. The statements affirming reservations were made on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), the African Group, Iran, Ecuador, Egypt, Chad, and the Holy See. Of the four supportive statements, three (Colombia, Brazil, and the US) affirmed unequivocally that inequality, discrimination, and human rights apply fully to LGBT(Q) people; two (Iceland and the US) mentioned gender equality as a cross-cutting theme of the agenda, and only one (the US) expressed support for reproductive rights.

A surprising development was the broad reservations made on behalf of the African Group (AG) by the Representative of South Africa. Readers may be aware that a number of Member States in the AG are very supportive of gender and women’s rights issues, so it was unexpected to hear this statement made unequivocally on behalf of the entire group. The position of the group prior during the negotiations did not indicate that such a sweeping position was to follow in the GA resolution. It was also disappointing that very few countries spoke up during the debate in trenchant support of gender issues — even the usual champions were quiet. The singularity of Iceland’s intervention was notable.

Regarding gender equality and human rights, Iceland was pleased with many positive aspects, but conditioning certain women’s rights on national laws was inconsistent with the commitments made in the Beijing Platform for Action and fell short of other international agreements. Iceland was also disappointed with the phrase in target 54 “as nationally appropriate” because recognizing and valuing unpaid domestic work was vital to gender equality.

Some of the details on the reservations are set out here, including:

  • Reservations to SDG 3 (Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages) by the African Group, Iran, Ecuador, Egypt, Chad, Holy See
  • Reservations to SDG 5 (Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) by the Gulf Cooperation Council, African Group, Iran, Ecuador, Egypt, Chad, Holy See

There are also explanations regarding:

  • Gender by the Gulf Cooperation Council, African Group, Iran, Holy See
  • Family by the Gulf Cooperation Council, African Group, Iran, Egypt, Chad, Holy See
  • Sexual orientation/LGBTI by the African Group, Iran, Chad, Holy See

There are reasons to be deeply concerned at the pattern of retrenchment evidenced by these reservations and explanations. They demonstrate once again, that given the opportunity core and fundamental commitments on advancing the basic dignity of women will be undermined by reservations, declarations, explanations and limitations. The SDGs already represent a huge compromise for advocates of women’s rights, who painfully negotiated the inclusion of goal 5 as “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” which avoids the explicit recognition of the human rights of women and girls. The General Assembly debate and resolutions expose how much work remains to be done, and how women and girls remain the battlefield for cultural relativism, compromise, and political expediency for many states. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism; This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity; Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).