What do you See?

Vatican City, the “city-state” of 108.7 acres, is about the size of an 18-hole golf course in the words of Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan–so this home of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy See is not that big. However, through a particular shiver of time and fate, the Holy See has managed to wind up a political entity with a recognized presence at large conferences such as Rio + 20. As a result, their participation at this event was fascinating to me.

It was curious to see within a drab sea of dark Western suits, punctuated here and there by few colorful African traditional outfits and a turban or headdress here and there, the distinctive black clerical garb of the representatives from the Holy See, always with that small white checker square below the Adam’s apple. And always an Adam’s apple, because there are certainly no women representing the Holy See–no Eves. I saw the Holy See at lunch, walking the enormous pathways between pavilions, attending the Plenary sessions…but did I see the Holy See at the Desertification negotiations? Or Chemicals? Or Food Security? Biodiversity? Nope. But they made darned sure they were at the talks on Gender and Women’s Health. A colleague at the UN of mine said it was amazing to watch them at the table debating these issues–issues which we don’t spend much time discussing at the Nicholas School, but which are a fundamental part of the pillars underlying sustainable development.

The Holy See was clear that it wanted gender defined as “a man, and a woman”, and nothing else. And further, that abortion and contraception not be encouraged as a means to forward sustainable development. Sitting there on the opposite side of the table? Several developed countries voiced their outrage and demanded strong language be present in the document advocating for women’s reproductive rights and the provision of planned parenthood services.

But what my fellow staff member made clear to me is that the Holy See does not stand alone–they have a significant amount of sway over a number of the developing countries which maintain large Catholic populations. And if many of the G-77 countries are swayed, then the G-77 as a whole will vote with the Holy See. And as the G-77’s (the collection of developing countries which sits at the negotiating table) agreement on an issue is necessary for an international consensus to be reached, then the Holy See has a lot of sway indeed.

The issue of women’s reproductive rights and women’s empowerment came up again and again whenever there was an open discussion forum for the Major Groups to voice concerns to the Secretary General. And Hilary Clinton even made a special point of advocating for it during her speech on behalf of the United States during the Plenary portion where all of the head country representatives gave their statements.

While there are now mentions of the need for sexual and reproductive health services to be provided universally, stronger language making explicit reference to women’s reproductive rights have been removed from the text, leading many women’s rights groups and country representatives to call this THE major failure of the document.

I believe that ultimately, as a the leader of a large women’s advocacy group in Nairobi mentioned, “It’s still in our hands, not the document.” But the emphasis on the document as a “failure” or a “success” ought to be as compromising as the give and take that was necessary to put it together–some of the work will be done by the document and the processes it launches, but some of it will be done by people in the public or private sector who have no intergovernmental involvement.

It will be interesting to see how the Holy See supports the post-Rio + 20 process, or if they are more concerned with just having their voices heard loud and clear on an international platform, and then retreating back to Vatican City.


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