The 2018 Commission on Population and Development and Prospects for the Future

For the third time in four years, the annual session of the UN Commission on Population and Development (CPD), which oversees implementation of the landmark Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), ended without the adoption of a resolution on the Commission’s theme. This year the focus was on sustainable cities, human mobility and international migration. While countries found agreement on issues related to sustainable cities, drawing on existing commitments in the New Urban Agenda, agreements on the fraught issue of international migration and the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers proved elusive.

The reasons for the lack of an outcome are many. This year UN member states are negotiating a new Global Compact for Migration. The Compact will be the first UN agreement to address holistically all dimensions of international migration, including the causes of migration, the risks and vulnerabilities faced by migrants, as well as their human rights, and the conditions necessary to enable migrants, communities and countries to realize the benefits of migration. Negotiations on the Compact are ongoing, with adoption slated to take place in December 2018. As a result, many member states were unwilling to adopt a resolution that could preempt the outcomes of that negotiation.

Even so, a number of delegations, such as the EU and the US, took hardline positions against international migration and worked throughout the negotiations to minimize recognition of the human rights of migrants and states’ obligations in that regard. The final text presented by the Chair of the CPD relied heavily upon previous agreements, especially those made in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. That this text was not acceptable to many delegations is a troubling indication of a decline in support for migrants’ human rights and respect for international commitments.

While the US strongly opposed language on sexual and reproductive health during negotiations and in their final statement, US opposition alone would not have prevented an agreement on these issues. Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are core to the ICPD Agenda and delegations such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the EU, and progressive Latin American, Asian and African countries supported existing SRHR commitments throughout the negotiations. Ultimately, while the final wording still was still under debate, agreement was possible. Indeed, countries reached consensus on sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights just three weeks earlier at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. The CPD ended with a strong statement from a diverse and cross-regional group of countries supporting the core commitments of the ICPD Programme of Action to women’s human rights and SRHR.

Which leads to the final breaking point: a lack of political will and leadership. High-level political engagement in and support for the CPD has atrophied since the twentieth anniversary of the ICPD Programme of Action in 2014. Even countries that claim to be ICPD champions no longer send high-level political representatives to the CPD. As a result, the political cost of failing to reach agreement at the CPD is now low.

Next year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ICPD Programme of Action. Its key messagethat respect for human rights must be at the center of population and development strategiesremains pressing decades later, especially as we head into the final ten years of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs include targets on the ICPD commitments to achieve universal access to sexual and reproductive health services and realize reproductive rights for all. After three failures in four years, governments now face a choice: seriously invest the political capital needed to make the CPD a success, or ensure other venues and forums take up and integrate review of the ICPD Agenda into their work.

Photo: Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (center) makes remarks during the opening segment of the fifty-first session of the Commission on Population and Development, 2018. (UN Photo / Loey Felipe)

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