Before a United Nations summit on children's issues, religious groups and other nongovernmental organizations proclaimed the meeting's importance. Once the May 8-10 summit was over--with little to show except a carefully crafted document penned by midlevel diplomats--many of the groups acknowledged that it would likely have little impact.
The assessments depended largely on the ideologies involved. The Vatican, Muslim nations and the U.S. (which sought conservative language on family planning issues but did not get an outright abortion ban for teens in the text) saw it as mostly successful. Women's health advocates and liberal faith-based nongovernmental groups (lobbying for adolescent health and reproductive rights, including abortion) viewed it as a disappointment.
It has become a familiar scenario. Religious groups battle for the heart and soul of final statements emerging from UN conferences.
But those weary of this increasingly predictable routine had better get used to it. A recent study by the group Religion Counts says religious organizations are becoming more prominent at the UN and will continue to have what one of the study's authors called a "potent" role in shaping future international public policy.
"Religion has been a critical part of the United Nations since its inception and continues to offer a distinct dimension and voice there that other entities do not bring to international issues," said Philip Boyle, chief operating officer of the Chicago-based Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith and Ethics. Boyle helped write the study and the Park Ridge Center conducted the report's research, which included interviews with 60 persons, among them representatives of religious and nonreligious groups and UN officials.
"The UN cannot fail to engage with religion and in doing so must recognize that religion is not monolithic and defies predictability," Boyle said, "especially when it comes to the critical issues debated at the UN." If the report, "Religion and Public Policy at the United Nations," paints a complex and sometimes unwieldy portrait, it is apparent that religious-based advocacy at the world organization shows no sign of abating.
Beginning with the UN's 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt--at which the Vatican, joined by several Central American and Muslim nations, and advocates of family planning and birth control publicly clashed--and continuing with a series of UN conferences since then, religion-linked issues such as population, development and AIDS have been at the forefront of international forums. …