Reproductive Health and Human Rights: The Way Forward

By Laura Reichenbach; Mindy Jane Roseman | Go to book overview

Chapter 14
The Political Limits of the United
Nations in Advancing Reproductive
Health and Rights

Heidi Larson and Michael R. Reich

The United Nations has played a critical role in both advancing and constraining reproductive health and rights around the world in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. These dual effects are a result of the nature of the United Nations—the politics of its member states, on the one hand, and the politics of its many institutions, on the other— as the UN has sought to address substantive issues related to reproductive health and rights. This chapter considers the limitations of the UN system for promoting reproductive health and rights in light of the UN reform agenda and suggests future avenues of engagement with the UN for advocates and practitioners.

The UN engagement with reproductive health and rights reflects the broader debate over the effectiveness of the United Nations. This debate has a long history, going back to the founding of the UN, and indeed back to the earlier efforts at creating the League of Nations. But the debate became particularly heated in the late twentieth century, following the UN fiftieth anniversary in 1995. Even enthusiastic supporters of the UN agreed that the organization needed a period of reflection, reform, and reinvigoration. For example, Bruce Russett, a Yale political scientist who has written extensively on this issue, identified ten “balances” for assessing different UN reform proposals (Russett 1996). Meanwhile, critics of the UN have attacked the legacy of former secretary general Kofi Annan as one of “monumental failure” and called the UN an institution filled with “mismanagement, corruption, and anti-Americanism” and dominated by “scandal, division, and failure” (Gardiner 2006).

In March 2005, the secretary general issued his own report that restated the core mission of the United Nations as freedom from want,

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