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Commentary: Exporting "Traditional Values"
The World Congress of Families
By Gillian Kane

Gillian Kane is senior policy advisor with the international reproductive justice organization Ipas and a member of the Public Eye editorial board.

In August, at the fifth World Congress of Families (WCF) in Amsterdam, Austin Ruse, president of the New York-based Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-Fam) warned “that UN radicals in alliance with radical lawyers and judges and other advocates around the world are attempting the greatest power grab the world has even known.”[1]  What they want, he continued, is to impose their nefarious agenda—support for abortion and gay rights—on unsuspecting developing countries thereby leading to a “tsunamic change in social policy and in the international system.”

But when Ruse told the Congress that UN “radicals” want to “decide for all mankind the most intimate details of people’s lives…from their lofty and elite perches at the UN in New York, at the European Union in Brussels and other centers of international power,” he failed to mention that in fact he and likeminded conservatives are doing the very same thing.

The U.S. Christian Right’s influence on international sexual and reproductive rights peaked at the beginning of the millennium with the full support of President George W. Bush.  Before the Bush Administration, conservative U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were mostly relegated to the sidelines at United Nations meetings, but they still managed to maximize their networking in the UN hallways where most of the lobbying takes place.  Conservative anti-abortion NGOs like C-Fam, Concerned Women for America (CWA), and the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) had for years worked the international UN circuit trying to influence conservative Latin American and Muslim countries to find common ground against abortion and gay rights.

The World Congress of Families has money and connections built up during the Bush Administration.

Bush appointed many conservative Christian Right lobbyists as U.S. representatives to the UN.  The administration also supported organizations like CWA, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and Priests for Life in gaining accreditation as UN NGO observers, which allowed them to directly lobby country representatives.[2]  Barack Obama’s presidency thus presents a direct threat to these groups and their allies who are members, contributors or participants in the World Congress of Families as they lose access to U.S. diplomats at the United Nations. They are scrambling to ensure the viability of their cause in this shifting political environment.

The WCF is a coalition of leading international advocates against abortion, reproductive and sexual rights that meets every few years to network and strategize.  It is coordinated by the Rockford, Illinois-based Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, led by the “natural family” advocate Allan Carlson.[3]  Past congresses took place in reliably socially conservative countries like Poland, Nigeria, and Mexico, and drew hundreds and sometime thousands of participants.  Organizing a right-wing event in Amsterdam, a city WCF organizers maintain has the “kind of culture traditionally minded people abhor,” is either a massive gesture of conciliation or a misguided effort to build on an emerging Dutch conservative movement.

Although the event did not meet organizers’ expectations—the WCF predicted 4,000 would show, the real number barely scratched 400—and it did not succeed in bringing in new Dutch converts or in fostering debate with reproductive justice activists, its impact is nonetheless being felt in disparate places such as the United Nations, the European Union, Albania, and Kenya.

André Rouvoet, the Dutch Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Youth and Family, opened the Amsterdam WCF conference with a tepid welcome message, giving tacit government endorsement to the event.  Rouvoet presented his video address even though Dutch members of Parliament asked him to reconsider.  The parliamentarians, while not opposed to hosting the congress in their country, were concerned about government participation in an event led by a coalition vehemently against abortion, same-sex relations and marriage, contraception, euthanasia, basically, the keystones of Dutch policy.

Rouvoet’s plug for building bridges between ideologically opposed social movements, and his call to “think about how we can live together in a multicultural society with differing attitudes of the family” was met with hostile silence and a smattering of forced applause.

Hosting the event in the Netherlands allowed the WCF to claim it was extending itself to the opposition and when the overture failed, it placed the burden of failure on progressives. Simon Polinder, coordinator of the local Dutch WCF organizing committee, in his opening statement said the WCF had been accused of being afraid to debate.  That’s why he explained, the WCF invited people with differing views to participate, but they had declined.  Polinder then asked rhetorically, “So who’s afraid to debate now?”

In fact, Dutch participants with moderate views on the family, LGBT rights and abortion did attend.  The issue lay not in their lack of participation but rather in the WCF’s inability to accommodate their differing views into its platform.  During the conference Austin Ruse twittered, “Lots of off stage excitement at the WCF.  The local organizing committees are not American conservatives and they produced an unacceptable…Document that we had to get killed.  A new document was produced by Allan Carlson that will be released today.”[4]

Ruse and others bullied their agenda into the WCF’s final document, congratulating themselves that “in the end, the Congress was a success.”[5] Not because it brought two opposing sides together, but because the event succeeded in inching Dutch public discourse to the right.  Indeed, the research department of the Dutch Christian Reformed Party (SGP), a WCF participant, recommended that Dutch family policy legalize marriage only for a man and a woman, impose stricter restrictions on divorce, and take away the rights of gay couples to adopt.[6]

But one policy proposal does not a sea change make and it’s certainly too early to declare the Right’s ascendency in the Netherlands following the WCF.  Similarly, despite the poor attendance, it is also too early to sound the death knell for the WCF, as some progressives have.

The World Congress of Families, which began taking shape in the mid-1990s, has never been a movement with a particularly large or active base. Their ability to influence policy at the national and international levels comes not from the grassroots, but rather from their well-connected and well-established leadership.  The WCF cosponsors are a who's who of the conservative right-wing in the United States, many of whom were warmly embraced by the Bush Administration.   In the last decade these individuals have nurtured conservative leadership in Eastern Europe and the developing world to promote a reactionary agenda.

In October, the UN Human Rights Council pleased the WCF when it approved a resolution promoting "a better understanding of traditional values of humankind."

Two months following the August WCF, its members were celebrating international victories for the “natural family.” For years the WCF has decried what it sees as the “hard-edged intolerance by the UN to traditional values.”[7] In October, the United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution proposed by Russia promoting “a better understanding of traditional values of humankind.”  While not defined in the resolution, traditional values, as understood by its promoters, means marriage between a man and a woman, and zero tolerance for abortion and homosexuality, among other issues.

Julie de Rivero, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director, is very concerned that such a “resolution fails to recognize that many values that political and cultural leaders exalt as ‘traditional’ can stand at odds with international human rights law.”[8] 

According to WCF veteran Sharon Slater of the Arizona-based Family Watch International, the real intent behind the resolution is to “push back against UN member states that are seeking to overturn traditional values based on morality under the guise of protecting ‘human rights.’”

The Russian resolution was surprising given the country’s general support for women’s rights.  When asked about the WCF’s role in the resolution Larry Jacobs, WCF Managing Director, noted that “There wasn’t any secret conspiracy.   The interesting thing about the WCF is that we are just bringing groups together.  And I will mention that there’s a group standing up for Eastern traditional values and Russia has a big leadership role.” Indeed, the idea for a “world congress of families” began in the mid-1990s when Allan Carlson, WCF Secretariat, met in Russia with Dr. Ivan Schevchenko, head of that country’s right-wing Orthodox Brotherhood of Scientists and Specialists.

Austin Ruse’s idea that UN radicals are working to stamp out the “natural family” presents neither a nuanced nor accurate view of what actually takes place in the United Nations or behind the scenes.  U.S. Christian Right conservatives may no longer have presidential support, but they have made sufficient strides during the Bush years to maximize their international contacts. As Sharon Slater explains, “at the international level, we join with profamily groups in other countries at the World Congress of Families conferences to network and strategize how to protect the family.  At the UN we participate in a profamily coalition.”[9]

And it’s not just connections; WCF members have money backing them. One of its members is the Christian-Right-oriented Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which litigates internationally for religious freedom. The most recent ADF tax returns show their total revenue for 2007 was over $30 million.[10]

In addition to the UN, the WCF is also making inroads at the European Commission and the European Parliament.  Anna Záborská, a Slovakian member of the European Parliament and, incongruously enough, chairwoman of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, is a WCF spokesperson; in 2004 she commented that “AIDS is God’s vengeance for homosexuality."

Ruse ended his Amsterdam WCF presentation by encouraging participants to “Go forth, my friends, go forth.  Defend your countries.  Defend your Churches. Defend your families.  Defeat the radicals in the courts: defeat them in Parliaments; defeat them in the universities; defeat them in the international institutions.  Go forth.”  Ruse received a standing ovation.

End Notes

  1. Austin Ruse, “The Effects of the UN on the Families of Developed Nations,” remarks to World Congress of Families V.
  2. Esther Kaplan, With God on their Side, The New Press, 2004, p. 234.
  3. For more on Carlson and the “natural family” ideology, see Jeremy Adam Smith, “Living in the Gap: The Ideal and the Reality of the Christian Right Family,” The Public Eye, Winter 2007.
  4. austinruse on Twitter
  5. Austin Ruse, “The World Congress of Families and the Limits of Dialog,” The Catholic Thing, August 21, 2009.
  6. Jaco van den Brink, “Government and Family: Influence or Intrusion? A comparative study on family policies in an international perspective,” Guido de Bres-Foundation, Gouda, The Netherlands, August 2009, p. 65.
  7. See Gwendolyn C. Landolt’s remarks at the 1999 Congress, for instance.
  8. “Human Rights Council: ‘Traditional Values’ Vote and Gaza Overshadow Progress,” Human Rights Watch, October 2, 2009.
  9. Sharon Slater, Stand for the Family, (Gilbert, Ariz.: Inglestone Publishing, 2009), p. 150.
  10. ADF-allied attorneys reach milestone, donate $100M of pro bono work for religious liberty,” Alliance Defense Fund, October 12, 2009.