Landing in New York on a crisp spring Sunday morning to attend the 47th Session of the Commission on Population and Development, I was yet to fully comprehend the scale of the challenge I faced the upcoming week. Knowing the many anecdotes of people who stood in the same shoes, it’s almost typical: a visionary but inexperienced youth, turns up on the doorstep of a gargantuan organisation—the UN–with a plethora of thoughts and visions, ready to ‘take on the world’. And the primary rhetoric among the youth is about three things: (1) career travel opportunities; (2) making your opinion count; and (3) making a difference in society – especially when you are working for something so critical as human dignity itself.
Yet it’s naïve to assume to expect an almost 70-year-old bureaucratic institution like the UN to be so open to a mere individual. Proceedings quickly opened my eyes to just how much the UN, and our ideological adversaries, are forces to be reckoned with. Many times a passionate young person is tempted to speak, and it is far too easy to let others’ often inflammatory rhetoric get under one’s skin. But one quickly comes to realise just how an inexperienced individual like myself has yet to learn so much about WYA, let alone the UN itself.
Lesson 1: It is unwise and futile to ‘take on the world’. It is far more effective to influence change from within the system, and even that only comes by understanding it first.
So, in the earlier phases of the CPD, we primarily took notes and made observations. And upon listening to delegates’ statements and researching their policy, a trend became clear: ideology spreads quickly among States by implementation and setting examples to each other to manifest it.
This certainly rang true for nations including South Africa, who had so keenly adopted the ‘reproductive rights’ agenda posited by many Western nations, and was influencing other states in the African Union. And looking deeper, one finds out how these ideologies spread: through years of aggressive lobbying and developing political muscle.
Lesson 2: Ideas do not become popular overnight; they spread through popular pressure.
Throughout the CPD, we were assigned various ‘side events’ hosted by both Member States and NGOs – overwhelmingly dominated by supporters of the sexual and reproductive rights agenda, despite the fact that (a) ‘sexual and reproductive rights’ are not innate, nor are they included in the original ICPD, but are a fabrication of such lobbyists and (b) they contravene the law itself and its purposes.
And their presence is not random: these groups are part of a publicly disclosed yet elaborate web of funding and advisory, with budgets exceeding $150 million, allocated to advise UN bodies and Member States on programs and curricula and implement them worldwide – entrenching their ideology enough to dominate discourse and deliberations at the CPD.
Lesson 3: In ideology, money talks.
Thus, it came as no surprise that those with the opportunity to raise their voice did. They were almost like armies at the side events, with colourful flyers, asking questions and contributing to conversations at side events. Though we clearly disagreed with the more extreme actions of waving banners with slogans or jeering after speeches, the fact that many Member States were so supportive of their agenda made me constantly wonder if we could at least ask questions and contribute too. As an Australian Filipino, hearing both Australian and Filipino permanent missions make statements completely against us made it almost personal.
But I slowly learned the WYA way in action: as an organisation centred on human dignity, we’re not about forcing opinions. Respecting people and culture means listening, understanding and acknowledging their merits and innate values. And that must start in how we relate to each other. It is certainly the more difficult of ways to conduct oneself – but this is what ‘living out WYA values in everyday life’ is all about.
Lesson 4: Though it may be about the human person, one truly honours human dignity in the nature of their relationships and the respect they have for others.
Yet, the conscientious way takes patience and perseverance. On the penultimate evening of the CPD, we suddenly faced an extremely narrow window of opportunity to make our case, inspired by the action that fifteen years ago we owe our existence to: the ‘pink flyer’ which spurred WYA’s establishment. Unfortunately, we had not finished drafting our flyer by the day’s scheduled 6 PM adjournment; the most I could do was go home, hope for the best the next day, and just enjoy myself meeting other WYA Members at the House’s Open Mic night.
But as I settled in, we received a message to print the flyers and return to the UN ‘if you’re available’. As I contemplated what use I would be if I joined the other members – I might not even be allowed to return to the UN that day due to the validity of my pass – I ran into Anna Halpine herself. And in the briefest of conversations, I recalled exactly why WYA invited me to New York in the first place. I wondered how many setbacks Anna and the first members faced; how many times they stared at far more powerful adversaries; the combination of humility and conviction it required to face them; and the amount of perseverance it took them to be able to represent something we truly believe in.
I couldn’t imagine the pressure or nerves they faced fifteen years ago, nor could I compare our task to theirs. But I knew that only the same combination of hope and love for one’s fellow human being could inspire us to stay up all night (negotiations on Friday, the following night, continued until 7 am the next morning) and do our best. We faced politics, power games, and monumental adversaries and challenges. And the final resolution contained several instances of ultra vires bad language conveniently compromising human dignity for ideological agendas. But our message got through; several Member States supported amendments, eventually passed, to improve the final resolution, however slightly. And we can build upon every small victory and lesson learned for every small step in the future towards restoring authentic human dignity to the global stage.
Lesson 5: You win some, you lose some; it’s about how you persevere, grow upon your wins and learn from your losses, and most importantly, what inspires you.
Making a difference is about mastery of self, others, and the system. But ultimately, nothing can determine outcomes greater than conviction does, for its right manifestation is, in many ways, the ultimate manifestation of human dignity itself.
By Miguel Vera-Cruz, a WYA Member from Australia