- - Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Committee Against Torture, an expert panel charged with monitoring implementation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, made headlines earlier this month when it raised questions about whether the Holy See’s uncompromising opposition to abortion, among other things, might violate international anti-torture norms.

Other commentators have proposed that such questions are outlandishly inconsistent with committee’s mandate and the nature and purpose of the Convention Against Torture. Yet to appreciate the significance and origins of this development, one must situate it in the context of a conflict reaching back more than two decades.

Flash back to 20 years ago, when the U.N. was preparing for the International Conference on Population and Development, to be held in Cairo in September 1994 with the participation of more than 170 states, including the Holy See. Several years of preparatory work, shaped to a then-unprecedented (but now commonplace) degree by the burgeoning influence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, had yielded a controversial preconference draft program focusing largely on population control in poor regions.

The conference’s draft text, which heavily reflected the ideologically and historically intertwined preoccupations of the abortion and eugenic movements, met with early resistance from the Holy See. During the run-up to the conference, Pope John Paul II cautioned the conference’s secretary-general that the draft conference plan represented a marked departure from international legal precedents. The pope noted in particular that the document tended “to promote an internationally recognized right to access to abortion on demand without any restriction, with no regard to the rights of the unborn, in a manner which goes beyond what even now is unfortunately accepted by the laws of some nations.”

Given the tenor of the conference’s draft program, an entrenched dispute predictably arose at the conference itself, during which the Holy See was unwavering in its objections to abortion as a component of reproductive health care. Due in part to the determination of the Holy See and certain other nations, the final action program adopted at the International Conference on Population and Development left intact existing international law rejecting a fundamental right to abortion, and it expressly repudiated abortion as a method of family planning. This episode earned the Holy See the enduring ire of the international abortion lobby, which has since spent the past two decades striving to obtain by pressure and legal subterfuge what it could not achieve directly in Cairo in 1994.

In 1999, a group of NGOs launched an ill-conceived and ultimately ill-fated campaign — dubbed “See Change” — to challenge the Holy See’s status as a U.N. permanent observer, which it has held since 1964. A key strategy of this campaign was to undermine the Holy See’s claim to statehood by urging an alternative interpretation of another international legal instrument: the 1933 Montevideo Convention, which lays out generally accepted statehood criteria. Although the See Change campaign’s supporters lobbied hard, their arguments went against settled international law and gained little traction. The U.N. General Assembly effectively delivered the coup de grace to See Change in the form of a 2004 resolution reconfirming the Holy See’s capacity as an observer state and even expanding its rights and privileges of participation in the assembly’s work and at U.N. conferences. Though never formally abandoned, See Change withered into irrelevance.

In their ongoing grudge match against the Holy See, abortion proponents seem lately to have shifted to a spurious strategy of scouring multilateral treaties to which the Holy See is a party, seeking pretexts to berate Rome for its Catholic ways. Last January, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, another treaty-monitoring panel, reviewed the Holy See’s implementation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Although the ostensible focus of the review was clerical sexual abuse of minors, the committee’s final observations strayed astonishingly far afield, urging the Holy See to change Catholic doctrines on abortion, contraception and other matters to conform to an ideological vision of human sexuality alien both to Catholicism and to established international legal norms.

This brings us back to the current deliberations of the Committee Against Torture. The committee’s review of the Holy See’s implementation of the U.N. Convention Against Torture was preceded by a shadow letter from a hard-line abortion lobby group, the Center for Reproductive Rights, attacking Catholic doctrine and discipline concerning abortion, and challenging the Holy See’s very right to advocate Catholic positions in international diplomacy. Troublingly, remarks from committee members hint at uncritical acceptance of the NGO shadow letter’s legal arguments, including the audacious claim that the Holy See’s categorical rejection of abortion violates the Convention Against Torture.

Recent history thus reveals a disturbing willingness on the part of pro-abortion NGOs to co-opt virtually any international legal text, body or procedure toward the goals of marginalizing the Holy See’s voice in international affairs and attacking the Catholic religion — at least insofar as its tenets concerning human dignity, sexuality and welfare conflict with such groups’ ideological programs. International bodies and authorities that indulge such maneuvers under color of law do so at the peril of their own credibility. They also risk validating the apprehensions of countries (including the United States) that have hesitated to become parties to certain multilateral conventions.

One hopes that the Committee Against Torture, which includes a number of distinguished jurists, will wisely decline to endorse such follies when it issues its final report in the near future. Nevertheless, the pattern of legal mischief directed at the Holy See and the Catholic faith by international abortion activist groups and their allies seems unlikely to abate anytime soon. We may have treaties against torture, but none to prevent tortuous interpretations of international law.

Christian E. O’Connell is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.