Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

A Dangerous Place

by Austin Ruse


An interview with Austin Ruse, a pro-life activist, who reflects on his years of experience at the UN. He is the president of C-FAM, a non-profit organization with headquarters in New York, working closely with diplomats and advocacy groups at the United Nations. C-FAM concentrates particularly on issues involving marriage, the family, and human rights; the group acts as an advocate for the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding the sanctity of human life, and works in partnership with other groups sympathetic to that cause.

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, June 2004

The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), is a non-profit organization with headquarters in New York, working closely with diplomats and advocacy groups at the United Nations. C-FAM concentrates particularly on issues involving marriage, the family, and human rights; the group acts as an advocate for the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding the sanctity of human life, and works in partnership with other groups sympathetic to that cause.

Austin Ruse, the president of C-FAM, has served the organization since its inception. Among his most successful initiatives has been the "Friday Fax," a weekly message that has been sent out to interested parties since 1997, alerting them to the latest developments at the UN. The "Friday Fax"—which, in practice, now reaches most readers by email—today boasts well over 10,000 readers, and constitutes the best available resource for regular information on UN activities that affect the pro-life and pro-family cause.

How did you first become involved in this work?

Austin Ruse: I was in magazine publishing for many years. I worked at Fortune, Forbes, Rolling Stone, the Atlantic Monthly. I decided in the early- to mid-1990s that I wanted to do things that coincided with religion and politics. So I left the magazine publishing business, and actually volunteered for a priest for a couple of years. Eventually I ran out of money, and started taking temporary jobs to keep everything going. One day, at a casual event, I met a young lady representing Human Life International-Canada, who was in New York City looking for people to open up and run a UN lobbying office for the pro-life cause. Although I had never done any pro-life work, and never really been to the UN, they hired me!

I think that really, what I had going for me in those days was my business work. That's really what qualified me for this work. A lot of pro-life groups have a hard time because they don't manage their business affairs properly. Then, too, the magazine business taught me how to write and how to speak. As it happened, I had very valuable experience in my business career that prepared me for this work.

Now C-FAM was created very much because of Pope John Paul II. The Cairo conference happened, the Beijing conference, the Copenhagen and Rio conferences happened. Laymen from all over the world went to each of these meetings, and did some really good work, stopping the "bad guys," who were trying to advance the "culture of death." It became obvious that there needed to be a full-time office in New York, with people following this business on a regular basis: a sort of full-time watchdog group. Theresa Bell, who is the executive director of Human Life International-Canada, raised the money, and sent that young lady to New York. That young lady found me, and we were off to the races!

That was in the summer of 1997. The Cairo Conference had been in 1994, Beijing in 1995. So this happened within just a few years.

Is it fair to say, then, that at the outset C-FAM inherited the support of a coalition that had already been established at these UN conferences?

Ruse: Yes. The active participants in the coalition then were pretty much the same as the active participants now. We had Jeanne Head from National Right of Life working with us, and Peter Smith from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children; Human Life International was very much involved in those days. We had several other groups: one from France, several from Latin America. The coalition really did exist already. What C-FAM was able to do was to provide a permanent place for the coalition to coalesce around, particularly during the times of UN conferences.

Also, because of the Friday Fax, C-FAM drew in an even larger community, which now includes several thousand people who keep up with UN affairs on a weekly basis through those messages. Then those people, in their own ways, try to affect the policies of their own governments.

So, yes, the coalition absolutely did exist before C-FAM, as it exists now. C-FAM is a part of a larger effort.

What sort of welcome did you receive from the UN?

Ruse: The United Nations is an odd organization. First of all, there's no such thing as "the UN." There are many UNs. There is the UN of the General Assembly, which I suppose has the greatest claim on the term "the UN," since that is the legislative body of nations. But there is also the UN bureaucracy, and the UN agencies, and the UN non-government organizations (NGOs). We were roundly resisted and hated and vilified—as we are vilified to this day—by the UN bureaucracy, by the UN agencies, and by the UN-accredited NGOs.

This hostility has taken many forms over the years, from keeping us out of meetings, to vilifying us in the press, to telling UN security officials that we planned to disrupt meetings, so that the security guards would stand next to us in those meetings. We have encountered the whole gamut of disinformation and deception—all practiced on this little coalition of mostly lay volunteers.

You say that you have encountered hostility from the UN agencies. Who are the people running these agencies, and who is hiring them?

Ruse: Well, they hire each other, really.

Let's take an example or two. The UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) has always been in the hands of the population-control lobby; they hire people who agree with them. There is a board of directors of UNFPA, which is made up of representatives of the UN member-states. But they generally do what UNFPA wants.

The UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, was run by a really saintly man named Jim Grant. But he died on the job, and was replaced by Carol Bellamy, the former president of the New York City Council and former director of the Peace Corps. Bellamy, who was appointed by President Clinton, completely radicalized UNICEF.

Some of these agencies have gradually been taken over by radicals, who change them into engines of radical social policy.

There is also a community of NGOs that has grown up around the UN. What is their role in this process?

Ruse: There are about 3,000 NGOs that are officially recognized by the UN Economic and Social Council, which is one of the five treaty bodies, or charter bodies, of the UN. The purpose of NGOs is to assist the UN in its work: either in negotiating documents, offering expert advice during the preparation of documents, or carrying out UN policy.

There are NGOs that sling bags of rice. Then there are also NGOs that sling policy. Those are the really dangerous ones. They come to the UN, and have a remarkable amount of power to use in the developing world, in tandem with the European Union and, in the past, the Clinton Administration.

The most powerful NGO at the UN is the International Planned Parenthood Federation. At Cairo+5, they were actually sitting as delegates on 40 different delegations. They are in a position to dole out money, favors, and power.

At the UN, the NGOs are presented as representatives of civil society. That is to say, the NGOs are taken to be democratic institutions, holding the UN accountable. But everybody knows that NGOs are not democratic institutions. They are created with big money—sometimes from governments, frequently from rich foundations—to present particular points of view. They are not representing positions that have been arrived at democratically. They frequently stand in the way of true democracy.

True democracy is expressed, at the UN, through the member-states in the General Assembly. But these NGOs step in, and they're almost always radical, and they say, "We represent the people; you have to listen to us." And delegations actually fall for that!

Why do the NGOs tilt so heavily to the left of the political spectrum?

Ruse: Because conservatives have never cared about the UN! Conservative types have never really cared about working in government; they're busy running businesses and raising families and working on farms. They have never turned to government as a way of life.

Quite naturally the Left tends toward working in government service—whether it's here in the US or in other countries or at the UN. It's the natural home of the Left.

Over the years, the UN hasn't really counted. But the Left knew that it would eventually count, so they began pumping it full of these radical NGOs.

The conservatives of the world were awakened by the Holy Father prior to the Cairo conference, and finally realized the importance of these UN efforts. Now we have learned how to relate to the game.

You mention that large foundations can set up NGOs and have an impact at the UN, and you also have explained how foreign aid can be used as an inducement for countries to change policies. How much influence does money play in the entire process?

Ruse: I think that on the level of government-to-government relations, it's a huge factor. Governments frequently go along with things, even if they don't believe in them, in order to get foreign assistance.

I happen to think that the radicals working at the UN truly believe in what they are doing. Therefore they are not necessarily motivated by money; I think they qualify as "true believers." But governments everywhere are always influenced by money.

You've explained a great deal about how your opposition has gained control of the UN establishment. Where have you found support for your work? Who are your friends?

Ruse: We have friends everywhere. We even do have some friends in the UN bureaucracies. We have friends—although we didn't know it at first—in the UN agencies. There are people who feed us information, and encourage us. There are people who have come from the agencies of the UN secretariat and sat down in my office and actually cried out of frustration. So we have a lot of friends, right in the heart of the beast.

But our more open friends, among governmental delegations, have been the Holy See, the Muslim countries, some Catholic countries in Latin America, and at times some Far Eastern countries.

On the list of our enemies, by the way, I left out the European Union. Right along with the UN agencies and the UN bureaucracy, the members of the European Union have been very hostile, working against us and working against the cause of human life. Canada has been a foe, and the US during the Clinton Administration.

When you number our allies, you realize that it's a very small group. There are maybe 20 NGOs, and 20 member-states of the UN. That's it! And yet this little coalition has been able to stop just about everything the bad guys have tried to do over the last 10 years!

What is the secret to your success?

Ruse: Consensus. The UN operates, on controversial issues, through consensus. Everybody in the room, at least theoretically, has to agree with everything. If anyone disagrees, the language is thrown out.

Now, the classical UN definition of consensus allows that if 3 nations disagree with certain language, they can have it thrown out. At some of the controversial meetings in the 1990s, they ignored their own unwritten rule, and sometimes it would take 20 or 30 objections before something was thrown out. That's when things got really heated.

But the magic of all this is that we have been able to put together a coalition just large enough to stop all the bad language.

The problem is that our coalition is not large enough to get any good language in. This is a holding operation, until the world changes.

All of the most controversial UN conferences that saw the major fights on issues such as abortion and feminism—the Cairo conference, the Beijing conference, and so forth—took place in the 1990s. Is there any significance to the fact that there have not been such conferences more recently?

Ruse: It's an indication that they are afraid of the Bush Administration. We should be having "Cairo+10" right now; it was determined to have a "Cairo+11" instead. It's very overt on their part. They know that our coalition is very strong right now, with the help of the Bush Administration, and they're hoping for a new US President. If there is a new President, these meetings will happen like a thunderclap, on all topics.

By the way, did you know that John Kerry's sister works at the US mission to the UN? Peggy Kerry was hired by the Clinton Administration to be the NGO liaison. She was the one who booked the room when Catholics for a Free Choice announced their campaign to have the Vatican excluded from the UN.

When you first arrived on the scene, the US mission to the UN was controlled by the Clinton White House. Now the mission is run by people appointed by President Bush. How much of a difference did you feel when the Bush Administration took office?

Ruse: Well, it was like night and day. The Clinton Administration was far more radical in its approach at the UN than it was on the domestic agenda, for the very simple reason that nobody pays attention to what goes on at the UN. So the Clinton team was able to trot out positions, and push for things, that they would never have dared to promote in Washington. They were as radical, at the UN, as any government on Earth.

Then overnight, the Bush Administration came in and things changed. The same thing that I said about the Clinton Administration works now in our favor. Because nobody pays attention, the Bush Administration has been able to be work more overtly in favor of our cause than they have been on the domestic front.

Why that would be the case?

Ruse: They have more of a free hand in foreign policy than they do in domestic politics. It's easier for the Bush Administration to do what they want to do at the UN than it would be in the US Senate. At the UN, they have been very strong in trying to roll back anti-life language in documents. They have been very explicit in promoting sexual abstinence. They have de-funded UNFPA. They have been really remarkable in working on our issues at the UN—precisely because they have a freer hand.

And there is another factor: the reality that nobody is paying attention. Or rather, the only people who are paying attention to these issues at the UN are the true believers on both sides. So you don't lose anything by taking a strong position at the UN.

Why doesn't the same logic carry over to the US Agency for International Development, USAID? Why isn't that agency at the forefront of the pro-life effort?

Ruse: That's very different, because USAID policy comes through the Congress, and people follow that in the newspapers. The UN is very much a backwater. People don't really pay much attention to what goes on there.

That really would be one tough test for the Bush Administration: whether they are as strong in policy at USAID as they are at the United Nations. And they're not.

Let me ask another question with some immediate political implications. In working at the UN, you were in close contact for several years with then-Archbishop Renato Martino, who was the Holy See's representative there until this year. Now Cardinal Martino, in his new capacity as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has gained new prominence as a highly outspoken critic of US policies. What were your impressions of Cardinal Martino?

Ruse: At the UN, on these issues, there was nobody better than Archbishop Martino was for 14 years. He deserves our praise and our undying thanks. While the Holy Father was the guiding force, the man who did the work at the UN was Archbishop Martino. He was unbending: perfect on these issues. He was the great unsung hero of the pro-life movement at the UN.

Could you explain how you work, on a practical everyday basis, within the context of the UN?

Ruse: Sure. Basically, our fight at the UN is a fight over documents. The whole game, on the other side, is constantly to create new language in UN documents that advances their cause, changing the way the UN does business, or forcing member-states to change their own laws. This is done through the development of documents: more often than not, non-binding resolutions; but sometimes conventions and treaties, which when ratified are binding.

So let's take, as an example, "Cairo+5"—the five-year review after the Cairo conference. The idea was to advance their language, to make "reproductive rights" even broader and stronger.

UN conferences, like the Cairo+5 conference, are generally a couple of weeks long. There are preparatory conferences throughout the previous year. In those preparatory conferences, which are a week or two in length, the document is negotiated. What happens is that the original draft document is usually prepared by the UN bureaucracy. That means it's as radical as it possibly could be. Then on the opening day of the conference that document is given to the negotiators, and we receive our copy. Then the conference moves through the document, line by line, word by word. (Lately—over the last few years, they have been putting up the language on screens. Before that, they would go through it orally, line by line; it was very difficult to keep up with what was happening.) A paragraph is put up on the board for discussion, and if there is no objection, it is adopted. If there is any objection, it is bracketed, and it is agreed that the conference will come back to that paragraph later. The things that are bracketed are generally the things that are most controversial. In the social-policy documents, they always have something to do with sex.

So the conference goes through the entire document, and all the controversial parts are bracketed. Then they go back to the beginning and try to work out whatever differences the nations have over the material in brackets. One by one the brackets fall, until the final night of the conference. Typically that session will go all night long, and that is the time when the most controversial topics are negotiated. Again, these are generally topics that have to do with sex and abortion.

That's the point at which all the pressure is applied. We're lobbying, and our opponents are lobbying. Phone calls are going out to national capitals complaining about the countries' delegations. There is a lot of shouting, and banging of the gavel. It can be pretty wild. Then at some point, with the sun rising, there is final agreement.

In all of those processes in which we have participated, the other side has never got what they wanted: which is to make abortion an explicitly recognized universal human right.

Why are these UN documents so important, particularly when they are usually non-binding resolutions?

Ruse: Non-binding resolutions are important for a number of reasons.

They are frequently presented as if they are binding, first of all. They are merely aspirational documents, but they are presented to the world, with a public-relations push, as if they represent a new formal international standard. Then these new supposed standards are used against governments, as leverage to try to make them change their laws. The political leaders of smaller countries are in effect told, "This is what the world has decided, and you have to fall in line." Even though compliance with these UN resolutions is not required, they are still used as a club, to beat smaller states into submission.

It's important to realize that these resolutions can also be used against powerful nations, like the United States. With the powerful countries the influence is more nuanced; usually it comes through the courts, rather than through the national legislature.

But in the smaller countries the pressure can be just a tsunami. They rely on funding from the United Nations and from the European Union and from international lending institutions such as the World Bank. If a new resolution comes out, with new language, they are under a great deal of pressure to adhere to it.

You mentioned that there are many different arms of the UN. Will all of the arms of the UN honor a non-binding resolution?

Ruse: Can you define what you mean by "honoring" a resolution?

Actually, that's precisely the question. What do the various arms of the UN do, once a resolution has been passed, to encourage compliance?

Ruse: Actually, the first thing that they do, in many cases, is lie about it!

A non-binding resolution will be given to an implementation committee, before which governments must appear every two years to explain how they are doing in implementation. These committees are where things go very, very wrong. We may win the fight over abortion in the text of the document, but the committee will implement that document as if we had lost.

Thus, for instance, the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination, better known as CEDAW, does not even mention abortion. But the CEDAW implementation committee regularly tells nations that the CEDAW document includes abortion, and they have to legalize abortion. There is a "disconnect" between what is said when the General Assembly speaks, in a non-binding resolution, and when that resolution is handled by the implementation committee.

What are the mechanisms that can be used for arm-twisting, and influencing smaller nations? If a committee says that a nation must liberalize its abortion laws, what threat can the UN committee hang over that nation?

Ruse: Let me give you a concrete example. In the past, you have covered the case of Max Padilla in CWR. He was the head of family ministry for the government of Nicaragua: a cabinet-level position, reporting directly to the president of Nicaragua. He was pressured by seven European countries to change Nicaragua's definition of gender, so that it would say that gender is a "social construct."

The people who were putting this pressure on him lied, because they said that the new definition of gender as a "social construct" was taken from the platform for action approved at the Beijing conference. That's not true; the Beijing conference explicitly defined gender literally—this is a direct quote—"as it has always been understood."

So these European countries told Max Padilla that he had to change Nicaragua's definition of gender. He refused. So the Europeans went to the president of Nicaragua, and had him fired! They accomplished this with the threat that Nicaragua would lose millions of dollars of financial assistance from the donor countries of Europe.

That's the way these transactions are done. Rarely do we have such an obvious "smoking gun" as what happened to Max Padilla. In that case we know exactly what happened.

Was it the European Union, then, that exercised the pressure in that case?

Ruse: Yes. The European Union was wielding the hammer, using (or misusing) a non-binding UN document.

So a nation's compliance or non-compliance with the real or alleged terms of a UN resolution is used as an argument for or against giving foreign aid to that nation?

Ruse: That's right. All of these non-binding resolutions are arrows in the quiver of social theorists, at the UN agencies or the donor nations. Those arrows are aimed right at the heart of the developing world.

And, by the way, they are aimed right at the heart of the United States as well.

That is an ominous statement. Could you explain?

Ruse: We have been making the case, for many years, that we in the US will be affected by the establishment of what is called "customary international law."

Customary international law is generally established over the course of decades, even centuries. It is a very slow process, in which the international understanding of a particular issue gradually congeals, whether it is written down or not. Now our opponents are trying to jump-start customary international law in the area of social policy, by repeating certain phrases ad nauseam in non-binding UN resolutions.

In particular, they are using the term "reproductive health," so let me use that as an example. The term "reproductive health" has been used in dozens and dozens of UN documents, binding and non-binding. It has never been defined as including abortion. The other side never lets that question of definition come to the floor, because they know that they would lose the vote. But once "reproductive health" is in all these documents, it is then officially defined—by the implementing agencies, by the radical NGOs, by the UN agencies, and by governments—as including abortion.

So what has happened? The assertion is that the repetitious use of "reproductive health" in UN documents has established customary international law. So according to this view, if Roe v. Wade is ever struck down, legal abortion would still be the law of the land in the US, because in fact it is the law of the world!

This approach was brought into high relief soon after President Bush came into office and reinstituted the Mexico City policy, which stipulates that American taxpayers' money cannot go to NGOs that promote abortion overseas. Within days, the top figures in the Administration—President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Andrew Natsios, the head of the US Agency for International Development—were sued by the Center for Reproductive Rights. In their suit, they said precisely that the repetitious use of the phrase "reproductive health" in UN resolutions has established a customary international right to abortion.

That is exactly the charge that we had been making for several years: that the use of the term "reproductive health" was intended to establish an international right to abortion. And for years the proponents of that phrase had denied our charge. But now in this lawsuit they came out in the open and explained it.

So you see, the threat is that the radicals can go through our courts to fulfill their agenda. And that threat became very real with the Lawrence decision. In the Lawrence decision, in which the Supreme Court legalized homosexual sodomy, the Court referenced a foreign body for the first time in the interpretation of our own Constitution. In this case, the Court referenced a decision by the European Court of Human Rights. An amicus brief had been filed by Mary Robinson, the former UN Human Rights Commissioner (and former president of Ireland), saying that if the US did not fall in with international standards, there would be a price to pay. These arguments were cited by the majority in the Lawrence decision.

That is the plan. That is exactly what we feared and warned against. When Roe v. Wade is eventually heard again in the Supreme Court, it is a lead-pipe cinch that foreign bodies will be referenced—either in the majority upholding Roe, or in the minority when Roe is overturned. The pro-abortion people on the Supreme Court will absolutely reference foreign documents.

From all that you have said, it seems clear that the UN is—as the late Daniel Moynihan put it, in the title of his book about his experiences as the US ambassador there—A Dangerous Place...

Ruse: You know—just as an aside—it's funny, but my journey toward the right, and into the Catholic Church, was caused in part by that book! I was more or less sympathetic to the left on matters of foreign policy, and when I read that book I ran to the right; the scales fell from my eyes. And it was really the beginning of the process of my conversion to Catholicism! Isn't that remarkable?

That is a remarkable story! But if you were so impressed with Moynihan's book—and from your own experiences—you clearly understand why so many people believe that the UN is a "dangerous place." How, then, do you explain the remarkable enthusiasm that the Vatican has shown for the UN?

Ruse: The Holy Father absolutely believes in the UN. And so does the hierarchy. They believe in the UN as a body where governments can come together and talk things out. As Churchill put it, "Jaw, jaw, jaw, is better than war, war, war." As Catholics we can accept that idea. The principle of subsidiarity even allows for some forum like the UN, as a place where nations can hold discussions. It's only when decisions are taken, affecting smaller bodies, that the principle of subsidiarity is undermined.

But I must also say that some fairly intemperate things have been said by our friends at the Roman Curia, to the effect that the need for approval by the UN is now a part of the just-war theory. That's just not right. There have been a lot of unfortunate things said, that were confusing to a lot of people, in the prelude to the war in Iraq. No matter how you feel about what the US and Britain did, I think that the just-war tradition was abused in some of these statements.

Fundamentally we can't object to something like the UN on the theoretical level. But in reality the UN has violated the principle of subsidiarity, because they're getting involved in things that should not concern them, especially social policy relating to the family.

I can't answer the question as to why the Holy See has become such a cheerleader for the UN. I really can't, except that the Vatican tends to be affected by European liberalism.

Ask me another question. I don't know. I honestly don't know.

You list the Islamic countries among the allies with whom you work at the UN. Is there any tension in that alliance now, as tensions continue to rise in the Middle East, or is it still strong on these issues?

Ruse: It's still very strong on these issues, even after September 11. This coalition has weathered many storms. There is an understanding that there is a common enemy facing us: this galloping secular humanism and radical feminism that seek to steal our bodies and souls. There is an understanding that this struggle cuts across the questions of our religious differences and national boundaries. That coalition with the Muslims remains very, very strong.

If it weren't for the Muslims, abortion would be recognized as a human right in UN documents. It's as plain and simple as that. Without them, marriage would have been re-defined in UN documents long ago. Homosexuality would be protected in the UN Declaration on Human Rights.

This is an unusual alliance. On many other issues, the Islamic nations are at odds with the US. But on these issues of life and family, at the UN, there is a real opportunity for building friendly relationships.

Ruse: That is exactly correct. And that is why we, as a coalition, are convinced we're doing the right thing in making common cause with Sudan, for instance—to give you the worst example. We believe that we are providing a very strong Christian witness to the government of Sudan, within the context of the UN, so that in our own little way, we are helping our Christian brothers and sisters in southern Sudan. That's not just our rationalization; we think it's the right thing to do. We also think that there is a tangential benefit, in this case, to the Christians in southern Sudan.

Some Islamic countries think of the US as the "Great Satan," the chief sponsor of Planned Parenthood and so forth. Do any of your Muslim allies find it remarkable that an American organization is fully engaged on their side of the fight on matters involving the family and human life?

Ruse: It isn't so true any more, because we have become better known. But in the past, when a new diplomat came from the Middle East to the UN he would be absolutely shocked to meet Americans who pray. All they see is the very worst face of America—whether it's from USAID and the radical feminists, or UN agencies staffed by Americans, or television and the Hollywood movies. If I only saw that face of America, I might think that we are the Great Satan, too!

But when they get to the UN and they get to know us, they are just tickled right down to the soles of their feet! It's really quite remarkable.

And this coalition now has an existence outside the confines of the UN. There is an annual meeting that the Mormons put on, out in Provo, Utah, that's attended by 100 or more Muslim diplomats. There is going to be a huge meeting on the World Congress of Families this fall in Doha, hosted by the Prince of Brunei. This coalition is big, and getting bigger.

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