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The United Nations Human Cloning Treaty Debate, 2000-2005

June 1st, 2006

On March 8, 2005, after four years of debate, the United Nations General Assembly voted on a non-binding declaration calling for a full ban on human cloning, that is, for bans on both the creation of live-born human clones and the creation of clonal human embryos for purposes of research. The vote was:

  • Support the full ban – 87 (46%)
  • Oppose the full ban – 34 (18%)
  • Abstain - 37 (19%)
  • Absent - 33 (17%)
Under UN rules, the Declaration is now the official position of that body. For the most part, unfortunately, the Declaration is of little consequence. It is far from the binding treaty that had originally been proposed, and the deeply divided vote shows that countries of the world are far from an effective consensus regarding the polices needed to address the new human genetic technologies.

The original proposal

In 2001 France and Germany proposed that the UN take the lead in negotiating a binding international treaty on human cloning. They proposed that the treaty ban reproductive cloning, and leave question of research cloning to a later date. They recognized that a “full” ban would not be able to attain the effective consensus required to successfully conclude a treaty within the UN structure. They believed that a treaty banning reproductive cloning would be a critically important contribution in itself, and would establish a precedent and structure for addressing more difficult human genetics topics later.

The proposed French-German treaty would not have prevented any countries from regulating research cloning as they saw fit. In fact, France and Germany themselves had prohibited this practice several years earlier.

Some UN members, notably the United States and Spain (along with the Vatican, which has observer status at the UN) favored a treaty banning all human cloning. But supporters of the French-German proposal thought that these states would see the strategic advantage of first achieving a victory where a broad consensus was already in place, and hoped that the United States, while voicing its opposition to the treaty, might refrain from actively blocking it.

These hopes proved to be misplaced. By early 2002 the United States had come out strongly against the French-German proposal, and was lobbying other UN delegations to oppose it as well. Further, a larger than anticipated number of other countries also felt that research cloning should be banned and that the treaty should address this. These included countries in Europe (Norway, Spain, Italy), South America (Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile), Africa (Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria), the Pacific (Australia, Fiji, Micronesia) and elsewhere.

By fall 2002, about 40 countries had indicated their support for treaty language that would include bans on research cloning, and this was enough to block the needed consensus. The UN extended its discussions for another year to explore alternatives.

A way forward?

Discussions in search of an alternative shifted significantly when the German Bundestag voted early in 2003 to instruct its UN delegation to change its position on the cloning treaty. Germany has the strictest embryo research prohibitions in the world (a policy born of experience with the eugenic and genocidal policies of the Third Reich), and members of the Bundestag - particularly those from the Greens and Christian Democrats, but also including many Social Democrats - were unhappy that the government was advocating a treaty that appeared to sanction, at least indirectly, research cloning. Greens and others in the Bundestag argued that Germany, France, and the rest of Europe should in effect join forces with the United States and the Catholic countries, since as a matter of domestic policy they were all opposed to research cloning.

There were also indications that the Islamic countries (which seek to vote as a bloc), the majority of African countries, and a fair number of Asian countries were also inclined to support a complete cloning ban. But even this considerable coalition did not represent an effective consensus, in part because those uncomfortable with a complete ban included significant countries such as the UK, China, Singapore and Sweden. Thus a new fissure developed between those countries that supported a complete ban but were willing to include some language allowing countries like these four to sign, and countries like the US that were not willing to do so.

Throughout 2003 possible compromise proposals were discussed. But these were either too permissive for countries that objected to research cloning, or too restrictive for those that favored it, or both at once. No consensus was achieved.

By September 2003 it appeared that a majority of countries favored a treaty that included bans on research cloning. At the same time, however, sentiments were beginning to polarize. Whereas the original French-German proposal was silent regarding research cloning, Belgium and other active supporters of research cloning now proposed treaty language that would explicitly affirm it, and some reportedly announced their intention to boycott any treaty negotiations designed to curtail it. And for the first time, the international scientific community began lobbying in support of research cloning as an issue of scientific freedom.

Deciding to postpone

The question before the UN as it approached its November 2003 decision deadline was whether to initiate formal treaty negotiations with a mandate that included bans on research cloning, despite the lack of consensus, or to postpone further discussion until some later date.

Those who favored postponement were of several sorts. They included countries like the UK and Singapore that supported research cloning and did not want to risk initiating a treaty that might prohibit it. Many were countries like Germany and France that opposed research cloning, but recognized that a negotiating process fraught with acrimony and division, in which the very purpose of the negotiations would become the first and primary point of conflict, could hinder rather than encourage meaningful progress. And many were countries that had not made up their minds about research cloning, and did not want to have to do so under contentious conditions.

Those who opposed postponement saw things differently. They knew they had the votes to initiate a treaty negotiation process that included bans on research cloning in its mandate. They acknowledged that their majority was not as strong as they would prefer, but believed that once serious negotiations began more countries would come over to their position. They argued that urgent action was needed because scientists were rushing to begin research cloning before the UN acted. And they believed that they were right in a very fundamental sense and wanted to send a message that would help spark worldwide concern, regardless of whether or not the treaty negotiations themselves were successful in the short run.

The vote

On November 6, the UN General Assembly's Sixth Committee voted on a motion by the current Chair of the group of Islamic countries, Iran, to suspend further discussion of the cloning treaty until 2005. Approval required a majority of those present and voting; the motion passed by a single vote, 80 to 79. The results showed that:
  • While most European countries ban research cloning themselves, most voted to postpone further consideration of a cloning treaty.
  • By contrast Latin American countries, many of which also have domestic policies banning research cloning, voted strongly to continue the negotiations.
  • As of yet no Islamic countries have adopted domestic policies on cloning, and all voted as a bloc to postpone further discussion at the UN (except for Uganda, Nigeria and Sierra Leone).
  • The five Central Asian Republics acted as their own bloc in support of the US position.
  • No obvious patterns apply to countries in the Asia/Pacific region, except that those voting to continue negotiations were, with few exceptions (Australia, Nepal), small island nations with traditionally strong ties to the US (Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, Vanuatu). All the major Asian countries (China, India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia) joined Europe in voting for postponement.
  • The African countries were about evenly divided on whether or not to postpone negotiations. Thirteen had earlier declared their support for a treaty that prohibited research cloning.

With this vote, it became clear that the chance for a binding treaty on human cloning was effectively nil. Participants began discussing an exit strategy: Rather than push for a binding treaty, they would focus on a non-binding declaration. But this was little more than a face-saving measure.

Over the following fifteen months the jockeying and lobbying continued, but now the objectives and the key players had changed significantly. Whereas at the beginning of the UN cloning debate France and Germany were working to lead the world on an issue around which they believed there was broad consensus for a middle-ground position, now those two countries had retreated to the sidelines as proponents of the two polarized positions took the lead in seeking a symbolic victory for their side by winning over as many countries as they could to a substantively meaningless resolution. With the final, divided vote in March, 2005, the United Nations concluded its attempt to negotiate a binding treating on human cloning.

Last modified June 1, 2006


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