On November 6, 2003, after two years of debate and no substantive
action, the United Nations voted to suspend until late 2005
any further consideration of a French-German proposal for an
international treaty to ban human cloning.
The vote in the Legal (Sixth) Committee of the UN General Assembly
was very close: 80 countries voted for the suspension, 79 wished
to continue negotiations, 15 formally abstained, and 17 were
What happened, and why? What are the implications for global
governance of the new human genetic technologies? What is likely
to happen next, and what can be done?
The Original Proposal
France and Germany initiated the cloning treaty process in
September 2001. They limited their proposed ban to reproductive
cloning because they recognized that a broader proposal - in
particular, one that also banned research cloning - 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
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 it.
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
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-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.
These included proposals for treaty language that would:
- commit the UN to begin negotiations on research cloning
after the treaty banning reproductive cloning had been successfully
- conduct separate but simultaneous negotiations on treaties
banning reproductive cloning and research cloning;
- ban research cloning in general but allow countries that
had begun research cloning prior to signing the treaty to
continue to do so;
- allow research cloning only after countries had established
effective regulatory structures.
These and other proposals 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.
Civil Society Involvement
Most UN treaty negotiations engage the attentions of large
networks of civil society constituencies concerned about the
issues at hand. This was not the case with the cloning treaty.
The only major constituency to play an active, ongoing role
lobbying delegates was the international network of religious
organizations associated with "pro-life" issues.
The world scientific community did not become active until
late in the second year of treaty discussions, when they released
a statement endorsed by academies of science of 66 countries
supporting the Belgian proposal that would ban reproductive
cloning as a matter of international policy but declare that
research cloning would remain a matter of domestic policy.
Social and economic justice organizations based in the United
States organized a series of briefings for UN delegates. These
organizations held mixed views on the question of research cloning
but supported the French-German proposal as a necessary policy
at this time and a useful first step. But many activist NGO's,
especially outside the United States, tended to feel more strongly
that a full ban on human cloning should be called for. These
differences made it difficult to present a clear message to
delegates and the media.
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
late 2005. Approval required a majority of those present and
voting; the motion passed by a single vote, as noted above.
If a single additional delegation had voted to continue discussion,
Iran's motion to postpone would have failed. In that event delegates
would have voted immediately on a prior resolution, offered
by Costa Rica, that would mandate a negotiating process including
bans on research cloning. It was widely assumed in the Sixth
Committee that the Costa Rican resolution would have attracted
more "yes" votes than "no" votes, with an
unknown number of abstentions. Supporters of the Costa Rican
proposal believe they would have received over 100 votes; others
A display of the votes can be seen here, along with displays of domestic
policies on cloning. In summary:
- While most European countries ban research cloning, most
of them voted to postpone further consideration of a cloning
- 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.
At this point, it's clear that there is little likelihood of
a cloning treaty of the sort originally proposed by France and
Germany (ban reproductive cloning only), or of the sort they
subsequently proposed (ban reproductive cloning, and address
research cloning in some manner that would gain consensus).
Because the vote at the Sixth Committee was so close, there
is some possibility that cloning treaty negotiations as proposed
by Costa Rica, the United States and others (ban all cloning)
could be launched before the end of the current session. This
could happen if the UN General Assembly decides to consider
and vote on the Sixth Committee's report rather than to simply
UN observers sympathetic to the desire for strong controls
on cloning, but opposed to the US/Costa Rican strategy, point
out that a treaty negotiated under such divisive conditions
would be as ineffective as, say, a ban on nuclear arms not supported
by the nuclear powers.
A cloning treaty that a preponderance of countries around the
world could easily embrace is thus unlikely; the disagreements
over fundamentals are too great. What is to be done?
One option is for the UN, or some other international organization
or set of organizations, to work at this time to facilitate
national and regional policies on these issues, rather than
to seek a global consensus. Some observers have suggested that
a "human genetics policy initiative" be established
to inventory existing national policies, prepare model policies
that represent a range of political orientations, and provide
technical and other assistance to all countries that want to
establish laws and regulations on these topics. Another option
is for a set of countries concerned about the current stalemate
to prepare model laws on human genetic technologies outside
the UN structure.
In either scenario, alternative types of model laws could be
drafted. One type might be appropriate for countries that want
to ban all forms of human cloning and genetic modification,
and another type for countries interested in exploring research
cloning, albeit under tight and responsible safeguards. Countries
could adopt the type of model law that best suits their respective
ethical and scientific background. Assuming that many provisions
of such laws would nonetheless be shared, on balance responsible
societal control over these technologies would be enhanced.
Another possibility is that regional intergovernmental bodies
in Latin America, Africa, Asia and elsewhere might facilitate
policy agreement in their regions, as the Council of Europe
did when it prepared the 1997 Convention on Biomedicine and
Any of these ad hoc policy initiatives would require significant
encouragement from civil society constituencies in order to
move forward successfully. The economic and cultural power of
the world biotech and bioscience community is formidable, and
the corporations and scientific organizations involved in biotechnology
are usually intolerant of laws that they believe could restrict
their professional autonomy or commercial prospects.
None of these efforts will be easy but the stakes are enormous.
Disagreements over the proper use of the new human genetic technologies
must be resolved in contexts of mutual respect, or risk becoming
new justifications for national, international, or even civilizational