My VIP for this week is Richard Wilkins, a man who was unknown to me until recently. Wilkins is a constitutional lawyer and a law professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In September 1995, Wilkins was the bishop of his ward, and he attended a satellite broadcast of Women’s Conference with his wife, Melany. At the end of the session, President Gordon B Hinckley went to the stand and presented “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” On the way home, his wife mentioned the Proclamation, and he replied, “It’s nice.”
In late winter 1996, Susan Roylance called Wilkins at his office. She was a good friend and president of United Families International. She often consulted with him “in defense of causes that promoted the family” (A Sacred Duty – The true account of a BYU law professor’s journey to defend the world’s families, 1999, p. 8).
Roylance had previously asked Wilkins to look into a matter from the Beijing Women’s Conference held in New York in 1995. He promised to do so and to write a couple of pages for her book about his findings. He was quite surprised about what he found in his limited research and he wrote the following for her book: “Ill-conceived or otherwise unsound international declarations pose dangers, not because they directly displace existing American law, but because they inevitably shape that law.”
When Roylance called Wilkins in 1996, the book had been published, and she had another request for him. She asked him to attend a Habitat II Conference in Istanbul in early June 1996. It was to be a United Nations conference that would “establish an agenda: a sort of statement of intent to influence world communities” (A Sacred Duty, 1999, p. 10). She wanted him to go and “do something,” but she could not tell him what she wanted him to do.
Roylance and Wilkins, along with other members of United Families International, attended the conference in Istanbul. BYU’s David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies sponsored him. Through fate or divine workmanship, Wilkins was asked to present one of the main talks at the conference. The title of his presentation was “The Impact of UN Conference Declarations on International and Domestic Law.” He concluded his presentation with the following paragraphs:
… Each conference builds upon language used and objectives sought in preceding conferences and, as a result, forms an important link in a chain that inevitably encircles the international community…. Perhaps most important, however, conference documents – although not formally binding upon participating states – over time develop the force of customary international law and serve as important resources in the interpretation (and sometimes development) of the domestic policy of participating nations.
This final point suggests that all participating nations should take very seriously indeed the language they incorporate into a UN declaration…. That same language … may well become binding tomorrow.
Wilkins’ message was well received, and he was thronged by people requesting copies of his speech. There were people who were surprised at the impact of the work done at the UN conferences, and others who did not believe that the conferences had much impact.
Later, Wilkins was selected to speak at another session of the conference before work began on polishing the statements that would be adopted. By that time, he was well aware that there were two opposite forces at the conference. One force was fighting for preservation of the traditional family, and the second force was trying to make the traditional family obsolete.
In his final remarks at the conference, Wilkins used the principles taught in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” – not the words – to defend the traditional family against a vigorous attack. In the final voting, the Catholic group and the Muslim group held strong and voted for language that would preserve the family. However, it was Wilkins’ words that galvanized the pro-family groups and made their strong defense possible. Together, they saved the world’s families.