Eroding equality

The Bush administration declines to ratify an international treaty on women, saying the U.N. must first renounce abortion rights.


Suzanne Goldenberg
March 1, 2005 8:00PM (UTC)

The Bush administration was accused Monday of trying to roll back efforts to improve the status of the world's women by demanding that the United Nations publicly renounce abortion rights. America's demand overshadowed the opening Monday of a conference intended to mark the 10th anniversary of the Beijing Commission on the Status of Women, an event seen as a landmark in efforts to promote global cooperation on women's equality.

The U.S. stand was also widely seen as further evidence of the sweeping policy change in Washington under the Bush presidency. The last four years have seen a steady erosion of government support for international population projects as a result of the administration's opposition to abortion.

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The U.N.'s Commission on the Status of Women had drafted a brief declaration reaffirming support for the Beijing declaration and calling for further effort to implement its recommendations. Organizers had hoped that informal discussions last week would reach a consensus on the draft, leaving the next fortnight clear for government officials and women's activists to hold more substantive talks on advancing economic equality and political participation, and fighting violence against women. But those hopes were crushed in a closed-door session late last week when Washington demanded that the declaration reaffirm its support for the declarations made in Beijing 10 years ago only if "they do not include the right to abortion," says a copy of the U.S. text obtained by the Guardian.

"We were not able to conclude informal consultations as we had originally hoped and planned for," said Beatrice Maille, the vice chair of the U.N. commission.

The chief of the U.S. delegation, Sichan Siv, went on to tell his counterparts that Washington opposed the ratification of the international treaty on women's equality, as well as resolutions that would "place emphasis on 'rights' that not all member states accept, such as so-called 'sexual rights.'" Siv also told diplomats that Washington opposed any move to seek funds from industrialized countries to implement the reforms called for under the Beijing declaration.

The stand left America almost entirely isolated at the pre-conference sessions. According to officials who were at the meetings, only the Vatican observer supported Washington's hard line. There was harsh criticism of the Bush administration Monday from diplomats and women's activists.

"This sort of statement is a clear signal to everybody present that the U.S. does not support the Beijing agreement perspective on the human rights of women," said Adrienne German, president of the International Women's Health Coalition. "It clearly demonstrates that this government has taken a 180-degree reversal from the U.S. government in 1995 and 2000."

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Private talks were underway Monday to persuade Washington to reverse its stand. Although there are expectations that the United States will eventually relent, several officials accused the U.S. of igniting the controversy -- and sabotaging the conference -- to try to score points with Bush supporters on the Christian right.

The Clinton administration was a strong supporter of the Beijing declaration in 1995, and until President Bush took power in 2001, Washington was viewed as a leader in international family-planning efforts. The U.S. government began providing aid to developing countries in 1965, and its organizations were seen as leaders in population control. But President Bush has steadily reversed Washington's support for such initiatives, blocking U.S. funds to the U.N. Population Fund and diverting cash toward programs promoting abstinence.

A spokesman for the U.S. delegation described the controversy over Washington's stand on abortion as "motivated." "We just wanted to make clear what the assumptions were about the Beijing document," said Rick Grenell, the U.S. spokesman. "We don't believe that it recognizes abortion as an international human right."


Suzanne Goldenberg

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