Wed, Mar 02, 2005 - Page 7 News List

UN women's rights conference off to a controversial start


A two-week meeting to review implementation of the landmark UN platform on women's equality began in controversy after the US accused advocacy groups of trying to hijack the term "reproductive health services" and define it in a way that guarantees the right to abortion.

Human rights and women's development organizations have sounded an alarm that US President George W. Bush's administration is rolling back on US support for the platform adopted by 189 nations at the 1995 UN women's conference in Beijing.

But Ambassador Ellen Sauerbrey, head of the US delegation to the meeting that started Monday, said the US is not seeking "in any way" to reopen negotiations on the 150-page document.

What Washington wants, she said, is an amendment to the meeting's proposed final declaration stating that the Beijing platform does not create any new human rights, including "the right to abortion."

"Our amendment addresses the issue of what we believe to be the internationally agreed definition of reproductive health services, which is used in Beijing. Countries around the world, when this issue comes up, have said that `we do not consider that reproductive services means abortion,'" Sauerbrey said.

What the US is concerned about, she said, is that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) "are attempting to assert that Beijing in some way creates, or contributes to the creation of an internationally recognized fundamental right to abortion."

Even though many countries made clear in 1995 that reproductive health services did not include abortion, Sauerbrey said, "it keeps coming up, largely driven by NGOs that are really, I believe, trying to hijack the term and trying to make it into a definition that was never meant by the countries at the time Beijing was adopted."

The UN Commission on the Status of Women, which organized the high-level meeting, purposely drafted a short declaration urging a redoubling of international efforts to implement the Beijing platform in hopes of avoiding the controversy over abortion and other reproductive and sexual issues that dominated the 1995 conference.

But the proposed US amendment has come to the forefront in behind-the-scenes discussions at the start of the review meeting, a disappointment to organizers who had hoped the event would focus on the roadblocks to women's equality in 12 critical areas from health, education and employment to political participation, inheritance and human rights.

Sauerbrey refused to identify the NGOs that the US felt were promoting an international right to abortion.

Kang Kyung-wha, who chairs the commission and presided at Monday's meeting, said the Beijing platform is a policy document with recommendations that all nations agreed to, not a legally binding treaty in which human rights are enshrined.

"In that sense, I personally, as chair, do not think it should be seen as creating any new human rights," she said.

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