updated 3/12/2005 9:05:04 AM ET 2005-03-12T14:05:04

A two-week meeting to fight for women’s equality ended as it began, with the United States at odds with much of the rest of the world on issues of reproductive health and abortion.

The gathering was meant to reaffirm the platform for action adopted at the 1995 U.N. women’s conference in Beijing to achieve equality for women. But it was instead dominated by American efforts to make clear the Beijing platform did not create any new human rights, including a global right to abortion.

Events ended on an odd note. As the final session of the Commission on the Status of Women wound down late Friday, the United States backed away from its own resolution on the economic advancement of women after Cuba and South Africa pushed through amendments it didn’t like.

In particular, South Africa had proposed saying that “the neglect of women’s reproductive rights severely limits their opportunities in public and private life.” That language was lifted directly from the Beijing declaration.

The United States had originally intended that the document focus on entrepreneurship and was dismayed that the resolution was getting away from its original intent, U.S. Ambassador Ellen Sauerbrey said.

“There are some good things in there so I think we have to take heart that we did get some of our entrepreneurship language ... but it really is kind of the kitchen sink right now,” Sauerbrey said. “It’s the enabling environment that we started with and so much additional that it really lost any focus.”

Cuba added an amendment on the downside of globalization.

There was also a minor embarrassment for the Americans. Sauerbrey tried to withdraw the document from consideration entirely because of the changes but did not realize the rules prohibited her from doing so because amendments had been made.

Even so, the document eventually passed by consensus, with Sauerbrey saying the Americans joined in.

Nine other resolutions were passed Friday without such fireworks, including documents calling for more action to eliminate sex trafficking and help women reverse the AIDS pandemic.

The text on trafficking demands governments take measures to eliminate the demand for trafficked women and girls “for all forms of exploitation.”

It also asks nations to raise awareness of the consequences of sex trafficking, including its links to commercial sexual exploitation. That was a victory for the United States, which had wanted to make the link to prostitution in the text.

While only 45 nations voted on the resolutions, 165 countries sent 1,800 delegates including many ministers to the two-week meeting. Some 2,600 representatives of human rights, women’s and other advocacy groups also attended.

U.S. defeated on mention of reproductive rights
The inclusion of the South African text in the document on economic empowerment was a defeat for the United States because it had not wanted to mention the Beijing language about reproductive rights.

In fact, during the first week, the United States had tried to amend a document reaffirming the Beijing platform to say explicitly that it did not create new rights, including the right to abortion.

In the face of stiff opposition, Sauerbrey had withdrawn that amendment after delegations assured Washington the Beijing platform created no such thing.

Kyung-wha Kang, head of the Commission on the Status of Women, which organized the meeting, highlighted the “powerful” declaration adopted at the end of the first week. She called it “an unqualified and unconditional reaffirmation” of the 150-page Beijing platform and an accompanying declaration.

Sauerbrey said though that she was pleased overall with the meeting.

“Beijing is a policy document that does not create new international human rights and does not create some new right to abortion,” she said. “The fact that we got in this body, in this arena, an international consensus, I think, that our position is an accurate reflection of Beijing, we feel very good about.”

An AIDS resolution passed Friday emphasizes that “the advancement of women and girls is key to reversing the pandemic” and urged governments “to take all necessary measures to empower women and strengthen their economic independence ... to enable them to protect themselves from HIV infection.”

Some women’s advocacy groups praised the outcome of the conference and the delegates’ “united stance” against the efforts the Bush administration, which they said were “intended to play to domestic political audiences.”

“What we proved here is that the United States can’t bully the world when it comes to women’s human rights,” said June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization. “We must be vigilant about any future attempts to roll back women’s rights at home and abroad.”


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