The Commission on the Status of Women, the intergovernmental body at the United Nations responsible for promoting women's rights in all societies around the world, met from February 28 th to March 11 th to review the Beijing Platform for Action and examine current challenges and strategies for the advancement and empowerment of women and girls.
The Beijing Platform for Action (commonly referred to as Beijing ) is an agreement to promote gender equality, including reproductive health and rights, signed by 189 governments at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing , China in 1994. At this meeting, official government delegations were expected to report on the implementation of Beijing in their countries and to agree to adopt resolutions to reaffirm Beijing and further advance women's rights and health.
Unfortunately, the official delegation from the United States , clearly illustrated the Bush Administration's opposition to the principles of Beijing in its report and actively worked to weaken the outcome documents.
United States ' Report to the Commission on the Status of Women
The United States ' report to the Commission intended to show how the Bush Administration has advanced the tenants of Beijing but instead illustrated the Administration's on-going efforts to undermine women's sexual and reproductive health and rights both domestically and internationally. The United States Representative to the Commission on the Status of Women, Ambassador Ellen Saubrey, said in her official remarks, reflecting the report, "the United States is committed to working in partnership with other nations to enlarge the freedom and empowerment of women," and specifically emphasized "my country's commitment to women's reproductive health."1 Despite such rhetoric, the U.S. report to the Commission signaled an opposition to progress on implementing Beijing .
Specifically, the report, as well as Saubrey in her remarks, highlighted the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). In describing PEPFAR, Saubrey said, "women are the primary beneficiaries" and specifically mentioned increasing accesses to information for prevention. 2 Health advocates, however, have criticized PEPFAR since its inception for failing to support programs, particularly prevention programs, that adequately address the circumstances of women and girls. In the report, the Administration also expressed its "commitment to ensuring the health of women before, during, and after pregnancy," 3 but advocates note the conspicuous omission of support for family planning programs. Furthermore, in the name of promoting gender equality, the report reviews the Bush Administration's dedication to limiting access to legal abortion, citing the Unborn Victims of Violence Act 2004 and the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. The report states: "President Bush believes in promoting a culture in which every child is welcomed in life and protected by law. There are compassionate alternatives to abortion, such as maternity group homes and encouraging adoption. In addition, the Bush Administration is working to prevent unintended pregnancies by promoting abstinence education." 4
United States Delegation Proposes Anti-Choice Amendments
The initial goal of this meeting was to create a simple consensus declaration reaffirming Beijing . An early draft of such a declaration was expected to have near-unanimous support. The United States delegation, however, proposed an amendment to the draft declaration reaffirming the Beijing documents but stipulating "that they do not create any new international human rights, and that they do not include the right to abortion."
Although U.S.-based right-wing groups bombarded the 130 official country delegations with thousands of emails and countless flyers to support the amendment, 5 the U.S. did not gain the support of the international community. For example, over 170 non-governmental organizations, including SIECUS, representing every region of the world submitted a statement urging government delegations "to oppose unequivocally" the U.S. amendment. 6 They said, "the purpose of this Session of the CSW-the UN body charged specifically with advocating the status of women-is to reaffirm the Beijing Platform for Action, not move backward or undermine it." 7 Only the governments of Qatar and Egypt initially backed the U.S. proposal, but both withdrew their support. Other delegations spoke out against the U.S. tactics, including New Zealand 's representative, whose remarks were also offered on behalf of Canada and Australia . She said the Commission had spent "too much time debating shades of meaning when the international community needed to focus its energy on tackling real challenges." 8
Nonetheless, the U.S. delegation has interpreted this international refusal to adopt its stance as tacit agreement with their amendment. Saubrey said, "the United States is pleased that countries agree with us that the Platform for Action does not create any new rights. Our interpretation is their interpretation." 9 She said that the Beijing documents should not be seen as creating any new human rights, and that she understands there to be international consensus on that point, "which was useful to clarifying the intent and purpose of Beijing ." 10 She declared that there is international consensus that the terms "reproductive health services" and "reproductive rights" do no include abortion or constitute support, endorsement, or promotion of abortion or the use of abortifacients. 11 She said that Beijing reflects the U.S. approach to HIV/AIDS prevention, focusing on abstinence. 12 Finally, she emphasized parental rights, especially in terms of the sexual and reproductive health and education of young people. 13 The U.S. joined the consensus only with all the stipulations recorded in her statement. 14
Despite the wide-range of U.S.-instigated delays, however, the Commission successfully adopted 10 resolutions addressing: women, the girl child, and HIV/AIDS; the International research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW); the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan; the situation of and assistance to Palestinian women; gender mainstreaming in national policies and programs; integrating a gender perspective in post-disaster relief, particularly in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster; indigenous women; and women's economic advancement. 15
To read the Beijing Platform for Action:
To read the full report of the United States of America :
1 United States Mission to the United Nations, "Statement by the United States Representative to the commission on the Status of Women Ambassador Ellen Saubrey, at the 49 th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, March 2, 2005," Press Release 2 March 2005, accessed 14 March 2005, < http://www.un.int/usa/05print_032.htm >.
3 U.S. Submission of Information Relating to the Questionnaire to Governments on the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and the Outcome of the Twenty-Third Special Session of the General Assembly . p18, accessed 4 April 2005 , < http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/Review/responses/USA-English.pdf >.
4 Ibid., 9.
5 Joanne Omang, "U.S. Withdraws Destructive Amendment to UN Declaration Reaffirming UN Platform for Action for Women," Ms. , 4 March 2005 , accessed on 14 March 2005 , < http://www.msmagazine.com/radar/2005-03-04-unplatform.asp >.
6 NGO Statement on the U.S. proposed Amendment to the Draft Declaration of the 49 th Session of the CSW, March 2005.
8 "UN women's rights text adopted after US withdraws proposed amendment on abortion," UN News Centre, 5 March 2005 , accessed on 14 March 1005 , < http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=13551&
10 "Commission on the Status of Women Adopts 10 Wide-Ranging Resolutions, but Fails to Conclude Current Session," United Nations Information Service , 11 March 2005, accessed on 13 March 2005, < http://www.unis.unvienna.org/unis/pressrels/2005/wom1504.html?print >.