A U.S. Policy for the U.N. Conference on Women

Report Global Politics

A U.S. Policy for the U.N. Conference on Women

February 25, 1985 16 min read Download Report

Authors: Charles Lichenstein and Greerson Lichenstein

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410 February 25, 1985 A U.S. POLICY FOR THE U.N. CONFERENCE ON WOMEN INTRODUCTION The United Nations Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the U.N. Decade for Women (1976-1985) convenes this July in Nairobi, Kenya.

An important preliminary meeting is se t for next month in Vienna,'Austria. Early indications are that the July Nairobi gathering is likely to emulate its two predecessors--Mexico City 1975, which launched the Decade, and the 1980 Mid-Decade Conference in Copenhagen--in all but iporing the gen u ine concerns of women and focusing instead on a typical U.N. agenda of political issues such as "the elimination of Zionism11 and providing assistance "to Palestinian women, in consultation and cooperation with the Palestine Liberation Organi zation, the r epresentative of the Palestinian people.11 Yet Washington still may be able to prod the Conference to focus on its legitimate agenda. The U.S., for example, should draw an unequivocal line against politicization and threaten to withdraw from the'proceedin g s should the legitimate agenda be ignored. Washington too should mobilize a broad-based coalition of like-minded countries in support of a serious, businesslike approach to real and urgent prisblems. The Reagan Administration has discovered, to its pleasa n t surprise, that other nations welcome U.S..leadership on U.N. matters. Since the U.S. withdrew from UNESCO at the end of last year, for instance, at least a half-dozen other major countries have said they too are consider ing withdrawal recent years on s u ch diverse issues as arms control and population as well as the problems of women political, with four main purposes: to highlight and publicize broad areas of concern that the U.N. member states perceive as worldwide in their reach; to bring together exp e rts in the relevant U.N.-sponsored international conferences have been held in They are supposed to be non2 field to exchange ideas, information, and experience; to amass a common, reliable data base; and to formulate a program of action issues are inject e d into the debate and the final resolutions of the 1985 Women's Conference, its stated purposes are almost surely not to be achieved. In such circumstances, the Conference becomes'in effect a mini-U.N. General Assembly--a forum for strident political rhet o ric with virtually no practical impact on the problems at hand. Worse, these quite genuine and urgent problems are held hostage to the agenda of venomous attack leveled by extremists (with strong sideline support by the Soviet Union against Israel, South A frica, the U.S., and the West generally Nairobi under the U.N. rubric and a cloak of concern for discrimi nation against women But if past experience is any guide, if divisive political and the free enterprise system. All this could take place in Two main questions must be raised as a consequence: Do such exercises have any value at all? And should the U.S. participate lending as it does legitimacy and credibility, along with its dollars?

In the aftermath of the 1975 and 1980 conferences on women the U.S. Congress enacted P.L. 98-164, sponsored by Senator Nancy Kassebaum (R-KA). This law directs that "the President shall use every available means to ensure that the 1985 conference commemo rating the conclusion of the U.N. Decade for Women is not dominated b y unrelated political issues which would jeopardize U.S. partici pation in and support for the conference further that "the President shall report to the Congress prior to the conference concerning U.S. preparations for and participation in the conference . M The law provides The President is expected to report in April 1985, after the U.N. General Assembly considers the report of the third Preparatory Committee (Prepcom) meeting held the preceding month.

Nancy Clark Reynolds, U.S. Representative to the U.N . Commis sion on the Status of Women, addressing the U.N. General Assembly Third Committee on November 2, 1984, stressed the U.S. concern about politicization. She said: "fundamental to our opposi tion is] the undue intrusion of extraneous political issue s which are dealt with in other U.N. bodies, into women's conferences or indeed into any other meetings called for specific purposes.g1 She echoed the warning implicit in an August 1980 Washington Post editorial that the outcome of the 1980 Mid-Decade Conf e rence should deepen misgivings about the value of these forums.I These misgivings remain. In its report to Congress, the Reagan Administration must sketch the actions that it is considering should the Nairobi.conference preparations repeat the dismaying e x perience of the 1975 and 1980 sessions 3 THE U.N. DECADE FOR WOMEN The stated goal of the U.N. Decade for Women is to examine ways to eliminate discrimination against women and promote their equality, .and to do so in an atmosphere free from the divisive political warfare that often characterizes the U.N. General Assembly. The Decade's World Conferences were to be forums for the exchange of ideas and experience that would help realize the Decade's objectives.

In December 1972, the U.N. General Assembly pro claimed 1975 as International WomenIs.Year and its main event the Mexico City World Conference to be held that summer. That Conference pro claimed the start of the U.N. Decade for Women and adopted by consensus a "World Plan of Action" for 1975 to 19

80. This Action Plan, supported by the U.S., called on governments and individuals to take specific steps to improve the status of women in education employment, public affairs, the family, and the media, and thus to advance the Decade's goals of equality, de velopment, and peace.

In addition, the Conference approved a "Draft Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,l which originated in the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women the preparatory body for the Decade's World Conf erences. The General Assembly adopted the Conference in 19

79. It since has been ratified by enough countries to make it legally binding, but not yet by the U.S. Senate.

The Mexico City delegates went on to adopt a IIDeclaration on the Equality of Women and Their Contribution to Development and Peace Here the U.S. drew the line and voted no. For the first time in the annals of the Women's Decade, women's issues were saddled with extraneous and unacceptable political statements.

Resolution 32 of the Decla ration of Mexico, for example, equated Zionism with racism It stated: IIInternational cooperation and peace require the achievement of national liberation and indepen dence the elimination of colonialism, and neo-colonialism foreign occupation, Zionism, a partheid, racial discrimination in all its forms as well as the recognition of the dignity of peoples and their rights to self determination What this had to do with discrimination against women was and remains unclear.

The Declaration also sinaled out IIP alestinian and Arab womenll for special attention, appeal Ifto proclaim their solidarity with give Ilmoral and material support in sic] ing to women around the worl Palestinian womenll and to their struggle against zioni THE 1980 COPENHAGEN CONFERENCE Fiv e years later, in July 1980, the Mid-Decade Conference met in Copenhagen, where 57 countries signed the Mexico City d sm 4 I Convention. In spite of the thrust of that document, with its anti-Western and anti-Israel tone, the U.S. decided to go al.ong.

After reviewing the record of women's Ilprogress" during the five preceding years, the Mid-Decade Conference overwhelmingly adopted a I'Programme for ActionI1 for the Decade's second half. Again politicization intervened. This time U.S. opposition to the action program was backed by Australia, Canada, and Israel.

At Copenhagen, the' large Palestine Liberation Organization PLO) delegation, along with a sizable group of non-accredited PLO sympathizers, successfully pressed for incorporation of explicit polit ical statements -into the only offlcial Conference document, the Programme for Action. In Mexico City, by contrast the political statements at least had been relegated to a supple mentary document which could be disowned.

The most troubling parts of the 1 980 action program were Reaffirmation of the Mexico City Declaration equating Zionism and rac1sm.l 0 Implicit endorsement of the 1979 Conference of the Non-Aligned and Developing Countries on the Role of Women in Development held in Baghdad, which explici t ly repudiated the Camp David Accords, the foundation of U.S. policy on resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.2 0 A call for the "elimination of Zionism in the same sentence as Itracisml1 and 'lapartheidll in effect demanding the destruction of a U.N. me m ber state, Israel.3 0 A request for all international organizations, governments and 'lother groupsI1 to provide assistance to Palestinian women in consultation and cooperation'l with the PLO, "the representative of the Palestinian people,Ir even though t h e delegates knew that the PLO is officially committed to the eradication of I~rael Implicit encouragement of revolution by force against a U.N member by urging the complete eradication of Apartheid in South Africa and Namibia through the assumption of pow e r by the people It also llcommendedll the efforts of the Marxist South We& African People's Organizaton (SWAPO African National Congress (ANC and Pan African Congress--all of which conduct or support terror ism. s Report of the World Conference of the Uni ted Nations Decade for Women Equality, Development and Peace. Copenhagen, 14 to 30 July 1980, p. 4.

Ibid -9 P. 6 Ibid pp. 5 and 49.

Ibid pp. 50, 151, and 162.

Ibid pp. 95 and 107-108. 5 0 Order (NIEO which calls for the wholesale transfer of tech nology and wealth from the developed nations of the West to.the Third World "as a matter of social justice.116 0 Condemnation of the human rights-records of Chile7 and El Salvador8 while specially praising that of Nicaraguag and recom mending financial assistanc e for the Sandinistas. It also com mended the efforts of the Polisario guerrillas fighting Moroccan administration in the Western Sahara.lo Endorsement of the so-called New- International Economic There was little relation of these controversial issues to t he presume'd focus of the U.N. Women's Decade. Injecting them into the agenda merely erected obstacles to the Decade's professed goals. Complained Sarah C. Weddington, a former aide to President Jimmy Carter and the co-chairman of the U.S. delegation in C o pen hagen: the reason we came here was denied us by a very few nations. The donference was called to focus on the needs of women. What we have seen here has been a deliberate attempt to subvert the real purpose of the conference and, unfortunately, it has succeeded.

In the official U.S. report on the conference, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Donald McHenry and Secretary of State Edmund Muskie concurred with Weddington's judgment, stating that llironically, it was the nations who believe themselves most commi tted to women's rights and equality of opportunity who were forced to vote no or abstain on political grounds. And it was those governments who are not known internationally for their stands in favor of human civil, or women's rights who 'politicized' the conference and voted overwhelmingly for the Program of Action Ill2 Politiciza tion, the report went on to note, is "more than discussing politi cal issues in a political context It is invidious, unconscion able, particularly in the case of the feminist mo v ement, when the structures of power that suppress women use and exploit the women's cause to assure that these structures do not change."l3 Declared the delegation of Iceland: "first in Mexico City and again in Copenhagen, a United Nations conference on w omen had been misused for political reasons."14 The Canadian delegation expressed strong disapproval of the mockery and farce which 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Ibid p. 111 Ibid p. 81.

Ibid p. 82.

Ibid p. 97.

Ibid p. 96 New York Times, August 1, 1980.

Report of the United States Delegation to the World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equity, Development and Peace. July 14-30, 1980, Copenhagen, Denmark, p 90 Ibid p. 111.

Report of the World Conference, op. cit p. 203 L 6 I, the conference ha d made of serious proposals to end women's inequality I General Assembly accepted the recommendation of the Copenhagen Conference to hold a World Conference to close the Decade. This will be the Nairobi Conference, scheduled for July 15-26 three years. Th ey will be completed when (and if) the General Assembly ratifies the results of the third and final Preparatory Committee Prepcom) meeting, to be held next month, when the rules of procedure and the Conference agenda will be decided.

There are mixed signals as to the character and quality of the Nairobi Conference A great deal will depend, of course, on the state of international politics in mid-19

85. For its part the U.S. delegation ought to be alert to a nd prepared for all contingencies. Moreover, it appears that the Kenyan government is ready to play an active role to try to keep the Conference nonpolitical Politicization notwithstanding, in December 1980, the U.N.

Preparations for Nairobi have been und er way for more than CONFERENCE SECRETARIAT AND AGENDA The Secretary-General of the Conference secretariat is Laticia Shahani of the Philippines, who so far has been competent and unbiased. On,the other hand, her deputy, Chafika Skllami Meslem of Algeria, is apparently a militant pro-Palestinian.

The secretariat is the key to any conference's productive output. Secretariat personnel determine the schedule, access to and review of documents, internal conference communications, and overall management and sup port. Just prior to the 1980 Mid-Decade Conference, for example, the U.N. press office held a two-day briefing, "Encounter for Journalists I' It focused principal ly on the alleged status of Palestinian women, women as refugees and similar contentious top i cs. According to the official U.S report, the briefers all tended to be pro-PLO, anti-Israel, and anti-U.S. When journalists questioned the overt bias of the presentations, "they were informed that the selection of speakers was determined by the Conferenc e secretariat's Another cause for concern is that the key post of parlia mentarian-for the Conference is to be held by an apparently radical Syrian who served in the same position at last summer's highly politicized World Population Conference in Mexico Ci ty.

The parliamentarian advises on critical procedural questions and thus can exert decisive influence, particularly if the presiding officer is not well versed in U.N. procedures. Complained the l5 Report of the U.S. Delegation, op. cit p. 105. 7 presiden t of the 1980 Mid-Decade Conference after that gathering concluded The last'plenary meeting of the Conference [wasJ an absurd theatre' where a simple majority could turn black into white and white into black.I1l6 The proposed agenda for the Nairobi Confer e nce also poses problems, although it appears less overtly political than the 1980 Mid-Decade Conference. While it contains no specific refer ences to Palestinian women or apartheid, two items could permit political debate. Item 7 is the Itcritical review a nd appraisal of progress achieved on the basis of appropriate documentation from the Mexico City and Copenhagen international conferences.II This in effect will force the conference to focus on the question able resolutions of its two predecessors. The se c ond troublesome item, Item 8 Forward-Looking Strategies advocates establishment of the New International Economic Order and is written broadly enough to allow discussion of just about any issue, thus offering carte blanche for the extremists To make matte r s worse, the General Assembly specified 'that under Item 7, Itparticular attention be paid to the problems of women in territories under racist rule .and foreign occupation.lll7 This is a green light for the PLO and SWAP0 to insist on discus sion of their views of South Africa, Namibia, the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Gaza Strip. In addition, TASS recently reported that the Soviet Union intends to press in Nairobi for a resolution equating Zionism and racism.

These agenda problems will make the parliamentarian's role all the more vital when deciding what issues and resolutions may be raised, and whether. any particular proposal is germane.

CONFERENCE DOCUMENTATION Documentation is another key to the character and quality of a U.N. conference. It forms the v'paperlI foundation for the proceedings: it focuses the debate and provides a common data base. Decisions about documentation reveal attitudes within the U.N. high command, because all documents must be reviewed by the Conference secretariat a nd approved by the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, acting as the preparatory body for the Conference l6 l7 Berlinske Tidende, August 5, 1980.

In September 1983 the General Assembly approved the official report A/CONF./114/41, September 16, 1983) of the Special Conference on Palestine which maintained, among other things, the "Review of the Situation of Palestinian Women in Israeli Occupied Territories, in view of.their Special conditions and urged the 1985 Nairobi Conference Prepcom to put this on t he agenda of the Conference." 8 In laying the groundwork for the 1980 Mid-Decade Conference for example, several documents turned out to be critically impor tant Two submitted by the Economic.Commission for Western Asia one of several regional organizatio n s operating with the'bless ings of the U.N. though not as formal U.N. entities) injected into the Conference documentation the. language equating Zionism and racism and according special l1representativelt status to the PL0.l8 Meanwhile, a document submit t ed by the office.of the Conference Secretary-General stressed the role of women in the ttliberationtt of South Africa and Namibia l9 Two basic documents requiring updating by the Secretariat contain potential timebombs: they address the situation of Pales t inian women and children in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and are based largely on publications whose objectivity and accuracy cannot be trusted.20 THE NGO FORUM IN NAIROBI Increasingly important roles are played within the U.N system by the h u ndreds of private groups known as Non-Governmental Organizations--or NGOs. In the aggregate, the NGOS' are dominated by their most extremist and anti-American members. These NGOs will be in Nairobi in sizable numbers. What can be expected of them was hint e d last summer at a Havana meeting of NGOs affiliated with the Economic Commission for Latin America, as a regional preparatory body for the Nairobi Conference. It enacted a formal resolution which stated: ItReagan's inauguration day ought to be declared a n international day of mourning An NGO gathering, called Forum 1985, is scheduled to donvene in Nairobi before the World Conference It poses another potential conflict for the Nairobi Conference. NGO forums typically have a more radical leftist bias than d o U.N. gatherings. They attract huge crowds; the NGO delegates engage in intensive lobbying'of the conference and its delegates; and often make headlines.

Unless the Kenyan authorities take appropriate steps--with strong support from the U.S., other Wester n states, and Third World ltmoderatestf--Forum 1985 promises to be true to NGO form. The Soviet bloc, for example, is preparing to focus on the World Conference's subtheme, ttpeace,tt and use it to push its unilateral disarmament campaign. Many Soviet fro nt organizations, such as the World Peace Council, have NGO status.

The ttConvenortt of Forum 1985, more'over, is Dame Nita Barrow of Barbados, who also chaired the Havana meeting that adopted the anti-.Reagan resolution. She is reported to be selecting th e l8 l9 A/CONF. 94/5-7 2o E/CN.6/1984/102 E/CN. 6/1984/10 A/CONF./94/4 and A/CONF.21 and Corr.1. 9 NGOs to attend the preparatory meetings leading to Nairobi, with careful attention to their ideological credentials. Because such selectivity violates U.N. r ules of procedure, the U.S. and other Western states must take steps to ensure a balanced selection of NGOs SERVING U.S. INTERESTS The predominant U.S. interest in the U.N. Decade for Women is to advance the role and status of women in societies around th e world. The U.S. has no hidden agendas for Nairobi. And the record regarding the role of women in the U.S though imperfect is exemplary.

Genuine U.S. commitment to improve the status of women should impel Washington to withhold support and legitimacy from U.N. activities that make genuine social concerns hostage to such political agendas as the destruction of Isxael or attacks on the West and the free enterprise system. Consistent with Ronald Reagan's warnings and the Kassebaum amendment, the U.S. should exert its' influence to shape an effective, businesslike conference that sticks strictly to an agenda dealing with women's issues.

The only other option is withdrawal if Nairobi begins turning into a carbon copy of Mexico City in 1975 and Copenhagen in 1980.

This will not be easy; time is short. As with any U.N conference, the ranks of committed democratic delegations will be thin; support from Third World moderates thus will be essential.

What is encouraging is that the host Kenyans appear to be dedicate d to a productive outcome of the conference. Washington strongly should back Kenya's efforts to achieve this Within the U.S. delegation, much preliminary work needs to be done. Solid position papers and draft statements, for example must be prepared and n egotiation of coalitions with sympathetic delegations from other countries must begin at once.

CONCLUSION While the Reagan Administration must begin devising its strategy for July's conference in Nairobi, it also must be ready to take strong stands at next month's Prepcom meeting in Vienna.

There the U.S. should push for 0 Adoption of a consensus r ule. This would give the U.S. (or any other delegation) veto power over politically motivated resolutions or sections of resolutions. Such a rule worked rather well at the U.N.'s Second Special Session on Disarmament in 1982 c 0 Secret balloting on proced u ral issues. U.N. experience suggests that a secret ballot often derails last-minute radical I 10 efforts to skew the agenda. This procedure worked well at the Universal Postal Union Conference in Hamburg, June 1984, wha an Arab motion to expel Israel was defeated handily 0 Clearing basic documentation with the secretariat. This would interpose the Conference secretariat between the regional preparatory meetings and the third Prepcom and Nairobi Conference.

It could help screen out the most divisive resolut ions by provid ing reasonably balanced and professional backup documentation 17 Clearing draft resolutions through a balanced special commit tee well in advance of the Nairobi Conference. This could help avoid last minute surprises. It works reasonably we ll at Inter national Labor Organization meetings and at the U.N. General Assembly itself, where the General Committee (with sizable Western representation) must clear all except I'emergencyI' draft resolu tions.

In addition, Ronald Reagan should state clearly that the U.S. will not participate in Nairobi if the Conference becomes unacceptably politicized.

U.S. preparation for the Conference, moreover, should not be construed as a commitment to participate. The relevant bureaus of the State Department shoul d complete organizing a Conference I'secretariatt' of their own comprising a team of experts in pro cedure and substance to serve as preparatory and support staff for the U.S. delegation.

Th'e delegation itself should include meinbers well versed in U.N. processes and multilateral diplomacy. The delegates should be briefed extensively in Conference procedure and in those issues that will be paramount in Nairobi.

Washington now should begin consulting with those foreign delegations likely to share U.S. con cerns at Nairobi to agree on Conference tactics. Priority should be given to drafting basic coalition position papers on key issues to avoid divisive actions at Nairobi.

Washington should oppose permitting the NGO Forum 1985 to overlap with the Nairobi co nference. This would limit the impact on the C0nferenc.e of the NGO Forum's predictable extremism, while not impeding the Forum's main functions of collecting and dissemi- nating informa-tion.

The U.S. should support Kenya's apparent determination to keep the Conference non-political. There should be, for example tight controls on entry visas into Kenya to exclude the most radical of prosepctive delegates and observers (such as those from the PLO and hotel space allocation should be used to keep potential l y troublesome delegations a,s small as possible. The U.S. should help prepare those Kenyans who will be serving in top Conference posts. 11 There are other steps the U.S. can take to influence the outcome of the 1985 Nairobi Conference. It could 1) offer

There should be no U.S. hesitation about using its financial leverage, nor any apologies about monitoring the use of funds provided by U.S taxpayers to assure an effective, productive outcome .for the Conference. Involved directly are matt ers affect ing the U.S. national interest and America's genuine desire to advance and improve the role and status of'women worldwide.

Greerson G. McMullen Policy Consultant Charles M. Lichenstein Senior Fellow


Charles Lichenstein

Greerson Lichenstein