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Women Claim a Victory at U.N. Summit

Development: Delegates manage to get the finalized document reopened to add words on rights and reproductive health.

September 04, 2002|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The issue of women's rights and reproductive health caused delegates at a U.N. development summit here to stumble briefly Tuesday in their mad dash to wrap up a global plan to reduce poverty and simultaneously protect the planet.

Final negotiations on the plan were completed Monday. However, delegates from Canada and Europe succeeded early today to reopen the document and add a few words that they said were needed to guarantee women's rights to contraception, safe abortion and other reproductive services.

"We won. We won," said June Zeitlin, executive director of the nonprofit Women's Environment and Development Organization. "Never underestimate the women of the world."

Zeitlin and U.N. officials said language added to the health-care paragraph of the plan matches wording used in other international declarations on the topic. Their efforts had been opposed by a coalition that includes the United States, the Vatican and conservative Islamic countries.

After hours of intense negotiations, Zeitlin said, delegates "added the language that we've been asking for and put it in a slightly different place in the paragraph," she said. "It's a distinction without a difference, but it saved face."

The 10-day World Summit on Sustainable Development is scheduled to end today. The more than 100 assembled heads of state or government are first expected to adopt the plan, which is designed to bring clean water, sanitation and energy to the poor while protecting the environment and preventing further extinction of species.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell--standing in for President Bush, who opted not to attend--arrived at the conference late Tuesday and will address the gathering today. His speech will follow two days of on-again, off-again Bush bashing at the summit, mostly over the issue of global warming.

Other world leaders continued to express their disappointment that the U.S. abandoned the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty designed to control "greenhouse" gas emissions, which are being blamed for rapid climate changes.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov on Tuesday used the world stage here to announce that his nation would soon ratify the protocol, following by one day an announcement by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who said he would submit the treaty to his Parliament this year for approval.

If these two nations join Japan and the European Union, their collective support surpasses the threshold needed for the accord to take effect without the blessing of the United States, which opposes some of the protocol's restrictions.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said that she was pleased to see other nations step forward to support the protocol but that the Bush administration still intends to pursue, on its own, ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel.

"We've never acted as obstructionists for other countries," she said.

The issue of women's reproductive rights triggered protests both inside and outside the convention center. "Women's rights are human rights," Nkosazana Zuma, South Africa's foreign minister, said Tuesday. "Health is a human right."

Advocates for women complained that the plan, at more than 70 pages, retreated from standard language that has been carefully crafted in other United Nations declarations to balance the interests of religious conservatives with the rights of women to control their health care and future.

Usually such texts explain that health services provided should be consistent with "cultural and religious values," which pleases conservatives, but also conform with "human rights and fundamental freedoms," which satisfies women's groups.

Zonibel Woods of Action Canada for Population and Development said the document, as drafted in committees and agreed upon Monday, lacked the second half of the language.

Without such an expression of human rights, some countries could hide behind their laws and local customs to justify everything from genital excision to denying women health care, she and U.N. officials said.

Under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, she said, "women couldn't go to the hospital, because women were not allowed to be doctors and women patients were not allowed to be examined by male doctors. President Bush, in responding to the anti-choice, pro-life lobby, is promoting behavior that the Taliban would have found completely acceptable."

The Bush administration had said it opposed changing the language of the plan for procedural reasons and because debate over the issue would have distracted delegates from the other major issues they faced.

The U.N. Population Fund, which recently had $34 million in funding blocked by the Bush administration, notes that 70,000 women die every year from unsafe abortions, and 585,000 perish during pregnancy and childbirth due to inadequate health care.

"Rights to reproductive health care is a matter of life and death for women throughout the world," said William A. Ryan of the U.N. agency.

Delegates also continued to negotiate early today over the language of a political declaration that will be released at the end of the summit.

With that process bogged down in the slow and often messy democratic process, former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and several other Nobel Peace Prize winners issued their own "Johannesburg declaration." The statement urged the world leaders to take swift action to help the poor and protect the environment.

Gorbachev, who is president of the environmental group Green Cross International, urged that the meeting of so many leaders not be squandered. "If we fail to act decisively and strongly, we will be judged harshly by future generations," he said. "We should win the battle for the planet."

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