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U.N. Pact Sinks on Issue of Violence Against Women

April 29, 2003

By Emily Freeburg, Women's Enews

Violence against women—and what steps nations should take to reduce it—became the issue that led to a first-ever diplomatic failure at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

Meeting two floors below the Security Council in early March that was also hamstrung over the issues of conflict in Iraq, the women's commission failed to adopt official language detailing measures to reduce rape and trafficking, promote reproductive health and end impunity for war crimes against women, as well as many other ways to eliminate gender-based violence.

The commission had spent two weeks writing what's called "Agreed Conclusions" on two themes: women's participation in and access to the media and the elimination of all forms of violence against women. The conclusions are typically used as models for governments to create policy and as advocacy tools by non-governmental organizations. The document on ending violence against women and girls would have been used by advocates to strengthen legislation to end domestic violence and sexual exploitation and trafficking of women. It would also have been used to educate governments on how to promote and protect women's human rights.

Consensus on the conclusions came to an end when Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan and the U.S. raised objections. The Iranian delegation objected to a specific paragraph that said governments must not use religion or custom as an excuse for violence against women. But the failure to pass this text was about more than cultural differences.

The idea that religion and custom are not excuses for violence against women is not new language in U.N. documents. The subject was already agreed upon in various U.N. meetings, conferences and documents, including the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action from the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Special Session of the General Assembly in June of 2000, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women. Many governments and non-government organizations participating in the commission agree that to re-negotiate already agreed upon text is to take steps backward.

Also, some governments emphasized that consensus could have been reached if all delegates had demonstrated fairness and respect in their negotiations.

"It's remarkable to see that after decades of work by feminist activists and 12 years of U.N. conferences to see the ways that women's human rights are still seen as negotiable," said Charlotte Bunch, executive director of Rutger's Center for Women's Global Leadership.

Breakdown of Security Council Talks Influences Commission

Bunch also says the impact of the fact that the commission met during the same time as the breakdown of the Security Council over Iraq cannot be underestimated. The governments that were responsible for ensuring consensus was reached were preoccupied and angry about their loss of power at the Security Council.

"The Commission on the Status of Women is one of the weakest U.N. bodies in terms of power and, when it confronted problems, the heads of governments were upstairs" at Security Council meetings, Bunch said. The new people at commission, she added, did not "have the authority to come out with new solutions and there was no attention to working out compromises."

Like many conflicts at the United Nations, the controversy over the religion and custom clause played out in disputes over procedure.

As the appointed hour for adjournment neared, Iran raised the objections. Fernando Coimbra, chair of the meeting and first secretary of the Brazilian Mission, moved to accept the conclusions on violence regardless. The delegations of Pakistan, Sudan, Egypt and the U.S. raised their placards in objection. Ignoring them, Coimbra declared the conclusions adopted. This caused another round of placard waving and gavel banging. Eventually, the meeting was adjourned because it was 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night and the translators had left.

Some advocates present speculate that, if the government delegations themselves had had more experience and authority, they could have asked the translators to stay another two hours and continued to reach consensus. Regardless, when the commission resumed 10 days later for its closing meeting, governments had time to renegotiate if they so chose. Yet, the violence statement still did not pass.

"The disappointment is particularly sharp because we were very close. Essentially an agreement could not be reached by the deadline. There was little willingness by delegations to continue negotiating past that time," said Carl Fox, social affairs advisor to the U.S. mission.

Governments did reach consensus on the theme of women and media, which asked governments to increasingly involve women in the information and communication technology world and allocate resources to ensure that women and girls, especially in developing countries, have access to new information technologies. The conclusions also require that the recommendations from the commission regarding women and media be incorporated in December's World Summit on Information Society in Geneva.

"The important thing is that advocates at the national level know that the Commission on the Status of Women exists," said Muthoni Wanyeki, from Kenya's African Women's Development and Communication Network. "It's one thing when the women's groups are asking their government to do this and the other. It helps immensely when you can say you as a government committed to this internationally. It embarrasses them, and it often speeds up the process of work on policy, but it is a very tedious process."

Many non-governmental organizations, however, also viewed the proceedings on media with disappointment. They say media discussions did not touch upon hot issues such as intellectual property rights, media ownership, open source technology or network security. The policy on these issues will likely be decided in final negotiations at the upcoming Geneva information summit, a meeting that will be dominated by business interests.

Emily Freeburg is a freelance journalist in New York. Women's Enews is a news service based in New York City.

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