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Beijing UN Conference on Women - How Holy See took on the feminist agenda

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 Contents - Dec 1995AD2000 December 1995 - Buy a copy now
Beijing UN Conference on Women - How Holy See took on the feminist agenda - Rita Joseph

A coalition of Western nations - particularly English-speaking ones - sought to impose its radical feminist agenda on the discussions, decisions and concluding documents of the recent United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. That this goal was not fully realised was due in large measure to the highly effective role played by the Holy See's delegation headed by Harvard University law professor, Mary Ann Glendon.

This analysis of the Holy See's impact at Beijing is provided by Rita Joseph, a Canberra-based writer, who attended the Conference as an Australian Family Association representative.

The Holy See's delegation to the recent United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women did a superb job, not only in holding the line itself, but also in encouraging a crucial number of other countries to do likewise (some 43 countries made formal reservations). The Holy See also made an invaluable contribution in 'outing' the hidden agenda and potential moral dilemmas behind many disputed texts.

Whenever the Holy See spoke, it carried weight, its arguments crossing all cultures and its moral discourse genuinely transnational, as is only to be expected from a delegation representing a pan-global constituency, far older than most of the present UN member nation states.

Many times a better compromise wording was achieved because the Holy See, articulating initially a politically unwinnable position directly opposing the European Union position (almost invariably radically feminist), would hold on tenaciously while more moderate countries would thrash out a winnable alternative. Then with the precision timing of Ju-jitsu-style expertise, the Holy See would give way suddenly (with a gracious little speech about not holding up consensus and making her reservations later), leaving the European Union in the unenviable role of consensus- spoiler.

Patiently, and with the quiet assurance of true authority, the Holy See sifted the good texts from the bad, always commending the good generously and giving incisive analysis of the bad. It held on tenaciously to principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and insisted that the protection given in it to mothers and the family, to parental rights and responsibilities and to religious freedom be retained.

On more mundane issues, too, the Holy See did the women of the world a signal service by drawing attention again and again back from the realms of radical feminist social engineering to the real needs of women, especially poor women. Expressing solidarity with the poor, the Holy See weighed in on the side of the developing countries when they made their bids for more development to be written into the Beijing Platform for Action. The Holy See supported them in their call for new and additional funds to be made available for basic education and health programs for women. And when the developing countries expressed their fears concerning data-collection according to race and ethnicity, the Holy See helped them, against the formidable objections of the European Union, US, Canada, Australia et al to get new, more acceptable wording.

While trying always to refocus on the need for basic education and basic health especially for girls, the Holy See had to fight the preoccupation of an EU led coalition (that included Australia) with giving girls "sexual rights" education and removing parental barriers to "sexual health" programs, which presaged anything but healthy outcomes. While this coalition was keen to proscribe early marriage for girls, it was adamant that there was to be no proscription of early sexual activity for girls, the only concern being to ensure that such activity was not "unprotected." Nevertheless, a reference to the consequences of "premature" sexual relations was added, and the term "safe sex" was changed to "safe and responsible sex practices."

Word traps

The whole Beijing document was mined with nasty little word traps designed to introduce specious new rights such as abortion rights and sexual orientation rights via back doors. Calmly the Holy See negotiated its way through the traps, alerting others also, particularly those who were relying on often ineptly literal translations of devious English distinctions with specific feminist connotations.

It was the Holy See that pointed out the vital difference between using references to the ICPD (Cairo) Report and to the ICPD Program to govern new initiatives on women's reproductive health. The Report contained all the reservations on abortion, etc, that had been made at Cairo by individual countries on cultural, religious and ethical grounds, while the Program did not.

There were, of course, significant losses. Although, after a hard-fought battle, the original wording on family and on freedom of religion in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was retained in Beijing, it was subsequently spoiled by the addition of qualifying references to the politically correct term "families" (which can refer to any group of unrelated people) and by a warning that any form of religious extremism "may have a negative impact on women and can lead to violence and discrimination."

One small win was the refusal of the developing countries to go along with the Canadian preference for the term "girls in all their diversity" in the chapter on the girl child. The French term "sans exception," i.e., without exception, was used instead. (The term "in all its diversity" is part of the feminist code that was used in the Year of the Family to introduce the notion of homosexual and lesbian "families in all their diverse forms.")

The extension of sexual rights to adolescent girls and the "freedom" to assert their "sexual orientation" was one of the hardest areas to fight. It was only by dint of the Holy See's extreme hard work, clear explanation and patient reiteration of the problems and implications of investing girls with reproductive rights that some outrageous alternative wording proposed by the European Union was defeated. In its place in the Beijing Declaration was a paragraph based on the Holy See's proposal to "Ensure the full enjoyment by women and the girl child of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, and take effective actions against violations of these rights and freedoms."

Another area where absolute disaster was averted through the deft interventions of the Holy See was in the 18 hour debate over parental rights language. The European Union/Canadian/Australian coalition was pushing for the deletion of parental rights so that children and adolescents could access sexual health services and programs in "confidentiality" and "privacy." Parental rights language was retained in the crucial paragraphs but with a great deal of hedging about with "rights of the child" in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, etc.

In one of the significant losses of the conference, the Holy See put up a valiant fight to try to save a paragraph which required that women be informed that hormonal contraception, abortion and promiscuity are associated with increased risks of developing cancers and infections of the reproductive tract, so that they can make informed decisions about their health. The Chair asked who were against the proposal: the response was a good deal less than half the room.

The Holy See argued that women should be informed of what they are using and why: "If we really do think that women should be able to make their own decisions and be informed, then 1 can't see how there can be a problem." China objected that there are "no universally recognised scientific conclusions concerning hormonal contraceptives ... Abortion has nothing to do with contraception or cancer." The Chair warned: "We are not doctors or scientists. We have to be careful not to talk of something [of which] we are not sure."

Sudan assured the room that the relation between hormonal contraception and the risk of cancer was quite established. "It is a human right, one of the rights to know - the side effects. And even abortion leads to a lot of complications, hormonal changes, etc. A woman going into abortion should know - this is her right." Slovakia, Jordan and Argentina also gave strong support to the Holy See, and despite a loud "No" from more than half the room to the Chair's question "Is the Barbados proposal acceptable?", the Chair brought down her gavel and said: "Those who do not agree can make their reservations."

The holy See pointed out that on the previous paragraph, everyone was allowed to give an opinion before it was sent to a group for further discussion. The Chair snapped back that this was not a point of order: "You were commenting on my ruling." Paraguay stepped in with a lengthy, very persuasive argument that it was a right of women to be informed of the risks, and was rewarded with enormous applause from a large majority of delegations.

The Chair, thoroughly angry now, began to defend her ruling and then, catching sight of the Holy See's flag raised for a point of order, lost control completely, shouting in exasperation: "Holy See, it is only by courtesy I give you the floor for a point of order, but legally you are not a member of state." Guatemala immediately responded: "I think many countries are upset about how you are handling this meeting. You are rushing through ... let people who have their concerns speak. You must let them speak. Let us go back. The Chair replied defensively: "I am not adopting anything. There is nothing hidden here. I am not a doctor, but it doesn't sound correct. If you don't agree and you don't compromise, we must delete the whole health ...".

Guatemala cried: "I just want you to be fair." The Chair shouted: "You have not the floor" and then tried to move to the next paragraph, but Slovakia, when called, courageously reverted to the disputed paragraph, insisting that "we did not get a consensus here" and that the right of some states to speak was not recognised. "Some people do not have medical knowledge," she said. "I am an oncologist." She went on to speak fluently and convincingly of the major problems associated with hormonal contraception, abortion and promiscuity, and ended with a fierce flourish: "I will tell China. I will give them the information."

A few moments' tribute of stunned silence followed Slovakia's intervention. Finally, the Chair said: "I am ready to resign. Perhaps in a second reading ... I can't come back on it." And so the Chair again tried to move on.

Soon there was a buzz and a stir through the room. Monsignor Diarmuid Martin, one of the Holy See's most experienced older warhorses, had arrived. (One of the two women delegates representing the Holy See in this stormy session had hurried from the room immediately after the Chair had delivered its chastisement.) A note was sent from Msgr Martin up to the Chair. There was furious whispering between the Chair and the Secretariat. Finally, a red-faced Chair proffered a grudging apology to the Holy See: "The Holy See are full members of the Conference and have the right to make a point of order. But please do not abuse this right too much." At which point Msgr Martin, with all the smooth graciousness of the oldest diplomacy in the world, replied: "I understand. It was a simple error on the part of the Secretariat."

I recount this episode in some detail because 1 believe it is important that people understand the unscrupulous tactics that are sometimes employed at these conferences, and the formidable difficulties these impose for those delegations which try honestly to hold to moral and ethical positions.


Yet in these very difficult conditions throughout the Beijing Conference, the timing of the Holy See's interventions was often superb, and the arguments were always concise and logically compelling. It is not for nothing that the Holy See's delegates have been acknowledged privately by one senior UN ambassador from Europe to be the best diplomats in the world. I don't always agree with them," he said, "but I like working with them because they are so very, very professional."

The Holy See, indeed, has an ear to the real concerns of the whole world - through the tens of thousands of churches, schools, hospitals and basic health clinics, humanitarian refuges and soup kitchens for the poor, in every part of the world from small remote villages to big city slums. If the Church does not know what is going on in the world, then who does?

Though there was some underlying resentment and some audible hostility against the Holy See's presence, there was also a grudging respect for and unspoken recognition of the Holy See as the world's only remaining truly transnational moral authority. In a world that has just blundered its way through a century of shifting moral sands, the Holy See's cool, firm guidance was crucial. And I have no doubt that the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is a vastly better document, a far less damaging document, than we could have had without the quietly helpful, discerning and, above all, tempering interventions of the Holy See.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 8 No 11 (December 1995 - January 1996), p. 10

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