"You are going to Beijing to be witnesses," the Holy See's Undersecretary for Relations with States told us as we left for the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women last September-daunting words for our band of fourteen women and eight men from nine countries and five continents. In the turmoil of the next two weeks, however, the idea of being witnesses helped our diverse group to coalesce into a unified team that would work, first, to make the documents issued by the conference more responsive to the actual lives of women, and, second-in keeping with the Catholic Church's traditional mission to the poor-to be a voice for the marginalized and voiceless women who can seldom make themselves heard in the corridors of power.
We hoped to avoid the situation that developed at the UN's 1994 Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where an abortion rights initiative led by a hard-edged U.S. delegation pushed all other population and development issues into the background. The Holy See's efforts to correct that skewed emphasis never got through to the public. [See George Weigel, "What Happened at Cairo," FT, February 1995-Eds.] For the most part, the press accepted the population lobby's caricature of the Vatican at Cairo as anti-woman, anti-sex, and in favor of unrestrained procreation.
Before the Beijing conference opened, indications were that most nations had little disposition to reopen the fragile consensus that had been reached at Cairo. The idea that abortion was a legitimate tool of population control had been expressly rejected in the Cairo document. The U.S. administration, chastened by the November 1994 elections, was unlikely to openly lead another controversial charge. And in any event, the Beijing conference was not a population conference; its mandate was "Action for Equality, Development, and Peace." On those topics, we believed, the Holy See's positions, drawn from the Church's teachings on social and economic justice, stood a better chance of being heard. Our hopes in that regard were only slightly dimmed by our growing awareness that few media people had a clear idea of the subject and scope of the Beijing conference.
The failure of the press (and even many delegates) to do their homework was understandable. The Beijing documents (a brief Declaration and a long-winded Program of Action) were a 149-page (single-spaced) hodge- podge of the good, the bad, and the silly. To a lawyer's eye, they resembled a sprawling piece of legislation, with slabs of ideological pork interspersed among commonsense provisions and bureaucratic boilerplate. They had been produced, naturally, by a committee-the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
The drafting process, through two preparatory conferences, was heavily influenced by population control lobbyists and old-line, hard-line feminist groups. Negotiators from members of the UN and its specialized agencies reached agreement fairly easily on the bulk of the provisions, but a large proportion of the draft documents went to Beijing in brackets, signifying that no accord could be reached at the preparatory stage.
From the beginning, the documents were at war with themselves in several respects. Many provisions addressed issues of equal opportunity, education, and development in a sensible way. But reading the drafts overall, one would have no idea that most women marry, have children, and are urgently concerned with how to mesh family life with participation in broader social and economic spheres. The implicit vision of women's progress was based on the model-increasingly challenged by men and women alike-in which family responsibilities are avoided or subordinated to personal advancement. When dealing with health, education, and young girls, the drafts emphasized sex and reproduction to the neglect of many other crucial issues. The overall effect was like the leaning tower of Pisa, admirable from some angles, but unbalanced, and resting on a shaky foundation.
The first morning's colorful opening ceremony in the Great Hall of the People was an odd mixture of the sublime and the silly-as though replicating the conference documents. Mistresses of ceremonies who appeared to be on loan from the trade show commissariat presided in sequinned evening gowns over a program that mingled ballet dancers and hula-hula girls, a performance by the Chinese Women's Philharmonic orchestra and a parade of fashions, world-class gymnastics and a martial arts display where the women vanquished all the men.
That was the last hour of relaxation our delegation had until the conference ended. Our negotiators, four women and three men, worked virtually around the clock for the next two weeks in as many as seven separate, concurrent sessions, dealing with the knotty problems that had been left for resolution in Beijing. The rest of us tried to collect and read reams of conference documents, to maintain a presence of at least two persons in the plenary session, to staff our makeshift headquarters, and to "witness" in our communications with other delegations, the media, and Catholics attending the parallel women's forum in Huairou.
We were heartened by Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's speech in the opening plenary session. Mrs. Bhutto zeroed in on some of the defects in the documents. They were, she said, "disturbingly weak" on the role of the traditional family and on the connection between family disintegration and general moral decay. At a subsequent session, U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was clearly mindful of the Senate's bipartisan resolution instructing American delegates not to denigrate motherhood and the family. She condemned direct coercion in population control programs and made several positive references to women's roles as mothers and family members.
Mrs. Clinton's carefully worded speech was just one of many signs that the U.S. had drastically overhauled its strategy since Cairo. Throughout the Beijing conference, the American delegation avoided taking the initiative on controversial issues. They maintained an appearance of cordiality toward the Holy See, skirting open confrontation in negotiations. Members of the U.S. delegation frequently described the Vatican delegation to the press as "conciliatory"-as though we, not they, had changed since Cairo. Some of the beans were spilled by one American negotiator, after she had piped up briefly in favor of rights based on sexual orientation. Later, she told two members of the Holy See team she had momentarily forgotten that "we were told not to speak out on that one."
In my opening statement, I reaffirmed the positions the Holy See had taken at previous conferences, and called attention to several areas where the Beijing drafts needed to be improved. The documents barely mentioned marriage, motherhood, and the family-except negatively as impediments to women's self-realization (and as associated with violence and oppression). The women's health section focused disproportionately on sexual and reproductive matters, with scarcely a glance toward nutrition, sanitation, tropical diseases, access to basic health services, or even maternal morbidity and mortality. Women's poverty was addressed in narrow terms as chiefly a problem of equality between women and men, slighting the influence of family breakdown and unjust economic structures. I pointed out that, without recognition and support of their roles in child-raising, effective equality would remain elusive for far too many women. I concluded with the observation that there can be no real progress for women, or men, at the expense of children or of the underprivileged.
These points seemed so reasonable to us that, in the first few days of the conference, we were confident that they would find wide support. Ominous signs, however, soon appeared. Some delegations from developing countries seemed less independent than at Cairo. Holy See negotiators were often receiving short shrift from chairpersons wielding heavy gavels. The procedural difficulties became acute in sessions dealing with the controversial health sections of the draft. Many otherwise inactive delegations showed up, and the negotiating room became especially crowded and chaotic. At one point, when our negotiator attempted to intervene in support of a bracketed paragraph urging that women be informed of the health risks of promiscuity and certain contraceptive methods, the Chair ruled her out of order on grounds that the Holy See, as a Permanent Observer, did not even have the right to vote. By the time the Chair was forced to retract that mistake, the language in question had been eliminated. The tenor of discussion on the issue is captured by the remark of an Egyptian delegate: "If we start telling women about the harmful effects of contraceptives, they might not use them anymore."
By Thursday of the first week, our negotiators were bringing back news of another unexpected development. A minority coalition, led by the powerful fifteen-member European Union negotiating as a bloc, was pushing a version of the sexual and abortion rights agenda that had been rejected by the Cairo conference. The EU-led coalition was so intent on its unfinished Cairo agenda that it was stalling negotiations on other issues. Equally disturbing, the coalition was taking positions with ominous implications for universal human rights.
Joined by a few other countries (Barbados, Canada, Namibia, South Africa), the EU was opposing the inclusion of key, pertinent principles from UN instruments where the nations of the world had recognized certain core rights and obligations as universal. The controversy centered on five crucial areas:
The EU caucus' assault on key provisions of the universal human rights corpus was something of a mystery. Europe, after all, prides itself on being the cradle and custodian of many of these ideas. More puzzling still, the EU negotiators' stances on these matters were at variance with similar provisions in most of their own national constitutions and with the underlying principles of their own family assistance programs.
In the stark vision promoted by the EU caucus at Beijing, there is no room for the idea that society has a special interest in providing the best possible conditions for raising children. Family life, marriage, and motherhood would be worthy of no more protection than any other ways in which adults choose to order their lives. The girl child, her parents nowhere visible, would be alone with her rights. A document embodying that vision would cast a shadow over programs and policies that provide assistance to child-raising families, just at a time when most countries are already curtailing their social expenditures. A document on women's issues from which all positive references to motherhood and family life were removed would send a discouraging message to women who take pride and satisfaction in family roles.
The EU negotiators' positions can be explained in part by a phenomenon Americans know well-the tendency when arguing for a favorite right to brush aside all other rights and obligations. The EU-led coalition was so single-minded in its determination to seed the Beijing documents with sexual and reproductive rights that it was willing to let important competing values go by the boards. At least that was how it seemed when the Holy See's Ambassador to the UN, Archbishop Renato Martino, and I met with Christina Alberdi, leader of the European Union caucus, and, later on the same day, with several members of the French delegation. We raised our concerns about human rights issues at both meetings. The delegates and their assistants listened politely, thanked us for our point of view, but were not forthcoming with any explanation.
After several similar encounters, I was reminded of the Cook County criminal courts of the 1960s, when occasionally the rumor would go around the corridors that "the fix was in" on a particular case. I began to wonder whether a blend of sexism and political expediency had induced some governments to regard the women's conference as unimportant in itself, and thus to treat delegation appointments as handy sops to throw to old-line feminists and population control zealots. That would explain the now unmistakable emergence of an unfinished Cairo agenda, the hot pursuit of sexual rights, and the efforts to make sure that parents would not come between their daughters and those who know better than her parents.
While our negotiators struggled to break that impasse, others of us spent many hours talking with representatives of various Catholic organizations who had been attending the women's forum at Huairou. We listened carefully to the different points of view they brought to the documents. One particularly impressive group was the Neo-Catechumens- intelligent, dedicated, lay missionaries who work among the neediest populations in the poorest parts of the world. They had followed the conference closely, and, at the end of the first week, urged the Holy See to reject the documents in their entirety. The Declaration and Program of Action were, in their view, so permeated with a false anthropology, so obsessed with sexuality to the exclusion of other issues, so profoundly subversive of the good for women, that the best way for the Church to witness to the truth would be to denounce them and decline to join the Conference consensus. As matters stood then, that was a live option.
Later that day, several members of our delegation made ourselves available for general discussion with Catholic groups. A glance around the crowded meeting room, however, revealed that the gathering had also drawn several inquisitive journalists, the doyenne of American feminism Betty Friedan, and members of the anti-Catholic, population control front group that calls itself Catholics for a Free Choice. Few comments from this assembly directly concerned conference issues. The chief preoccupations of most who spoke seemed to be power, sex, and the Catholic Church herself.
A great many critical remarks on decision-making power within the Church and the male priesthood came from Catholic women who seemed depressingly unfamiliar with basic principles of religious freedom, with the dynamic feminism of John Paul II, or with the vast range of opportunities for female and lay participation in Church activities, processes, and ministries. Even some women with religious vocations seemed to think of the priesthood as a powerful "job" that ought to be made available on an equal opportunity basis, rather than a calling to humble self- sacrificing service.
Many of those with whom we met seemed not to realize the number of opportunities for important service going begging because there are not enough women or men with the time, desire, and dedication to help. I urged them to respond to John Paul II's call for women to "assume new forms of leadership in service," noting his simultaneous call to the institutions of the Church "to welcome this contribution of women."
Meanwhile, we had reached conference midpoint, and negotiations were still stalled. It seemed unlikely that the EU caucus' negotiating stances reflected government policy or public opinion in their home countries. On Friday night, we composed a press release calling attention to the conflicts between the positions being taken at Beijing by the EU caucus and settled principles of national and international law.
By Monday, there was a marked change in the negotiating atmosphere. Questions had begun to be posed in European legislatures, including the EU Parliament, concerning what their delegations were up to in faraway Beijing. "Why did you have to bring all this out in the open?" complained one EU delegate who was apparently unfamiliar with the concept of government in the sunshine. Negotiations began moving swiftly, and the text began to change in some key respects. The final documents were rapidly taking shape, section by section, in different negotiating rooms, and seemed to be moving toward something we might be able to accept-at least in part.
The picture in the end was mixed. Many of the best provisions-on women's education, poverty, the environment, and peace-are likely to wither unless supported by major financial commitments and nurtured by well- thought-out programs, while other provisions actually threaten both universal human rights and the well-being of women.
In favor of the Holy See's associating itself with the documents to some extent, nevertheless, there were a number of considerations. The heart of the Program for Action consists of many provisions that are consonant with Catholic teachings on dignity, freedom, and social justice: those dealing with the needs of women in poverty; with strategies for development, literacy, and education; for ending violence against women; for building a culture of peace; and with providing access for women to employment, land, capital, and technology. Other worthwhile provisions concerned the connection between the feminization of poverty and family disintegration, the relation of environmental degradation to scandalous patterns of production and consumption, the discrimination against women that begins with abortion of female fetuses, the promotion of partnership and mutual respect between men and women, and the need for reform of the international economic order. The specific economic recommendations mark a healthy break from the discredited Marxist ideas that once prevailed at UN gatherings. Many central ideas, moreover, had been introduced by or with the help of the Holy See over the years (e.g., the emphasis on women's education, and the insistence that the human being must be at the center of concern in development).
Even the worst parts of the draft documents had undergone some improvement, thanks to the efforts of our tireless and talented negotiators, Msgr. Frank Dewane, Patricia Donahoe, John Klink, Msgr. Diarmuid Martin, Janne Matlary, Gail Quinn, and Sheri Rickert. In the preparatory conferences, they had introduced equal educational opportunity for refugees; "general access" for women, as well as "equal access," to education; and the reference to women's roles as peace educators in the family and society. By the end of the conference, they had secured references to relevant universal rights and obligations in all five areas where those concepts had been threatened.
A few swallows, admittedly, do not make a summer. The positive changes tempered the tone of the documents and maintained continuity with the rights tradition that will inform future interpretations. But the documents are still seriously unbalanced. The Cairo principle that abortion must not be promoted as a method of family planning was eventually reaffirmed, but the Cairo language on support for parental rights and responsibilities and respect for religious and cultural values is stronger than in parallel provisions in the Beijing documents.
Though EU efforts to gain inclusion of the phrase "sexual rights" were rebuffed, the final documents do contain ambiguous rights language in the areas of sexuality and fertility. A paragraph in the health section, for example, speaks of women's "right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence." The U.S. was well-satisfied with this result, according to a post-conference memorandum from Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth to members of the American delegation. Wirth's evaluation of the Beijing Platform was that it "met the U.S. government's goals (reaffirm important commitments made at previous international conferences, including human rights of women in reproductive health and rights)."
There was no consensus on what the vague new language means beyond the rights to say no and be free of sexual exploitation. By general agreement, it does not cover sexual orientation, Canada's energetic efforts to introduce rights in that area having encountered broad opposition at the conference.
Arguments will no doubt be made that references to women's rights "to control all aspects of their health, in particular their own fertility" implicitly recognize abortion as a human right. Such an interpretation is excluded, however, by Paragraph 107(k), a direct quotation from Cairo, which provides: "Any measures or changes related to abortion within the health system can only be determined at the national or local level according to the national legislative process." This language was necessary in view of the fact that, unlike the United States and China, most countries restrict and strictly regulate abortion. Even nations like Sweden with relatively permissive abortion laws do not follow the U.S. in characterizing abortion as a "right." Paragraph 107(k) contains other language that militates against abortion as a fundamental right: "reduce recourse to abortion," "eliminate the need for abortion," "help avoid repeat abortion." One would hardly say of an important right like free speech, for example, that governments should reduce it, eliminate the need for it, and help avoid its repetition.
Even if there were no such specific language in the Cairo and Beijing documents, it is a basic principle of interpretation that fundamental rights cannot be created or destroyed by implication. Moreover, the Beijing conference had no authority to add to or tinker with the corpus of universal human rights. The UN historically has conducted that process with great care and gravity, most recently at the 1993 Human Rights Conference in Vienna. It would indeed be a dark day if human rights could be revised in disorderly negotiating sessions such as those where the Beijing health sections were rammed through.
As at Cairo, the Holy See was concerned that language on sexual and reproductive "health" would be used to promote the quick-fix approach to getting rid of poverty by getting rid of poor people. Much of the foundation money that swirled around the Beijing process was aimed at forging a link between development aid and programs that pressure poor women into abortion, sterilization, and use of risky contraceptive methods. That point has also troubled distinguished non-Catholic observers. In the wake of Cairo, Harvard economist-philosopher Amartya Sen criticized a "dangerous tendency" on the part of developed nations to search for solutions to overpopulation that "treat the people involved not as reasonable beings, allies faced with a common problem, but as impulsive and uncontrolled sources of great social harm, in need of strong discipline." Sen charged that by giving priority to "family planning arrangements in the Third World countries over other commitments such as education and health care," international policy makers "produce negative effects on people's well-being and reduce their freedoms." In a similar vein, the British medical journal Lancet blasted the Beijing documents for a "new colonialism" designed to control rather than liberate women.
The Holy See's position as the conference came to an end was thus a difficult one. The documents had been improved in some respects. But in other ways they were even more disappointing than the Cairo document, which the Holy See had been able to join only partially and with many formal reservations. After an intense session in which members of our delegation shared their views, hopes, doubts, and concerns about the documents, our assessment of their pros and cons was communicated to the Vatican Secretariat of State. On Thursday morning, we received the Holy Father's decision: accept what is positive, but vigorously reject what cannot be accepted.
Accordingly, the Holy See delegation associated itself in part, with several reservations, with the conference documents. As at Cairo, it reaffirmed its well-known positions on abortion and family planning methods. It could not accept the health section at all. A controversy over the word "gender" that loomed before the conference had been largely defused with a consensus that gender was to be understood according to ordinary usage in the United Nations context. The Holy See, however, deemed it prudent to attach to its reservations a further, more nuanced, statement of interpretation, in which it dissociated itself from rigid biological determinism as well as from the notion that sexual identity is indefinitely malleable. In keeping with the Holy Father's instruction to vigorously reject what was unacceptable, my concluding statement on behalf of the Holy See was sharply critical of the conference documents for the remaining deficiencies that our delegation had tried from the beginning to publicize and remedy.
The most important political lesson to be taken from the Beijing conference is that huge international conferences are not suitable settings for addressing complex questions of social and economic justice or grave issues of human rights. Unfortunately, there is an increasing tendency for advocates of causes that have failed to win acceptance through ordinary dem-ocratic processes to resort to the international arena, far removed (they hope) from scrutiny and accountability. The sexual libertarians, old-line feminists, and coercive population controllers can be expected to keep on trying to insert their least popular ideas into UN documents for unveiling at home as "international norms."
A number of lingering questions about Beijing merit the attention of investigative reporters. What deals did the affluent nations make with their client states? Why did the EU caucus champion an agenda so far removed from the urgent concerns of most of the world's women? Why did delegates from countries with strong family protection provisions in their constitutions (e.g., Germany, Ireland, Italy) not break ranks with the EU when it attacked the spirit of those provisions? Why were the conference documents so skewed from the beginning? Who paid for the voyages of thousands of lobbyists at Huairou whose main interest was not in women's needs and rights, but in controlling women's fertility?
American delegate Geraldine Ferraro's description of the Beijing conference as marking an end to the North-South conflicts that have plagued UN conferences in the past was disingenuous. The delegations from affluent countries that battled so boldly at Cairo or Beijing for their ideas about population control and sexual rights were timid as mice when it came to making commitments of resources. In defiance of evidence that economic development and women's education lead to lowered fertility rates, the developed countries made it clear they wanted population control on the cheap. The relative silence of Third World delegates on issues vital to women in their own countries was bewildering. How can one explain that many delegations from poor nations came to sessions involving sexual and reproductive matters with well- prepared position papers, yet were absent or silent when resources and other crucial issues were discussed? Since many of those same delegations entered formal reservations at the end of the conference, chances are the folks back home will never suspect that their representatives did not speak up in negotiations where a few strong voices could have made a difference.
The significance of the Beijing documents should neither be exaggerated nor minimized. The Declaration and Platform are nonbinding documents that may or may not serve as international guidelines for the way various private and public actors deal with the issues they cover. The authority of the worst parts of the documents is diminished by their vagueness, their inconsistency with respected international documents, and by the unusually large number of UN members who expressed dissent. When 43 of 181 nations present have formally registered serious concerns, it is hard to speak of a consensus. The authority of the constructive sections, on the other hand, is supported by consensus and amplified by their similarity to provisions in documents from other international conferences, most recently the Copenhagen Summit on Social Development.
The significance of Beijing for human rights is mainly in the nature of a warning. As the fiftieth anniversary of the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights approaches, the Beijing conference appears to have been a testing ground for certain ideas and approaches that will be advanced again. We have not seen the last of the effort to make abortion a fundamental right, or of the attempt to depose heterosexual marriage and child-raising families from their traditionally preferred positions. Neither have we seen the last of selective use of rights language to advance an anti-rights agenda-exemplified at Beijing by the emphasis on formal equality at the expense of motherhood's special claim to protection, and by the elimination of most references to religion and parental rights. Worrisome, too, is the trivialization of universally recognized core principles through the attempted addition of vague new rights.
All this is familiar stuff to Americans. At the international level, it is evidence of the continuing colonization of the universal language of human rights by an impoverished dialect that has already made great inroads on political discourse in the United States. Its features include: rights envisioned without corresponding individual or social responsibilities; one's favorite rights touted as absolute with others ignored; the rights-bearer imagined as radically autonomous and self- sufficient; and the willy-nilly proliferation of new rights.
That dialect contrasts with the broad, rich, and balanced Universal Declaration where the individual rights-bearer's dignity is resoundingly affirmed, but the family is recognized as the basic social unit. In the Universal Declaration, fundamental individual rights are simultaneously affirmed and situated within the social contexts that determine whether rights, freedom, and dignity will become realities: "In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order, and the general welfare in a democratic society."
Not least alarming about the assault on the human rights tradition by powerful actors at Beijing is that it went virtually unreported. As far as the American press was concerned, the human rights story was the Chinese treatment of Harry Wu. To European journalists, it was the failed efforts of a few Islamic countries to authorize opting out of certain equality measures on cultural and religious grounds. The U.S. was correct, of course, to condemn brazen violations of universal rights. The Europeans were right, too, that human rights ought not to be nullified by cultural exceptions. But neither should the catalog of human rights be redefined and expanded to "universalize" the highly individualistic ideologies of modernizing elites. Nor must human rights be sharply separated from the cultural and religious contexts in which rights are rooted and protected. Nor must the corpus of core rights and obligations be casually altered. As memories fade about why it was necessary after World War II to affirm the existence of certain inalienable rights, the citizens of the world must be vigilant to prevent trivialization and dilution of those basic protections of human dignity.
In the end, one may hope that the good in the nonbinding Beijing documents will survive and flourish-especially since, as any good feminist would say, they must be seen in context. The context in this case is the framework of the overarching universal human rights tradition.
John Paul II's instruction to his Beijing delegation reflected the approach he has taken to women's issues in his writings. In the 1995 World Day of Peace message, he noted that "when one looks at the great process of women's liberation," one sees that the journey has been a difficult one, with its "share of mistakes," but headed toward a better future for women and the entire human family. In his recent Letter to Women, he added, "This journey must go on!" It is characteristic of this Pope that, in confronting flawed human enterprises of various sorts, he seeks to find and build on what is sound and healthy, while identifying and criticizing what is likely to be harmful to human flourishing.
Looking toward the future, the Pope stressed in his pre-conference message to Secretary-General Gertrude Mongella that the success of the gathering will depend on whether it offers a "vision capable of sustaining objective and realistic responses to the struggle and frustration that continue to be a part of all too many women's lives." Ultimately, it is up to concerned citizens, women and men, to bring the seedlings of "equality, development, and peace" to full flower, and to protect them from the encroaching culture of death. Fortunately, we do not garden alone. Not only are we surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, but divine grace is always operating in the world, inviting us to cooperate with it in building the civilization of life and love.