WASHINGTON — With the notable exception of U.S. President George W. Bush, more than 250 global leaders, including former President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, reaffirmed their commitment to a ten-year-old UN plan to ensure the rights of women around the world.
In an unprecedented statement, the former and current leaders, including 85 heads of state and government, also called for the fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted by the UN in 2000, that call for greater efforts to sharply reduce global poverty and achieve universal access to education and health by the year 2015.
“This statement is the good news the world is looking for in these troubled times,” said CNN founder Ted Turner, one of the business leaders and philanthropists who signed the statement, in presenting it to Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and Deputy Secretary General, Louise Frechette.
“It underscores the need for cooperation across every sector and country, to realize our shared dream for a world that is equitable, peaceful, and healthy,” he said.
The statement came on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo where representatives of 179 governments adopted a plan of action that affirmed the fundamental rights of women, including their sexual and reproductive rights, and set specific targets for their achievement.
The targets included universal access to family planning, safe motherhood, treatment and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as HIV/AIDS, basic education and greater opportunities for social and economic advancement.
But the Bush administration, which has cut off funding of UNFPA and repeatedly voiced reservations about the ICPD’s commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, declined to sign on to the statement.
In a letter to the organizers, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kelly Ryan said Washington was committed to “goals and objectives” of the ICPD, but that it was “unable” to endorse the statement. “The statement includes the concept of ‘sexual rights,’ a term that has no agreed definition in the international community, goes beyond what was agreed to at Cairo, and is not a component of the ICPD,” the letter asserted.
The United States, which helped draft and strongly supported the Cairo plan of action, as well as the UN women s conference in Beijing in 1995, abruptly changed course after Bush became president six years later.
It has not only refused to spend over US$70 million in contributions approved by Congress to UNFPA, but has also sought to weaken international support for the ICPD and the Beijing “platform of action” by lobbying “so far, unsuccessfully” other countries to back its efforts to exclude references to sexual and reproductive health services in regional conferences in Latin America and Asia.
Last spring, senior officials even threatened to withhold U.S. contributions to other UN and private agencies, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children s Fund (UNICEF), if they failed to break their links to UNFPA, despite its active role in the global fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Bush has charged that the UNFPA, by providing support to China’s Health Ministry, indirectly supports a program of forcible abortion and sterilization in several countries in China, although the State Department and a series of investigations by other private groups have concluded that the agency’s work in China has actually encouraged its government to abandon coercive practices in its population program.
As one of his first acts in office, Bush also reinstated the so-called “global gag rule” first decreed by former President Ronald Reagan.
Under it, foreign family planning agencies may not receive any U.S. foreign aid if they provide any abortion-related services, including counseling or referrals on abortion, or even lobbying to relax anti-abortion laws in their own country, even if they use their own money for that purpose.
Some U.S. lawmakers and a number of feminist groups have accused the administration of waging a “war against women” in its international population policies.
Indeed, Washington teamed up this week with the Vatican, a staunch ally in its opposition to sexual and reproductive health rights, and some conservative Islamic countries in order to prevent a formal review of progress toward achieving the goals of the ICPD by the General Assembly in addition to marking its 10th anniversary that would result in a final communique.
The head of the UN Foundation, former Sen. Tim Wirth, noted that Washington’s position on the reproductive rights, and its abdication of its leadership on the issue, created “a lot of disappointment” at the UN. As undersecretary of state for global issues, Wirth played a major role at both the Cairo and Beijing conferences.
Washington’s isolation was made clear by the leaders who signed the statement, among them Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, Mexican President Vicente Fox, all of the heads of government of the European Union (EU), Botswana’s president Festus Mogae, as well as a more than a dozen other African leaders, and the leaders of China, Japan, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
In addition to Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter also signed the statement, as well as former WHO chief and Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.
In addition to Carter, more than two dozen Nobel laureates were also listed as signatories, including the Rev. Bishop Desmond Tutu and former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.
The statement noted that global contributions to the achievement of the MDGs were lagging. For 2005, some $18 billion was to have been devoted achieving universal health care and sharp reductions in infant and maternal mortality rates, but that current contributions were running about $3 billion short. The rapid spread of HIV/AIDS also required more funding than originally anticipated.
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