Protracted efforts to create a landmark new UN "super-agency" for women face a critical weekend as four opposed countries have sprung a diplomatic ambush that could effectively kill it off.
The general assembly was set to ratify the new agency – which would have a budget of around $1bn and consolidate four existing bodies that deal with women's issues – before its current session concludes on Monday. But Egypt, Cuba, Sudan and Iran have mounted a last-minute campaign to delay ratification.
Britain's development minister, Gareth Thomas, this week called on the hold-outs to end their blocking tactics, warning that this was the last opportunity to make a UN women's agency a reality.
"Too many countries continue to have a disgraceful record on women's rights and that is why it is time for the UN to stop talking and take action," said Thomas, who was in the Democratic Republic of Congo this week to meet for himself the women and children who have been subjected to violence in the long-running conflict between government and rebel forces.
Britain has been among the champions for a new department in the UN that would more effectively address violence against women, property rights and HIV/Aids. Although the UN has poured billions of pounds into agencies for refugees (UNHCR) and for children (Unicef), no equivalent exists for women.
If a UN resolution goes through by Monday, the four under-powered agencies dealing with gender issues – the UN Development Fund for Women (Unifem), the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues, the UN Division for the Advancement of Women and UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (Instraw) – would be consolidated into a fully fledged UN agency.
"A single agency for woman in the UN would be a far more powerful voice fighting for the rights of women – many of whom suffer appalling levels of violence and ill-treatment on a daily basis," Thomas said.
The idea emerged from plans set out in 2006 to reform the UN by Kofi Annan, the former secretary general. A panel that included Gordon Brown, then the British chancellor, endorsed an agency for women headed by an under-secretary general, one rank below secretary general. Brown has taken part in the current diplomatic flurry to salvage the idea.
Significant progress had been made in the run-up to this year's general assembly. But Egypt now argues that the other issues addressed by Annan's panel – the UN's governance and finance – have taken a back seat in favour of the women's agency.
It says its creation should wait until progress has been made on these other fronts. The gang of four are in a position to block the will of the majority as the UN general assembly's 192 members – especially the G77 group of developing countries – are notoriously reluctant to hold a vote when a consensus is lacking. The last-minute delaying tactics have sparked outrage from non-governmental groups, who fear that yet another delay will shelve the idea indefinitely.
"We are disappointed that the development of a potentially strong new UN organisation for women is being obstructed by political game-playing," said Kate Allen, the UK director of Amnesty International. "This new UN body is vitally important and should not be used as a political bargaining tool by UN member states."
Sceptics will question whether the UN, already an alphabet soup of institutions and a massive bureaucracy, should have another billion dollar agency. Its supporters argue, however, that only a new agency with increased staffing and budget can effectively address issues of specific concern to women. Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, has said that such an agency is necessary, for example, to handle the issue of violence against women, which has reached epidemic proportions in the DRC.
"There is tremendous anger at the potential sabotage from these malcontents," said Stephen Lewis, co-director of the advocacy group Aids-Free World. "If they do force a delay in this session it will be a terrible slap in the face of the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and the deputy secretary general (Asha-Rose Migiro) who have campaigned hard for the agency."
Lewis points out that of the 23 million people with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, 60% are women. That percentage shoots up to 75%-80% in the 15-24 age group.
Gender facts and figures
• Girls who complete primary education are more than twice as likely to use condoms than those not completing primary education, while girls who finish secondary education are between four and seven times more likely to use a condom and are less likely to be infected with HIV.
• In Africa, children of mothers who have received five years of primary education are 40% more likely to live beyond the age of five.
• Total agricultural outputs in sub-Saharan Africa could increase by 6-20% if women's access to agricultural inputs was equal to men's.
• Between 40% and 60% of women surveyed in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru, Samoa, Thailand and Tanzania said that they had been physically and/or sexually abused by their intimate partners.
• In several African countries, the risk of HIV among women who have experienced violence may be up to three times higher than those who have not.
Source: Department for International Development (UK)