Women’s hopes fading on the road to Beijing

If a reluctant China loses the right to host the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in September, the real losers could be women the world over.

THE PROBLEMS really began, they say, after the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng, went to Copenhagen in March for the United Nations summit on poverty. At one point, he walked past a group of hunger strikers with placards. He faltered, visibly shaken. Such sights are not permitted in China. It may have been then that the Chinese began to recognise what they had done in agreeing to host the world’s largest human rights conference in Beijing in September.

It was the booby prize, after all; the Chinese volunteered to hold the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women partly because they thought it would add to the credibility of their Olympic bid. They lost the Olympics but won the right to welcome more than 2000 government delegates and about 40,000 representatives from women’s rights organisations in 184 countries. Now, it seems, China is having second thoughts.

There has been such a series of rows on the bumpy road to Beijing that women’s groups internationally are now muttering “boycott” and warning that Beijing could face losing its UN contract. The problem is that it would be hard for Beijing to lose out without women losing out as well. A boycott by non-government organisations would benefit no one but the governments that would like to push their own agendas through without awkward questions. If Beijing lost the contract, where in the world could a conference this size be held on such short notice?
So far the run-up to the conference and its accompanying non- government forum has seen at least three moves that suggest China is concerned to limit the potential for political embarrassment. Many non-government organisations, including Tibetan and Taiwanese women’s groups, were initially refused UN accreditation for the forum, sparking official protests by some nations, including Australia; a Hong Kong newspaper has cited unpublished documents as indicating that China plans to use its visa system to exclude political “undesirables”; and China appears to be trying to isolate the forum and limit its influence on the official conference, by moving it to a site more than an hour
‘s travel from Beijing.

Meanwhile in New York, at a preparatory meeting on a draft plan of action for the conference, there were determined pushes by several countries and the Vatican to roll back the human rights gains of earlier UN gatherings.

It was hoped the Beijing conference would be a place of potential breakthroughs in the recognition of women’s rights; now, it looks as though women will be fighting just to hold their ground.

Trouble had been tipped as far back as the Vienna conference on human rights in 1993, where women’s groups argued that the conference should not be held in Beijing because of China’s history of human rights abuses of women, including forced sterilisations and abortions, female infanticide, and the torture and rape of female political detainees. They were also concerned that China had argued against the Vienna conference’s acceptance of the universality of human rights, insisting that human rights are culturally determined and that Western countries should not force their ideas on others.

The acceptance of universality was the great win at Vienna but women involved in the planning for Beijing have been appalled to discover that it may yet be lost. They expected the draft plan of action for Beijing to be finalised in March; instead, many important words and concepts, including “universality”, were put in square brackets.

This means they are opposed by one or more countries, which means they might not get up, as this kind of UN agreement must be achieved by consensus.

The result, warns Amnesty International, could be a “lowest common denominator” document that makes no progress because it has had to be acceptable to the most conservative nations. Some Latin American countries, for example, bracketed the word “gender” more than 300 times; the Vatican led a push to oppose “universality” because of its concerns that this would lead to universal reproductive freedom and more freely available abortion and contraception.

The Victorian coordinator for Amnesty, Kath Davey, says: “It is absolutely crucial that it’s understood that certain rights go across cultures, that you can’t leave it up to individual countries to decide . . . Culture often means religions, which gives you women and their bodies and the whole reproductive process. Culture is used as the reason for the continuation of appalling abuses: child brides, trafficking in women, female genital mutilation. If a schoolgirl gets shot in Algeria for not wearing the veil, is that their culture?” The main anxiety at the moment, however, is about a more basic problem. The Chinese have declared the original site of the forum structurally unsound. The new site is far from town and has neither the hotel space nor the conference facilities to house tens of thousands. It has been rumored, too, that China is considering an arbitrary cap of 20,000 on the number of non-government organisation representatives allowed to attend, possibly because of its enormous logistical problems.

The international non-government organisation steering committee has overwhelmingly rejected the new site and proposed alternatives. It has told the UN Secretary-General, Dr Boutros Ghali, that it wants a satisfactory response by 24 May. It has not said what action it will take if the problems are not resolved, but cancellation of the forum could result.

The news is not all bad. The Australian Government delegation to the New York preparations was successful in its proposal that Beijing be made a “conference of commitments”, requiring each government to stand up and specify what aims it has set for itself to improve the status of women. At the last UN Conference on Women, in Nairobi in 1985, more than 300 recommendations were subsequently ignored by most nations. The Australian move is to try to ensure this does not happen again.

Whatever the outcome, it has not helped China’s cause that the parties it most fears have now been antagonised. Amnesty International had already planned to use the conference as a platform for its campaign “Human rights are women’s right”, with an emphasis on China’s breaches.

The problems in the run-up to the forum have focused even more attention on Chinese policies and practices. Says Amnesty’s Ms Davey: “Their worst fears will be realised.”

First published in The Age.