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RIGHTS: U.N. Women’s Meet Targets AIDS, Armed Conflict

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 13 2006 (IPS) - The United Nations is calling for international institutions and governments worldwide to ensure equal participation of women in decision-making and to take actions to enhance their role in development.

Concluding its two week annual meeting here, which continued until late on Mar. 10, the 45-member Commission on the Status of Women adopted a number of resolutions concerning women’s economic, political and social rights.

Deploring all kinds of violence against civilians during armed conflict, the Commission adopted a unanimous resolution urging the immediate release of all women and children. The resolution stressed the need to end impunity and the responsibility of all states to prosecute those responsible for war crimes.

In another resolution, the Commission demanded that Israel comply fully with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions in order to protect the rights of Palestinian women and children.

The text called on Israel to facilitate the return of all refugees and displaced Palestinian women and children to their homes and properties. As many as 41 countries voted in favour of the resolution, but the United States and Canada opposed it.

The U.S. delegates also strongly opposed the earlier version of the resolution on the HIV/AIDS pandemic and women. While many delegates insisted on using the term “reproductive rights”, the U.S. representative objected to it.

“The United States understands that there is international consensus that the terms ‘reproductive health services’ and ‘reproductive rights’ do not include abortion or constitute support, endorsement or promotion of abortion or the use of abortions,” U.S. envoy Patricia Brister said in a statement on the last day of the Commission’s meeting.

She said the United States understands that reference to the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the use of the phrase “reproductive health”, do not create any new rights and “cannot be interpreted to continue support, endorsement or promotion of abortion”.

Despite disagreement, delegates from other countries agreed to drop the controversial wording, and the resolution was finally approved. The approved text now urges governments to strengthen initiatives that would increase the capacities of women and adolescent girls to protect themselves from HIV infection.

Acting by consensus, the Commission also called for reporting on the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan, and for “further study of the advisability” of designating a U.N. expert, known as a special rapporteur, to examine legislation that discriminates against women.

The Commission, a subsidiary body of the U.N. Economic and Social Council, meets once a year for two weeks with a mandate to promote women’s rights in all walks of life. It will now make recommendations to the Council on “urgent problems” facing women that require immediate attention.

Women’s groups who closely watched the diplomatic talks say they are less than pleased with the performance of official delegates to the meeting of the Commission, held from Feb. 27 and to Mar. 10.

“The good news is that they have reached agreements, but they didn’t make any major breakthrough,” June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), a U.S.-based advocacy group, told IPS.

Despite officially wrapping up the meeting last Friday, the Commission’s officials failed to come up with a concluding report on its deliberations during the past two weeks.

“I am confused,” said one official of the U.N. Department of Public Information who closely observed the meeting.

“I have no idea why the Commission has not released a final statement,” said another on Monday evening.

WEDO and other groups say they want governments to take action, and not just pay lip service to women’s issues.

“To ask governments and international financial institutions to ensure equal participation is a step in the right direction,” Zeitlin said, “but the problem is that they are not obligated to do so.”

In her view, the language used in most of the resolutions is nothing but a “modification” of the wording in previous ones.

Since the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, many governments have pledged to take action on gender equality, but in practice they have failed to do so because many of the decisions taken at the international level were not legally binding.

Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the U.N. Development Fund for Women, notes that even though countries have passed laws to ensure gender equality, most have not effectively enforced them.

As many as 45 nations have passed laws to protect women from violence, but they still continue to suffer from it.

“Yes, we have achieved a lot, but the violence, inequality and injustice continues because the laws are not being implemented,” she told a women’s gathering in New York recently.

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