Women's Rights, `Universality' Gain at UN Rights Conference

Reaction to world conflicts threatens to undo progress on rights declaration

FOLLOWING a two-year campaign to place their concerns on the agenda, women's rights activists have emerged as the surest winners at the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, which concludes today.

Nevertheless, reaction to the conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Angola threatens to undo some of women's gains by casting doubt on whether the conference will produce a final declaration. Yesterday 52 Islamic nations said they would not sign the declaration unless the conference also adopted a document condemning Serbian aggression in Bosnia. A group of African nations took a similar stand on Angola.

"To end in a stalemate would be a terrible shame and a great loss for women," says Lael Stegall, one of nearly 1,000 women's rights activists at the conference. "But we won't give up here."

At stake for women are several recommendations in the draft declaration that would strengthen the UN's ability to protect women from human rights abuses. They include considering the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and calling on the UN to strengthen the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). A third proposal urges the UN to integrate women's rights in all of its activities.

Others who stand to lose if the declaration is not adopted include indigenous people, who won support for preparing a declaration affirming their rights to land and self-determination. As the conference draws to a close, they and nearly 3,000 other activists are making their final pleas to government delegates for a binding commitment to protect human rights, an outcome most participants consider unlikely.

Unlike many issues under consideration, such as whether developing countries will agree to accept the universality of human rights, the recommendations on women's rights passed the drafting committee without objection. Declaration or no, as women's rights activists continue to chip away at the wall of privacy that shields many male abusers from prosecution, governments may soon have to reckon with gender-specific forms of abuse.

"Women look around at their lives and notice a funny thing - the abuses we suffer don't seem to count," says Geraldine Ferraro, a United States delegate to the conference. "Yet there are so many human rights violations that are particular to women." They include not only incest and rape, she says, but also infanticide and dowry deaths.

More than 1,000 people listened to victims of abuse at a Global Tribunal on Violations of Women's Human Rights, organized by the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University and other women's groups. The tribunal featured harrowing testimony from 33 victims of such abuses as domestic violence, wartime rape, genital mutilation, and economic discrimination. One woman had been forced into prostitution in the Netherlands, and another into sexual slavery in Korea. Two more had been set aflame: o ne by a husband in India and the other by a boyfriend in Brazil. Others spoke of being raped in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia.

Elizabeth Odio, a member of the UN Committee Against Torture, reflected on the cases, saying "The international definition of torture, which means acts intended to cause suffering, applies to every case we heard."

Already women's rights organizations are looking beyond the Vienna conference to find ways to combat such violence. Some are developing campaigns to push for adoption of the Draft Declaration on Violence Against Women when it comes up before the UN General Assembly this fall.

Many US organizations are looking for ways to win congressional ratification of CEDAW, an objective shared by the Clinton administration. Groups from Africa and Asia are planning tribunals for women who have suffered human rights abuses in Costa Rica, Mali, Burma, Thailand, and Japan. Most are gearing up for the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing.

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