Rio+20 earth summit: Why Hillary Clinton won applause for statement on women

The UN's Rio+20 earth summit set only modest goals, but sparked controversy over the Vatican's successful effort to remove reference to 'reproductive rights' from the final document. Hillary Clinton vowed the US would ensure 'those rights are respected.'

Victor R. Caivano/AP
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, and Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard share a laugh during the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday.

The United Nations’ global summit on sustainable development concluded in Rio de Janeiro Friday with only modest and nonbinding goals, and in the eyes of some critics it even took a giant step backwards – by eliminating from its final document any reference to women’s “reproductive rights” of the kind that has figured in similar summits’ statements for the past two decades.

The Rio+20 summit – so named because it took place 20 years after the landmark Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992 – underwhelmed leaders and private-sector participants alike for its lack of bold initiatives and landmark treaties, such as the biodiversity and greenhouse-gas initiatives that came out of the first Rio summit.

But Rio+20 nevertheless generated controversy over the successful campaign by the Vatican and developing countries to eliminate any reference to reproductive rights from the summit’s final text.

The document still advocates universal access to family planning and the integration of reproductive health into national development strategies. But a reference to reproductive rights – language similar to wording that has long been included in development and women-advancement summits’ statements – was stricken, while the Vatican prevailed in its opposition to a phrase that called “access to reproductive health services” an important element of women’s empowerment.

Numerous world summits have called on governments to recognize the role that reproductive health plays in advancing women’s health and economic well-being since a 1994 Cairo summit on population and development declared for the first time that women’s human rights include reproductive rights.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who attended the summit’s closing session Friday, seemed to chide global leaders over the retreat on women’s rights as she underscored the US commitment to “reproductive rights.” Clinton received enthusiastic applause when she said, “Women must be empowered to make decisions about whether and when to have children,” and then added that the US “will continue to work to ensure that those rights are respected in international agreements.”

Several prominent advocates of women’s rights criticized the summit’s final document and its vague or absent wording on gender issues. Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister and a member of The Elders, a group of global statesmen formed by Nelson Mandela in 2007, called the wording “a step backwards from previous agreements.”

A group of human rights advocacy organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Center for International Environmental Law, issued a statement citing Rio’s “worryingly minimal commitments” as evidence that “global economic troubles are being matched by a recession in human rights.”

In addition to the reproductive rights omission, the organizations said the summit fell short on issues of corporate accountability. They pointed specifically to a successful effort – this one backed by the US – to delete a reference reaffirming the responsibility of business to respect universal human rights.

In her speech, Secretary Clinton focused on what she called a remarkable evolution in thinking about and carrying out sustainable development, a change she said has included a broadening of the actors leading on development from governments and international institutions to include private players – such as business.

Citing what she called the growing “power of the market” in spreading development and raising millions of people out of poverty, Clinton noted that the official development assistance share of total capital flows into developing countries has tumbled from 70 percent in the 1960s to only 13 percent today.

With that shift in investment in developing countries to a predominant role for business and nongovernmental organizations has come new ways of thinking, she said.

Saying “the most compelling products of this conference are the examples of new thinking that can lead to models for future action,” Clinton then cited one of America’s, and the world’s, most visionary entrepreneurs of the 21st century. “It should be said of Rio,” she said, “that people left here thinking, as the late Steve Jobs put it, not just big, but different.” 

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