|With Conservative Stand on Minors' Rights, U.S. Irks Its Allies|
With Conservative Stand on Minors' Rights, U.S. Irks Its AlliesLos Angeles Times, August 31, 2001
By Maggie Farley, Times Staff Writer
UNITED NATIONS—It's not that the US government doesn't support children's rights, American diplomats say. But the Bush administration does oppose the way the UN wants to ensure those rights and is taking a conservative stand that is leaving even its usual friends behind.
In the run-up to next month's UN Special Session on Children, the US has lined up with unusual company and against traditional allies in attempting to roll back earlier international agreements on minors' rights and access to health education and services.
In final planning meetings this week ahead of the special session, which opens Sept. 19, the US has joined with Sudan, Libya, Iran and Pakistan to promote what administration officials call "traditional values." Washington wants to be sure that the summit's final resolution will not promote explicit sex education, or even implicitly support abortion or raising the minimum age for recruiting soldiers to 18—all concepts enshrined in previous UN documents. "We lobby as we always do for our position on these things," said US negotiator Michael Southwick. "Sometimes politics and the UN make for strange bedfellows."
But diplomats say the Bush administration's focus on the abortion issue and conservative values has shifted the summit preparations away from core issues of health and survival in a way that makes some US allies resentful.
"How can we talk about a plan of action for children that doesn't deal with sex education and information?" said Brazilian negotiator Fernando Coimbra. "To face the challenges posed by HIV/AIDS and early pregnancy, we have to keep our children informed. To wait until they're over 18 is too late."
The US and Somalia are the only two members of the world body that haven't ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forms the framework of the summit resolution.|
The Bush administration—like earlier U.S. administrations—argues that the treaty would supersede US federal and state laws on sensitive issues. And although 80 countries are sending heads of state or government to the meeting at UN headquarters in New York, top US officials threatened to boycott if there wasn't enough support for their position.
Although no official announcement has been made, the administration now appears likely to send Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and Education Secretary Rod Paige.
"The US position on health issues and international instruments has been so combative and isolationist, we've ended up alienating traditional friends, especially Europeans," said a former senior US official involved in the talks who requested anonymity. "They're taking a much harder stance than they otherwise would have, and in a sense we've brought this on ourselves."
While some of the Bush administration's positions are consistent with previous American views—the U.S. wants to continue to recruit 17-year-olds for the military, for example—Washington's about-face on other stances has left many in a spin.
"Considering that the US helped craft the same language in past documents that it is now opposing, and that abortion—and free speech—are legal in the United States, this hard-line stance is a bit surprising," said Francoise Girard, program director for the International Women's Health Coalition.
One of the main conflicts is over language. In the summit's final resolution, the US wants to replace the term "reproductive health services" with "reproductive health care."
In the semantic arcana of the United Nations, terms are left deliberately ambiguous to allow each country to interpret decisions and documents. But in a June meeting, a Canadian negotiator defined "services" to include abortion.
A week later, the State Department sent cables to every US Embassy in Latin America instructing diplomats to lobby host governments to back US efforts to remove the wording. It was accompanied by a set of "talking points," which said that the US would not send high-level participants to the conference without support for its position.
Latin American diplomats have complained that between the lines was the threat to cut off aid, a charge US officials deny.
The US also wants to remove a clause providing special rehabilitation for girls who are war victims, fearing this could include birth control or abortion counseling for rape.
And though many Latin American countries oppose abortion, a number of them depart from the US on other issues Washington is pushing, including limiting information on reproductive health, teaching abstinence as the sole form of preventing premarital pregnancy, and moving away from the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
That leaves the US aligned with conservative Islamic countries and the Vatican against the European Union, the British Commonwealth, Scandinavia, many African nations—and clearly on the defensive, negotiators said Thursday.
The preparatory committee was supposed to agree on a draft declaration by today, but talks will probably continue throughout next week.
"We are willing to work on language that will keep the US on board," Brazilian negotiator Coimbra said.
Copyright, 2001, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission.