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Vatican and Islam line up against the West

UN women's conference: Sex, parental responsibility and abortion divide liberal and conservative factions


Sexual rights, parental responsibilities and the punishment of women who have undergone illegal abortions were among key areas of disagreement between conservative and liberal negotiators at the UN World Conference on Women in Peking last night.These issues appear in the section on health, the most disputed part of a "Platform for Action" which must be agreed by Thursday.

Ambassador Merwat Tallawy, the Egyptian chairwoman of the committee on health issues, said the group was still ''far from any agreement'' over a paragraph on ''sexual rights''. Such an expression has not been used before in a UN document, and in the draft wording is defined as an individual's right to ''have control over and decide freely on matters related to her or his sexuality, free of coercion, discrimination and violence''. Negotiations were continuing into the night. ''It is a very sensitive area if you take into account the various background and culture of each region,'' said Ms Tallawy.

As the 12-day conference enters its final stages, the last battle-lines are being drawn between Western countries pushing to expand individual rights, and Islamic and Catholic countries who want more emphasis on marriage, motherhood and the family. The non-binding platform tries to draw together the most difficult agreements reached at the 1993 Vienna conference on human rights and last year's Cairo international meeting on population and development.

Half of the 438 ''brackets'' in the text have still not been agreed, but officials say negotiations are on schedule.

In practice, countries have the rights to lodge ''reservations'' if they do not agree with the final wording. Arguments over the provision of health and sex education for adolescents have centred on the question of parents' right to control such information.

On the question of ''reviewing laws containing punitive measures against women who have undergone illegal abortions'', there is ''only one delegation or two'' holding up agreement, said Ms Tallawy. The main block is believed to come from an Islamic state.

There would be no dilution of wording agreed in Cairo. But the platform is also trying to introduce new concepts. ''Sexual orientation'', a phrase which appears in the human rights section, has yet to have an agreed use or definition. Still in dispute is action on legal safeguards ''to prevent discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or lifestyle''.

Over the weekend, the Vatican, which heads a Catholic lobby of countries including Malta, Guatemala and Honduras, criticised the European Union's stance on the family and religion. The Vatican rejects the plurality of the phrase ''family structures'', saying it condones single-parent and same-sex couple families. It accused the EU of being part of an ''active coalition'' which wanted to remove all but negative references to religion.

The other subjects of contention are human rights and the financial resources which will be available to implement the Platform for Action. On human rights, countries such as China and Iran are lobbying against the ''universality'' of rights, saying that human rights differ according to culture. Some Islamic countries are arguing for ''equity'' rather than ''equality'', saying that women and men have different rights.

On the issue of money, the question whether there will be ''new and additional'' resources is still under negotiation, but the document will probably stress the need for the reallocation of existing money. The final sentence of the Platform, on the ''mobilisation of additional resources from within the UN regular budget'' is in brackets.