Women declare war of words at UN conference

TERESA POOLE

Peking

The UN World Conference of Women opens today, with the activities of the Chinese police threatening to overshadow its formal proceedings. Uniformed and undercover police were still thick on the ground yesterday at the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Forum, despite a noon deadline set by forum officials for an end to security, censorship and surveillance within the 104-acre site in Huairou.

On Saturday, the executive director of the forum, Irene Santiago, had warned of "appropriate action" if the Chinese did not comply with an agreement to end harassment of some delegates. Overnight, however, the determination to take a firm stand appeared to have waned. A vaguely worded statement was issued last night by the NGO organisers which said arrangements for disabled participants and other areas of concern had improved.

But it added that the committee was "seeking action on incidents involving surveillance and confiscation of Chinese-language materials in the Lesbian Tent. Every woman, whether they are Tibetans, lesbians or exiles deserves to have a voice".

At a public meeting yesterday, lesbian delegates described how individuals wearing Chinese Organising Committee badges had seized, on Saturday, Chinese- language literature on the global lesbian movement. Palecia Beverly Ditsi, from South Africa, said surveillance of the Lesbian Tent had reached "unacceptable" levels. The tent is constantly photographed and videoed by plain-clothes police.

In the morning, plain-clothes police punched and shoved a Canadian lawyer at a Chinese-run workshop on Tibet when she started distributing leaflets on conditions of Tibetan women. Eva Herzer, of the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet, told reporters: "They grabbed from all sides and started to punch me and pull at my bag ... They told me I had no right to speak about Tibetans."

The incidents at the NGO Forum threaten to overshadow the conference. For the negotiators from the 178 countries, the next fortnight promises to be a linguistic obstacle-course as they trudge between the meeting- halls and coffee-bars of the Peking International Convention Centre, struggling to define a global blueprint for women's advancement.

About a quarter of the main conference document, "Platform for Action", is still in dispute. The 131-page document, which is not binding, identifies 12 "critical areas of concern" for the world's female population, ranging from poverty to discrimination against the "girl-child". The most contentious parts concern human rights and reproductive rights.

According to the pressure group Human Rights Watch at the weekend, "some governments, among them Iran, the Holy See [Vatican City], India, Guatemala and Egypt, have threatened to roll back the gains for women's rights negotiated at previous conferences on human rights, population and social development". China and Iran are arguing against the "universality and indivisibility" of human rights, in favour of the more restrictive "universally recognised".

Some Arab countries want to use "equity" instead of "equality" for women, with particular reference to the division of property.

Reproductive rights, especially regarding abortion, is another battleground, with a "holy alliance" of the Vatican, hardline Catholic countries and Islamic fundamentalists lining up against liberal nations.

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