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Sexual Rights for Women Bog Down U.N. Meeting

By Deborah Zabarenko

UNITED NATIONS, June 9, 2000 (Reuters) - Negotiators hammering out a U.N. plan to improve women's lives wrangled over sexual rights and the handling of domestic violence on Friday in the waning hours of a five-day global conference.

In an all-night debate that reminded one activist of ''theater of the absurd,'' a coalition of women's health and rights advocates blamed the Vatican and a handful of mostly Islamic states for obstructing progress on a final document.

A U.S. official who monitored the negotiations said a range of issues were unsettled in Friday's early hours, from the treatment of those who commit violence against women to such issues of sexual freedom as adolescent sexuality to gender discrimination and abortion.

However, the official was optimistic that representatives from some 180 countries, with input from more than 1,200 activist groups, would reach consensus on a document that was to build on a previous pivotal women's conference in Beijing five years ago. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Beijing gathering produced a Platform for Action, which included a list of 12 challenges for the world's women, from the feminization of poverty to treatment of girls. The current New York meeting was convened to issue specific targets, including timetables, for implementing the Beijing program.

Women's health and human rights advocates have complained throughout the current meeting that the Vatican, Pakistan, Iran, Libya, Algeria and Nicaragua have stalled progress, and even tried to erode strong language in the Beijing document.

Poland, which has clashed on women's rights with the European Union which it hopes to join, also was on the conservative side. And Kenya at times joined this group.

In response Catholic groups accused the West of trying to put radical concepts into a new document that were not contained in the Beijing platform.

With time running out, U.S. delegates said they expected the new document would repeat much of the language used in Beijing rather than trying to insert new analysis.

Under arcane U.N. procedures conference documents are devised through consensus, rather than a vote, which nearly every country can veto.

While the agreements are non-binding, they are widely used to set global standards for regional and international bodies as well as by activists lobbying their respective governments to implement legislation accordingly.

'Theater Of The Absurd'

``The worst thing that has been happening this week is the sense of deja vu, that this small handful of countries consistently sought to block consensus and drop the negotiations into a sort of theater of the absurd, where basic ideas, such as the idea of women's rights as human rights, are questioned,'' said Amparo Claro, of the Latin American and Caribbean Women's Health Network in Chile.

Kathy Martinez of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy echoed those sentiments, but also saw progress on HIV/AIDS regarding women, punishment for marital rape, and the idea of granting refugee status to women who have faced persecution because of their gender.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, fresh from a trip to the Middle East, addressed the formal session in the General Assembly on Thursday, specifically targeting violence against women and trafficking in human beings.

Albright, who attended the Beijing conference, said it was no longer possible to justify some abuses against women as part of a cultural tradition.

``When a woman is raped, beaten or mutilated it is not cultural, it is criminal. And no government after Beijing can deny its responsibility to stop these crimes,'' she said.

The issue of trafficking has not generally been a problem in negotiations. But the meetings have been heated over domestic abuse, marital rape and ``honor'' killings of women who ''shame'' the family as a definition of violence.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a statement, expressed concern that important parts of the document were unresolved.

Responding to complaints that some states were trying to reverse gains made in Beijing, Annan said it was important that any new document ``maintains in full all of the commitments'' agreed on Beijing.''