UNITED NATIONS - An "unholy alliance" of Iran, Russia, the
Vatican and others is threatening to derail a UN declaration urging an end to
violence against women and girls by objecting to language on sexual,
reproductive and gay rights, some UN diplomats said
Delegates to the United Nations Commission on the Status of
Women are racing to reach a consensus deal on a final document by Friday and
some diplomats say the future of the commission - a global policy-making body
created in 1946 for the advancement of women - is at risk if they fail to broker
"There's this sort of unholy alliance ... coming together
to oppose language on sexual health, reproductive rights and LGBT (lesbian, gay,
bisexual, transgender) rights," one senior UN diplomat said. "It's tough
going, but progress is being made." "People recognize that if there's a failure
again this year to get an outcome document, then the whole future of the status
of women commission is at risk," he said on condition of anonymity because
negotiations are still underway.
Russia, the Vatican, Iran and other
conservative Muslim states including Egypt, object to references to access to
emergency contraception, abortion and treatment of sexually transmitted
diseases, women's rights activists said.
Last year, disagreements over
similar issues prevented the commission from agreeing on a declaration of a
theme of empowering rural women. Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile
and head of UN Women, which supports the commission, described last year's
impasse as "deeply regrettable" and disappointing.
Diplomats say key
sticking points in this year's draft text again revolve around sexual and
reproductive rights, the inclusion of gay rights and an amendment proposed by
Egypt that would allow countries to avoid implementing recommendations if they
clashed with national laws, religious or cultural values.
"It's still a
big fight," said one UN diplomat involved in negotiations and speaking on the
condition of anonymity, adding that language on lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender rights of women was unlikely to be included in a final
Egypt's amendment to recognize states'
sovereign rights in implementing the commission's recommendations was made on
behalf of the African group of nations, although diplomats say several African
countries distanced themselves from the proposal.
Some diplomats and
rights activists said the Egypt amendment undermines the entire declaration by
allowing states to ignore calls to end cultural and religious practices, such as
female genital mutilation. Western human rights advocates say the idea of
cultural tradition is often used to justify abuse of women.
an amendment that Russia has put forward about how unilateral sanctions are
promoting violence against women, which strikes us as a bit of a stretch and
it's slightly out of place," the senior UN diplomat said.
to unilateral sanctions appeared to be in relation to US and EU sanctions
against Iran and Syria.
Russia's difficulties with language on sexual,
reproductive and gay rights appears to be driven by what critics have described
as a bid by President Vladimir Putin to shore up support in his country's
largely conservative society.
Putin has criticized gays for failing to
help reverse a population decline. Putin has also drawn closer to the Russian
Orthodox Church, one of the most influential institutions in
Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia
University and a special adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, also
recently cited low birth rates in Russia and Iran as one possible reason for
their stance on reproductive rights.
Another senior UN diplomat
predicted that a watered down document would likely be agreed by Friday to "save
face." Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International
Women's Health Coalition, said prominent cases of violence against women, such
as the shooting of a Pakistani schoolgirl and education advocate and the gang
rape of a young woman in India, has mobilized women around the
"Countries can't go back home and look women in the eye and tell
them they could not reach agreement on ending violence against women," said
Kowalski, who has been following the negotiations. "There's a lot of pressure
here to have a strong agreement."