By Kath Gelber
More than 35,000 women from all over the world are expected to converge on Beijing in September for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. The UN has claimed the conference will "set [the] women's agenda into next century".
The whole event is to consist of two forums: a delegated UN official forum which will vote on a draft platform of action; and an NGO forum which will provide informal opportunities for women to meet and exchange information and ideas, as well as an opportunity to lobby the official delegates.
The content of the draft platform, the venue for the concurrent NGO forum and China's commitment to allowing open discussion are issues which have caused concern.
Some NGOs have warned that, unless action is taken to broaden involvement of grassroots women's organisations, the conference may actually reverse commitments to women's human rights made by governments and the UN over the past decade.
At the Vienna UN Human Rights Conference in 1993, women's rights were recognised as universal, inalienable and indivisible human rights. Other international conferences have recognised the importance of women's participation to achieve social equity, including the recent World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen. This has not yet been recognised in the Beijing conference's draft platform.
The draft is currently being circulated among women's organisations around the world in order to bring pressure on UN delegates who will have the final vote.
Thirty to 40% of the draft, currently 170 pages long, has not been agreed on. The Vatican, in alliance with representatives from Catholic-dominated countries, is working furiously to ensure that issues such as sexual orientation and reproductive rights are excluded. Conservative Muslim states are pushing the same anti-choice agenda.
In New York in March and April, the draft platform was discussed at the 39th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. This meeting followed regional meetings which had contributed to drawing up the draft.
It is not only women's organisations which are seeking to influence the content. Last September Amnesty International published a report entitled, "Equality by the Year 2000?", containing key issues it wanted included.
More recently, Amnesty has expressed concern that the draft omits adequate reference to: the universality and indivisibility of the human rights of women; international and regional human rights treaties and standards; governments' responsibility for violence against women; women as human rights activists.
The process of drawing up the platform has also been criticised. After the New York meeting, Latin American and Caribbean NGOs claimed that a draft which would have a positive impact on women's lives was being threatened by the conservative positions of a few states in coalition with the Vatican. They pointed out that the participation of NGOs in the draft process was unnecessarily restricted because UN working commission meetings were closed.
The NGO conference is held at the same time as the UN delegated conference, so it is essential (and has been the practice in the past) that it is held in the same area as the UN conference.
At the beginning of April, Supatra Masdit, convener of the NGO forum, was told by the Chinese government that the NGO forum had been relocated to a new venue — approximately 60 kilometres from the UN conference — at the Huairou Scenic Tourist Area.
This is one to two hours' bus ride from the centre of Beijing, making rapid face-to-face communication impossible. The new venue's largest meeting room will accommodate only 1700. In the previous venue, up to 15,000 could meet at one time. Telephone facilities are poor, and media coverage of the NGO conference would be extremely limited.
The change of venue has been widely interpreted as a move designed to minimise political fallout from NGOs' presence in Beijing. Protests have been lodged from around the world.
Barbara Palmer, a spokesperson for Coalition of Activist Lesbians — Australia, which was formed to develop strategies to place lesbian issues on the agenda at the conference, feels Beijing has gone too far in this attempt to limit free political expression. In her opinion, "Either the venue will be fixed, or Beijing will be dropped as a venue".
COAL, funded by the Office for the Status of Women, will be sending a delegate to the NGO conference in Beijing. Entry to the UN conference will be more limited, and some women's organisations have expressed concern that grassroots activists are being denied access to both conferences.
An organisation must be registered as an NGO to get a visa for the conference; non-accredited organisations won't get a visa. Entry to China could be made on a tourist visa, but this will not allow entry to the conferences.
At the New York meeting, a list was circulated of 500 NGOs which had sought and been denied accreditation. Many of these were small, local organisations which do not fit the UN criterion that organisations must be national in order to get accreditation.
Tibetan and Taiwanese women were denied accreditation on the basis that they do not represent UN-recognised countries. Groups representing the interests of sex workers have been opposed by the Vatican and conservative Muslim states like Iran.
Such restrictions have led to claims that the conferences will be out of touch with women's lives.
The Coalition of Australian Participating Organisations of Women released a statement deploring the barriers preventing the full and equal participation of women, from all countries and grassroots organisations.
Some are calling for a boycott. Supporters of the Boycott Beijing Campaign include the Campaign Free Tibet, based in London, which cites the lack of reproductive rights afforded to Chinese women as another reason to boycott. However, some Tibetan activists are arguing against this tactic, claiming the conference offers them an opportunity to voice their views.
Some activists, like Palmer, remain optimistic about the potential for the conferences to deliver. After her return from the New York preparatory meeting, she said, "It has given me a lot of strength to find [women internationally] do have this voice now". An Asia-Pacific "friendship tent" will be held in conjunction with the NGO conference, which Australia has for half a day. Singer/songwriter Judy Small has agreed to be a participant of the tent project.