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Beijing 1995: An Exercise in futility? PDF Print E-mail
Justice News
Posted by Joan Russow
Sunday, 20 July 2014 12:11


By Paul Watson Asian Bureau the Toronto Star Sunday September 17, 1995


Beijing Joan Russow had an idea so sensible it sounded flaky when thousands of people were earnestly writing and rewriting more solemn promises to help the World’s women. \\Why not concentrate on making governments live up to the shelves upon shelves of accords, conventions, constitutions, declarations, resolutions and treaties that have been filed away for decades.


Instead, activists and bureaucrats spent two years in planning meetings, another 17 days in discussions here, and millions of dollars to come up with yet another United Nations document.


Russow, a sessional lecturer on global issues at the University of Victoria B.C. lobbied for days to get a motion on the floor demanding that governments live up to the commitments they’ve already made.


That was a lot like insisting the emperor has not clothes, so Russow and her supporters got mostly blank stares and hostility.


“I’m supportive of the commitments to a certain extent,” she said in an interview. “But if you get governments to commit to less than they’re already obliged to do, is that success?”

Talk isn’t cheap when it comes to world gatherings.

The UN , which is constantly teetering on the brink of bankruptcy spent 2.5 million US on the Fourth World Conference on Women which ended with a diluted action plan to improve women’s lives.


If you get governments to commit to less than they’re already obliged to do, is that success?” Joan Russow University of Victoria Lecturer


The 189 states that participated all paid to send more than 5000 official delegates. Another 25,000 non-governmental delegates and more than 3,000 journalists added millions more dollars to China’s economy.


Canada alone spent $1 million over the past two years helping Canadian and Third World women prepare national reports for the conference.


Ottawa paid out another $400,000to subsidize travel and hotel costs, to make sure the forum wasn’t off limits to women living on low incomes.


The big question is: What did all the money and talk achieve?


For one thing, the largest gathering of the world’s women in history fired up the feminist movement and forged new alliances that will bolster their struggle for equality.


But there was a lot of enthusiasm and high expectation, a decade ago after the U.N. Third world Conference on Women, five years before that at the second - and no doubt way back in 1975 at the first.


The people who believe in such conferences and negotiate hard through frustrating days and nights to make them work, argue that at the very least, they chip away at archaic ideas.


“ I say to you that like the Berlin Wall fell, there will be a change in the walls that surround those women who do not have the right to express themselves freely,” said Sheila Finestone, Canada’s secretary of state for women.


Detractors counter that the endless often arcane, debates can hurt by creating mirages of progress while draining energy , and more money from the hard work of really helping the people who suffer.


What are they doing most of the time here but talking about previous conferences that are not legally binding? Russow said as the Beijing forum ended.


The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women was adopted in 1979 and came into force two years later.

Yet more than 60 of the UN’s 175 members states - even the United States  -  still haven’t signed it, and show up in places like Beijing to quarrel yet again over some of the convention’s basic principles.


Russow is convinced that the universal Declaration of Human “rights” adopted away back in 1948, is broad enough to cover demands for gay rights which were rebuffed again in Beijing.

“That is a profound document on Human rights” she said. “And the drafters of it wanted to ensure , I would presume, that any form of discrimination that was not anticipated at that moment of the adopting in 1948 would be accommodated.”, [and for that purpose included at the end of a listed grounds included other status].


The[ Declaration, one of the cornerstones of International human rights law, must do something right because several countries are still unwilling to ratify[ abide by it]  it.


Among other things, the 1948 declaration bans discrimination of any kind and includes a list of examples such as sex and race. [ and includes “other status”]


It also prohibits torture, arbitrary arrest, cruel , inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment – all of which were decried yet again in Beijing.


And here’s the best part : it allows no territorial exception, like the cultural and religious ones allowed in the compromise on women’s rights reached here after so much more argument.


Most of the debate in Beijing wouldn’t have meant much to a woman raped in Rwanda because U.N soldiers weren’t allowed to protect her, or one in Regent Park waiting to be kicked off welfare because of budge cutbacks.

Solvent only a few of the problems that millions of girls and women face, like getting a seat in school fair wages for their work, or protection from violence demands a massive effort.


But the U.N Women’s conference took on much more than that.


The action plan adopted Friday calls on government to ban nuclear testing and eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Of course the world’ government already agreed to get rid of weapons of mass destruction at a conference in Stockholm in 1972, Russow said. She has a book full of other examples, 350 pages think, which she hauled around at the conference in her futile effort to get people to listen.


The U.N celebrates its 50th birthday next month and the Beijing conference missed “a unique opportunity to say “enough,”

Let’s fulfill 50 years of obligations related to peace, the environment and human rights.


No one can deny that women have made tremendous gains since the first U.N. Women’s’ conference 20 years ago in Mexico, often because they seized their rights instead of waiting for permission.


Reading some of the statistics on just how bad things still are for most of the worlds’ women you have to wonder why anyone who cares has time for more meetings.


Among the troubling figures, the UN says that:


92 million women living in cities don’t have access to safe drinking water; the number is growing even though experts already agree that the shrinking supply of clean water is one of the biggest dangers facing the planet in the next century.


So few women are making it into the top ranks of management that at the current rate of Progress, it would take 475 yes for women to reach equality with men as senior managers.


More than I million babies die each year from malnutrition, neglect and abuse simply because they are girls, according to UNICEF.


Despite decades of platitudes about ending war and as many years of flooding unstable regions with weapons there are almost 50 million refugees; 75 per cent are women and children.


More than 70 per cent of the World’s 1.3 billion people living in absolute poverty are women


With numbers like those there is little doubt that a decade from now when thousands of delegates convene the U.N. ‘s fifth world conference on women, they’ll have lots to talk about.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 28 January 2015 16:54

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