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In contrast to last summer's United Nations conference on women in Beijing, this month's U.N. Conference on Human Settlements in Istanbul, Turkey, seemed a tame beast. But appearances can be deceiving: Even a tame beast has claws.
The meeting, nicknamed Habitat II, drew less than half the participants last year's Beijing U.N. conference did; 10,000 fewer came to Turkey's capital than were expected. But while the numbers were down, one thing still resembled Beijing: The Istanbul gathering's stipulated concern for discussing world housing policy was co-opted by a U.S.-led push to include pro-abortion language similar to that advocated last summer. The ideal cities of the future will provide greater "access to reproductive and sexual health care services," U.S. representatives argued in Istanbul.
While some pro-life advocates actively opposed attempts to insert pro-abortion language in the conference's final document, others downplayed the issue and focused on the pressing problems of city life: urban decay, crime, and homelessness. Of equal concern were calls for a universal right to shelter that could subject any country to legal risk for failing to provide housing for its citizens, or for allowing evictions or the destruction of shantytowns. Eventually those provisions were watered down in the final Istanbul statement.
Next to last in a series of controversial, liberal-leaning world conferences that began four years ago in Rio de Janeiro with a meeting on the environment, Habitat II-not to be outdone by the others in being overly ambitious-sought to combat the problems of growing world urbanization. Fifty years ago, organizers note, less than a third of the world's people lived in cities. By 2025, they say, two-thirds of the world's expected population will reside in cities and many will be in poor countries where local governments are poorly run. New York is expected to continue its descent from world's largest metropolitan area in 1950 and third-largest in 1995, to 11th place in 2015. The expected metropolises of tomorrow: Tokyo, Bombay, Lagos (Nigeria), Shanghai, Jakarta, Sao Paulo, Karachi, Beijing, Dhaka (Bangladesh), and Mexico City.
Back in the United States, House and Senate Republicans led by Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina began hearings June 4-the same day the the Istanbul meeting convened-to decide whether the United States should even participate in such future world policy gatherings, and if so, in what way. They question the value of the world meetings to produce solid results, and the agenda of some U.S. participants to push pro-abortion policies on poor but resistant Third World countries.
Those gathered in Istanbul were a decidedly less ferocious lot than at the infamous Beijing meeting: "Airline Ambassadors," a group of flight attendants volunteering hospitality and humanitarian services in Istanbul, replaced the homosexual activists who held a lesbian flirtation techniques workshop at Beijing. Absent the Gloria Steinems and Bella Abzug toadies, buttoned-down bureaucrats, and mayors in dignified dress from the world over took center stage. (The official U.S. delegation included three mayors, Democrat Kurt Schmoke from Baltimore, and Republicans Gene Roberts of Chattanooga, Tenn., and Gregory Lashutka of Columbus, Ohio.)
But Istanbul still saw its share of controversy: When the United States repeated its calls to loosen worldwide abortion restrictions, the measure drew criticism from many quarters. Developing nations complained that the United States was trying to rewrite the meeting agenda and intrude on the sovereign right of nations, in addition to the familiar protest from conservative NGOs (non-governmental organizations certified to attend and observe the meeting) and the Vatican.
"This language occurs in almost all U.N. documents related to women's health," complained former U.N. aide Ellen Lukas. "But the U.S. taking the lead at this time is a bit of a surprise because of the presidential campaign." But with the press giving little attention to Istanbul, the U.S. delegation showed no fear in pressing for family planning language similar to Paragraph 93 of last year's Beijing Platform for Action, which stated: "Concern and access to sexual and reproductive health information and services for adolescents are still inadequate or lacking completely, and a young woman's right to privacy, confidentiality, respect and informed consent is often not considered."
Pro-life and pro-family groups monitoring Istanbul quickly pounced on the U.S. initiative. Officials with Concerned Women for America said U.S. pro-abortion efforts in Istanbul actually went further than at previous conferences by pressing for the right to sex clinics at home and abroad. Said Carmen Pate, a spokeswoman for CWA: "This was supposed to be a U.N. conference on housing, and we don't understand how this has turned into a platform to promote government-funded reproductive health clinics worldwide."
Ms. Lukas, who worked as a speechwriter for former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim and has since worked with the Family Research Council and the Latin-American group, World Organization of the Family, says the issues involving abortion, population control, and so-called reproductive health won't go away. "Conferences are not the only U.N. effort that will involve assaults on the family. It is in the language of all U.N. documents related to women. If it doesn't pop up in one place it will pop up again. The pro-family and pro-life people who want to oppose this agenda have to do it all the time."
The protests of Ms. Lukas and others may finally be getting a real hearing in the nation's capital. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Helms, has made himself a perennial roadblock to funding for many U.N. programs. But recently he has turned his attention more decidedly toward challenging the nature of U.S. participation in the world conferences. "I doubt that many Americans have even the vaguest notion as to what role, if any, these conferences play in promoting U.S. interests overseas," he said by way of introduction to the June 4 hearing on the subject.
Congress held off examining U.S. funding for such world conferences (only one in the present series remains, a meeting on food aid in Rome) until a General Accounting Office study could be completed on the cost of last year's gathering in Beijing. Just out, that GAO study says the U.S. government spent $5.9 million on Beijing alone. That is more than the administration has requested for the State Department's entire "international conferences and contingencies" budget, which it says will cover 650 conferences for 1997.
Sen. Helms said the report demonstrates that the Clinton administration spends far more than it claims on the meetings by funneling millions through the White House and agencies other than the State Department. Too little has changed, he said, since a 1990 Inspector General's audit stated that the State Department "has little practical control over conference participation and is unable to accurately report either internally or externally on the scope of such representation."
But the senator conceded to Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth, the hearing's chief witness, that the conferences were "a bipartisan folly" since they began under the Bush administration.
Senate Republicans are promising "a legislative remedy" to the escalating costs of the conferences and the social agenda they support even as they press the White House to account for what is being spent. Hints of the cure are in the foreign aid budget just passed by the House Appropriations Committee. It cuts President Clinton's request for 1997 by $1 billion and trims last year's appropriation by $200 million. Funding for several international agencies, including the World Bank, falls by as much as 44 percent. The bill, which has not yet passed the Senate, requires international family planning groups to pledge not to perform abortions-even with other, private funds-in order to receive $356 million in federal assistance.