Girl at the U.N.
he first meeting of the 46th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women opened on March 4 with its first-ever election of a man Tunisia's Othman Jerandi as "chairperson." I had just arrived for my two-week stint as a U.S. delegate to the commission, and I figured that this crossing of the gender divide meant that my multilingual militant sisters had turned soft on men. Over the coming days, I was to learn the sadder truth: The feminist agenda has been so wildly successful at the U.N., with "gender mainstreaming" now all the rage, that real hostility emerges only when it's time to block some U.S. proposal. The U.N. prides itself on its organizing principle of "consensus," but delights in defining this term to mean ideas embraced by everyone but the U.N.'s single largest benefactor.
This year's delegation, which was led by conservative stalwart Ellen Sauerbrey (twice the GOP nominee for governor of Maryland) and included Nancy Pfotenhauer of the Independent Women's Forum and Winsome Packer, formerly of the Heritage Foundation, clearly signaled that there had been a change in management at the State Department: We've come a long way from Beijing, baby. Hillary Clinton is no longer running the international sisterhood show. Over the years, conservative pro-family non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have tirelessly patrolled the U.N., on guard against the establishment of "international rights" to engage in behaviors that most parents have nightmares over. They expect that the U.S. delegations will now be composed of their allies; feeling like the new girls at a peculiar kind of high school, we were grateful for their friendly faces.
The commission met in a large conference room in the basement of the U.N., far from the carpeted grandeur of the Security Council and General Assembly. The linoleum floors, pale green walls, snack bar, and bulletin boards littered with flyers on available activities (e.g., a panel discussion on "Getting Reproductive Health Results through Microcredit Interventions in Cost-effective Ways: Evidence from the Field") contributed to the U.N. High atmosphere. The multilingual conversations, espresso, Pellegrino, tiramisù, and laissez-faire policy on smoking evidenced a disproportionate number of foreign-exchange students. But that old dynamic was present: In this case, there were popular girls, and then there were the Americans.
As our class assignment, we were to tackle two themes in this annual session and reach "agreed conclusions" on them. The first week was devoted to listening to "inputs" from experts about "eradicating poverty, including through the empowerment of women throughout their life cycle in a globalizing world" and "environmental management and mitigation of natural disasters: a gender perspective." Owing to Ellen Sauerbrey's terrific "intervention" in response to one of the expert panels, we were quickly on the receiving end of "inputs" from Clinton-friendly NGOs that were less than pleased with the composition of the new U.S. delegation. Following one expert's assertion that "poverty does not just happen," Sauerbrey pointed out that "prosperity is not an accident" either: Its prerequisites include respect for human rights, the rule of law, property rights, and democratic governments. Later that day, a couple of dozen earnest older women representing liberal NGOs dragged their heavy canvas bags stuffed with reports, brochures, and meeting alerts ("We Are Pleased To Inform You That We Have Successfully Secured Space For a Linkage Caucus!!") across the street to the Church Center to scold the U.S. delegation. One woman complained that Sauerbrey had prompted "gasps" in the gallery, because her remarks were "quite arrogant and quite a put-down to other countries." Three days into our diplomatic gig, we were beginning to appreciate the demands of international comity.
But we had an agenda to put forward. Our U.S. resolution had to do with the "Situation of Women and Girls in Afghanistan"; during the second week we hosted lengthy "informals" on a daily basis so other delegations could modify our draft in order to reach the all-important "consensus." Our straightforward two-and-a-half-page draft, simply encouraging the Interim and Transitional Authorities to address the rights and needs of women and girls, grew to eight pages of specific prescriptive advice from our "negotiating partners." For example in a country, remember, where housing and food are scarce and only 5 percent of women are literate all government ministries were instructed to "develop their capacity to mainstream a gender perspective into their programs."
At every session, the European Union represented by Paloma, a clever and charming young delegate from Spain had further modifications, all immediately echoed by a non-EU delegate from Canada, Switzerland, or Australia, who was eager to be aligned with the popular girls. All of these serious young women were veteran delegates, some from their country's "Women's Ministry," who could cite chapter and verse from an intimidating number of previous U.N. documents to bolster the case that accepted U.N. doctrine and procedure must be strictly followed.
As the days dragged on with no agreement in sight, a call from the U.S. mission to the Spanish delegates, urging cooperation, was met with that recognizable European shrug and a sincere protestation: "But we're only one country among many" (which are anonymous and unaccountable). That afternoon's negotiating session was attended by a more conciliatory EU, and, for the first time, a forceful young woman from Chile who promptly took up the EU's positions. With about 190 countries attending the commission meeting, we immediately realized that there was a depressing supply of delegations the EU could hand off to, given the clearly shared goal of frustrating the U.S.'s simple desire to express support for the women of Afghanistan.
Ultimately, Sauerbrey's good humor and flexibility were no match for the determination of the EU to hand us a defeat. At the U.N., the EU is a voting bloc to contend with: At this small outpost on the East River, the EU is powerful enough to thwart the U.S., and so it does. By the time this session of the commission ended with a whimper, it was clear that the U.S., and only the U.S., had been negotiating in good faith.
From the outset, our delegation made it clear that the resolution could not dictate that Afghanistan ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which it, like the U.S., has signed but not ratified. Longstanding U.S. policy holds that it is inappropriate for the U.N. to pressure sovereign countries to join international conventions. The U.S. draft, therefore, urged Afghanistan to "consider" ratifying the convention; and those who see this as a distinction without much difference haven't spent time in U.N.-land.
The U.S. has so few bottom lines that I was very glad to defend this one; all the more so because the obvious intent of our opponents was to stick it to the U.S. over our own refusal to ratify the treaty. After days of negotiations that added pages to the resolution, in the final hour of the final session, the EU caucused in a back room and Paloma emerged to explain regretfully that the EU would have to amend our resolution on the floor to delete the word "consider." The U.S. delegation opted to let the clock run out, rather than permit the amendment.
In the end, there was only one roll-call vote: It was on that hardy U.N. perennial, the condemnation of Israel (in this case, it was in the context of a resolution on Palestinian women). A wall of curtains that had remained closed all week was opened to reveal a huge voting scorecard listing 190 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Member countries of the commission registered their votes from their assigned seats, and within two minutes the vote was "locked": Thirty-eight green lights appeared, with a single lonely red light next to the United States. It was a proud moment.
We didn't fare much better when it came to "agreed conclusions" on the assigned themes of the two-week session. The large multilingual commission spent long days editing the conclusions, word by word. White earpieces offered a simultaneous translation of every syllable of debate, so, for example, one didn't miss any of the 40-minute dialogue about whether "create" or "develop" was the proper opener for a paragraph on sustainable development. It was an ordeal appropriate to the Lenten season.
Sauerbrey's modest proposal to add a brief word about the importance of such preconditions as individual liberty and core labor standards to the lengthy and repetitive document on eradicating poverty was quickly shot down. Both the EU and the so-called "G-77 and China" (which actually represents about 124 developing countries) immediately objected because they preferred a document that was "short, concise, and action-oriented." In typical U.N. style, there was no debate on the merits: The system prefers to continue repeating "agreed language" from previous documents, rather than engage any new ideas. After eight years of the compliant, multilaterally inclined Clinton administration, reports and agreed conclusions are chock-full of obnoxious language about a boatload of new international "rights" and assaults on nations' sovereignty.
As a result of recent U.N. budget cuts, no evening or weekend sessions are permitted, and midway through the second week a rumor held that a slowdown was underway to protest the cutbacks. I was on the alert for signs of the protest, but a slowdown of the tedious work of U.N. delegations is very difficult to spot. But, ultimately, the clock did run out. At 6 P.M. on the final Friday, the translators had to be let go, and the microphones turned off. The commission had reached a consensus [sic] on "agreed conclusions," attacked Israel, and passed all resolutions except the American one. All in all, a happy result for our friends at the U.N.