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United Press International, October 15, 2004

Bush Refuses to Support 1994 Cairo Agreement on Women's Rights

DATELINE: WASHINGTON -- With very little fanfare, President George W. Bush has refused once again to see the United States included among the signatories on an international declaration.

That the United States would not participate in international agreements that work against U.S. economic or national-security interests -- like the Rome Treaty establishing the International Criminal Court -- has been a major issue in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Bush sees it as a matter of principle -- that it is his job to ensure the United States does not have its sovereignty or its national interests subordinated to international treaties, agreements and declarations, many of which originate in the workings of the vast U.N. bureaucracy.

His political opponents counter the Bush approach to such matters smacks of dangerous neo-isolationism that borders on a "my way or the highway" approach to international relations.

Bush, nevertheless, remains firm.

The most recent example of that firmness is the administration's decision to withhold the president's signature from a declaration signed Wednesday by 85 nations -- as well as a number of prominent private citizens, including Bishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias -- reaffirming support for a 1994 agreement on women's rights hammered out in Cairo.

At the conclusion of the International Conference on Population and Development, 179 nations including the United States agreed to embark on a 20-year program that set targets for promoting what a U.N. news agency described as "sexual and reproductive health, women's empowerment, human rights and resource mobilization."

The declaration, which several news reports suggested media mogul Ted Turner, who has pledged millions in financial support for the United Nations, played a part in organizing, was issued on the 10th anniversary of the Cairo conference. It was signed by several important Bush allies on the world stage, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mexican President Vicente Fox, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.

For Bush, however, their endorsement was not good enough.

While the administration remains committed to advancing the rights of women around the world and frequently cites the number of women who participated in the recent Afghan presidential election as tangible proof of that the support, a senior U.S. State Department official said there would be no Bush signature for the anniversary declaration because it "goes beyond what was agreed to at Cairo."

The United States' particular complaint is that the declaration includes a clause committing the signatory nations to uphold "sexual rights," a term the Bush people say has no agreed-upon definition in the international community.

The phrase first appears to have been used at the 1995 U.N. conference on women in Beijing. Under the leadership of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the United States played a lead role in the production of a document signed by 180 nations -- including the United States -- that said women's rights "include their rights to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence."

The Bush administration reads the phrase as code for abortion rights, something the president firmly opposes and has acted to limit during his time in office..

Domestically, Bush signed into law a ban on partial-birth abortions in the United States, something that earned him kudos from the GOP base even after several federal judges who called it an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of women issued injunctions against it.

Internationally, Bush signed on his first day in office an executive order restoring President Reagan's 1984 "Mexico City Policy." That policy requires non-governmental organizations like the U.N. Population Fund to agree as a condition of receiving U.S. taxpayer funds that they will not perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning.

Bush's statement reinstating the Mexico City Policy that Bill Clinton -- who also signed Wednesday's anniversary declaration -- rescinded may be the president's clearest pronouncement on the matter.

"It is my conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or advocate or actively promote abortion, either here or abroad," he said in 2001.

As a result, the United States has repeatedly withheld tens of millions of dollars from the UNFPA because the U.N. agency, the United States says, provides assistance to China, which uses forced abortions to limit the growth of its population.

Both China and the UNFPA deny the charge.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration -- on moral as well as political grounds -- has remained firmly committed to its original position on the issue.

The Kerry campaign, which is barnstorming swing states in the Midwest looking for last-minute votes, hopes to make abortion an issue since women are thought to be a key bloc of undecided or persuadable voters.

Unlike Bush, Kerry endorsed the declaration and pledged in a statement of his own to reaffirm a "leading role" for the United States in fighting for women's rights -- including the right to abortion worldwide.

"I will repeal burdensome restrictions on family planning (and) restore U.S. funding to the (UNFPA)," Kerry said.

For the first time in recent memory, both candidates for president have danced around the issue on the campaign trail. Bush addresses it obliquely, as he did during the second debate when he brought up the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott decision affirming that at least some of the people living in the United States could be classified as a piece of property rather than as a person.

Kerry, on the other hand, falls back on his past as an altar boy to affirm what he says is his personal view while failing to trumpet his 20-year record of opposition to legislation restricting abortion rights or his receipt of the first presidential endorsement from Planned Parenthood's political arm.

Rather than being a centerpiece of one or both campaigns, Bush and Kerry both seem reluctant to face it head-on in the political arena -- though neither has shied away from it as a matter of policy.

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