- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2000

NEW YORK Leaders of women's human rights groups say the Clinton administration is selling them out by pushing to legalize prostitution in U.N. negotiations on international agreements to counter sexual exploitation and trafficking of women and children.

Women's group leaders say the administration has pushed to decriminalize prostitution in negotiations on an international organized-crime convention in Vienna, Austria, and moved to remove condemnation of prostitution in a new U.N. women's rights agenda.

The moves angered leading feminist groups, which have joined in an unusual coalition with religious groups against the U.S. position.

"If we're renegotiating everything and haggling over what's already been decided, what's the utility of this process, and for the advancement of women's rights and human rights?" asked Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality NOW, an international human rights organization.

At Thursday's special session, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright warned against a retreat from the landmark 1995 Beijing conference, where 189 nations adopted an ambitious platform of sexual equality.

"Our movement to recognize and support women's rights is one of the most revolutionary and uplifting forces now shaping the world," Mrs. Albright said. "It is no longer possible, after Beijing, to deny that women's rights are human rights, and are indivisible from the universal rights of every human being."

At issue in New York is whether prostitution, now considered criminal by the United Nations, should be sanctioned as a form of women's labor.

President Clinton, in a letter May 22 to Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican, stated unequivocally: "My administration does not support prostitution… . In a statement to our delegation to the Vienna negotiations in January, we reiterated our opposition to prostitution in all its forms. We would not become a party to any treaty that weakened laws against prostitution."

But feminist leaders say U.S. negotiators have repeatedly tried to alter international sanctions to cover only "forced" prostitution, thus legalizing all prostitution not proved to be coerced.

They say the administration's first move toward legalized prostitution in Vienna negotiations in January was buttressed this week in negotiations for a new "Beijing+5" women's rights agenda to strike condemnation of prostitution from the document.

The move came when the Philippines delegation moved to strike the qualifying word "forced" from a paragraph on prostitution and U.S. negotiator Sharon B. Kotok moved to strike the entire reference to prostitution on grounds that "sexual exploitation" covered all abuses.

Ms. Kotok told The Washington Times the U.S. move was aimed at "cleaning up" the document by removing specified abuses such as prostitution. But she acknowledged the move was part of a calculated strategy planned beforehand by the United States in concert with Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union nations.

In a letter to Mrs. Albright June 2, Ms. Neuwirth wrote that she was told by the department's undersecretary of state for global affairs, Frank E. Loy, that "the U.S. government remains committed to the inadequate framework of force."

Ms. Neuwirth said that in addition to many developing countries, called the G-77, "we understand that objections to the 'force' framework have been voiced by many European countries, as well as the European Women's Lobby, the largest nongovernmental women's organization in Europe."

Twelve major feminist groups have insisted that the United States and U.N. member nations stick with international law under a 1949 U.N. convention that requires punishment of any person who "exploits the prostitution of another person, even with the consent of that person."

Similarly, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), accepted by more than 160 countries but not ratified by the United States, requires international measures "to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women."

Legalizing consensual prostitution would leave tens of thousands of women and children in poverty vulnerable to sexual exploitation by commercial sex traffickers, Ms. Neuwirth said. "Desperation of poverty is another type of coercion that won't be reflected. Whether a person is forced or lured out of a desperate situation, the trafficker should be held accountable."

Laura J. Lederer of the Protection Project, a global-trafficking survey at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said the dispute between feminist groups and the administration includes "a sub-agenda whether we're going to allow prostitution as a form of labor or not."

She said the women's movement is split on the issue, with one side wanting to treat prostitution as criminal exploitation and the other wanting "the world's oldest profession" to become a legitimate form of government-regulated commercial sex labor.

Meanwhile Thursday, some delegations voiced concern that there might be no report from the U.N. special session at all because of a continuing stalemate over provisions to expand homosexual rights, introduce new "sexual rights" for children at age 10, and require abortion training for health workers throughout the world.

There was a 5 p.m. deadline Thursday, which was not met, to get a finished consensus document so that translations could be done for the conference's final General Assembly session Friday.

The United States and European Union, joined by other liberal delegations, blamed the Holy See and undeveloped countries for the deadlock, but conservatives said the liberals' insistence on expanding the original Beijing document was the problem.

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