Thursday, May 31, 2007

VIENNA, Austria — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and 19 other female ministers, diplomats and lawmakers from around the world called on the United Nations yesterday to appoint more women in high-level positions, including as special envoys to trouble spots.

Miss Rice and Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik co-hosted a meeting of the Women’s Empowerment Network Steering Group. The group was established by Miss Rice at the U.N. General Assembly opening session in New York in September.

“The fact that there is currently no woman among 54 United Nations envoys to conflict and post-conflict regions is unacceptable,” they said in a statement following the meeting in Vienna, the Austrian capital.

The group urged U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “to increase the number of women among United Nations special representatives and envoys including as heads of peace operations.” They pledged “to work towards the nomination of more women as envoys and mediators also in other international and regional organizations.”

Participants in the session also included the European Union’s commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi and the outgoing U.N. General Assembly president, Haya Rashed al-Khalifa of Bahrain.

The network’s meeting accompanied a conference on empowering women in the Middle East, but the group acknowledged that many of the rights they are advocating clash with the region’s male-dominated religious and cultural traditions.

“It’s absolutely the case that, unless women are fully participants of their societies, these societies cannot really be fully democratic, and that is something we are absolutely devoted to,” Miss Rice said.

“These have to be matters of choice, and I emphasize particularly political rights, because without political rights you can’t possibly express choice,” she said. “The women of the Middle East are going to country by country and region by region find the appropriate balance between tradition and women’s empowerment.”

Miss Rice also said she has been “very warmly received” during her travels in the Middle East and does not “feel barriers.” She noted, however, that in her hosts’ eyes she is first and foremost the U.S. secretary of state, and then a woman.

Mrs. Plassnik, the Austrian foreign minister, said that many “open wounds” in the Middle East will be difficult to overcome.

“We have no illusions about the obstacles still facing us, nor about the urgency for action,” she said. “Women in the Middle East are not just an amorphous mass of people without rights and aspirations.”

Mrs. Livni and Mrs. Ashrawi shook hands under the glare of cameras and called for increased dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, which does not have to wait until their decades-long conflict is resolved.

“This meeting is a starting point. It’s not the end. I hope we work together in order to make that difference,” Mrs Ashrawi said.

Mrs. Livni said that, “at the end of the day, we share the same threats.”

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