In a blunt address Tuesday aimed at her Chinese hosts and at critics at home, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton sharply criticized China for its violations of human rights and its heavy-handed tactics as host of an international women’s conference.
Mincing few words, Clinton lambasted China’s government for refusal of visas to thousands of women participants, for use of its secret police to harass those delegates who did attend and for the nation’s forced abortion programs.
“It is indefensible that many women in non-governmental organizations who wished to participate in this conference have not been able to attend or have been prohibited from fully taking part,” she said.
“Let me be clear: Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organize and debate openly,” she added in an obvious reference to China and other nations that tolerate freedom neither of expression nor dissent.
“No one should be forced to remain silent for fear of religious or political persecution, arrest, abuse or torture,” Clinton said.
Her impassioned speech to the fourth U.N. Conference on Women appeared to give new impetus to the women gathered at the session as she assailed countries committing “intolerable” human rights violations against women.
“If there is any message that echoes forth from this conference, it is that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights,” she said.
Thousands of African, Asian, European and Latin American women wiped away tears and stood up to cheer in the corridors and meeting halls at Beijing’s Congress Hall. Only 1,500 delegates were able to cram into the conference room; the rest watched Clinton on television monitors.
Afterward, one Western diplomat described her speech as “a nightmare” for her Chinese hosts and “a cold shower” for Republican critics at home who argued her visit to Beijing would be turned into a Chinese propaganda coup.
In her address, Clinton made few diplomatic concessions to the Chinese government, other than not mentioning the host nation by name in her criticisms. Later she told reporters she hoped China “got the message.” There was no immediate reaction from Chinese authorities.
Clinton traveled this morning to Huairou, 30 miles north of Beijing, to show her solidarity with the 23,000 delegates from NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, who are holding seminars and workshops under the rigid surveillance of a Chinese security force.
Madeline Albright, U.S. chief delegate to the United Nations and the head of the U.S. delegation to the conference, described Clinton’s Beijing speech as a “home run.”
“Mrs. Clinton is no Johnny-come-lately to these issues,” Albright told a news conference. “She has been working on women’s and children’s rights all her life.”
When asked if the United States feared negative Chinese reaction to the speech, the ambassador snapped: “When you tell the truth, that’s the only way to go about this business. She has come here not to mince words but to get down to brass tacks.”
Without mentioning specific countries, Clinton listed as human rights violations the practice of female infanticide, a scourge in China where parents kill infant girls because they prefer to have boys.
“It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls,” she said.
She singled out the burning of brides in India by husbands or in-laws seeking new dowries and the rapes of women amid political conflict in Bosnia, Rwanda and Algeria. She said that 5,000 girls a day suffered genital mutilations.
She also spoke out forcefully for reproductive rights for women. “It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will.”
Hours later, Harvard professor Mary Ann Glendon, who heads the Vatican’s delegation to the conference, served notice that she will try to dilute a proposed conference statement that demands women be given access to family-planning methods, including abortion.
Glendon said men must have a say in decisions about birth control and families. “Responsibility in sexual matters belongs to both men and women,” she said.
Delegates saw this as an opening salvo in the battle over drafting of a 120-page action plan to culminate the U.N. conference. The Vatican is backing issues such as the protection of women from violence, more financial loans for enterprises headed by women and a more proportional representation in governments.
In her first speaking appearance, Glendon called for greater emphasis at the conference on traditional family values and motherhood. She called for measures to give mothers who dedicate their time to raising children official recognition as professionals and financial assistance, perhaps in the form of a government stipend.
Clinton’s visit ran smoothly Tuesday but she will be greeted at the Huairou Women’s Forum by noisy demonstrations as well as applause. Rallies In Huairou have been curtailed by Chinese police, but many activists see her visit as a golden opportunity to publicize their cause.
For days this small town has been blanketed by police and security agents, many of them posing as official Chinese delegates, interpreters and monitors.