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Women’s Meetings Rigorous, But Not Rancorous Closed-Door Negotiations In Beijing Marked By ‘Integrity And Good Will’

It was billed as a clash of civilizations over how to define the rights of women in language that could influence how all nations act.

So when delegates and activists from 185 nations started converging on the Chinese capital late last month for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women and a parallel forum of non-governmental organizations, many people thought that conservative Muslims allied with the Vatican and the anti-abortion coalitions of North America would join forces and storm the ramparts of the meeting halls here.

It’s not happening.

There is plenty of debate - even passion - at the United Nations conference, which opened on Monday and runs through next Friday, over how to define the fundamental rights of women in sexual relations, politics and the economy. The non-governmental forum, which began Aug. 30, ended Friday.

But there is little rancor - at least so far.

Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services and co-chairwoman of the U.S. delegation, characterized the marathon negotiations going on behind dozens of closed doors here Friday as marked by “integrity and good will.”

She pointed out that already there have been “significant steps forward” in shaping a consensus for the 120-page Platform for Action that will emerge from this conference to serve as recommendations for governments to improve the health and status of women.

The only person who seemed to be fuming Friday was Msgr. Peter Elliot of the Vatican delegation, who was trying to correct a Spanish press report that the Vatican had decided to accept all forms of contraception.

“As if,” he said, as he fumbled inside his briefcase for the Vatican’s rebuttal, “we would change our position on an issue like contraception at a conference like this.”

Privately, many delegates are saying that the most important factor in the conciliatory tone of the Beijing conference so far is the transformation of the Vatican’s strategy since last year, when the United Nations held its conference on population and development in Cairo.

“The Vatican has been smarting from Cairo,” a senior member of the U.S. delegation said, “and from all the bad press it got” by assailing the Cairo majority as “anti-family” on some points.

The Cairo declaration held that the best method to control population is to raise the educational and economic levels of women, while providing them with access to health care and family-planning services.

“This time, they don’t want to look like they are anti-United Nations,” the U.S. official said of the Vatican’s delegation.

In the meantime, Iran has sought to play a more pragmatic role as broker at this conference, carefully extracting itself from its earlier alliance with the Vatican, while restating its conservative Islamic views.

Although peace reigns now, that could all change, several delegates said Friday. Large, substantive issues remain that could throw this conference onto the shoals.