The distant sound of drumbeats coming from the musicians outside the Kenyatta Conference Center became more persistent. A flying wedge of military and plainclothes men strong-armed their way through the packed Plenary Hall Monday as they escorted the dignitaries to the dais. Under a blue and white banner proclaiming, “United Nations Decade for Women Conference: Nairobi, Kenya-15-26 July 1985,” the nine dignitaries seated themselves. They were seven men and two women.
“The World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace” had begun. The opening session, while smacking of international urgency, did not reveal the behind-the-scenes drama that was unfolding here as the American delegation struggled with the Third World faction over crucial procedural matters. A tenuous compromise was reached, allowing the conference to continue.
In the opening session, Javier Perez de Cuellar, secretary-general of the United Nations, delivered a barely audible statement alternating between English, French and Spanish. He introduced and was followed by Daniel Arap Moi, president of the Republic of Kenya, who declared the conference officially open.
The words of both men were strong as they declared the decade that was concluding an important one and the task of the conference crucial. The close of the decade was really only a beginning, Perez de Cuellar told them.
Speaking of the formidable task that lay before them, and acknowledging the differences and conflicts they would face, Perez de Cuellar urged the delegates to proceed in a spirit of compromise, telling them, “You owe it to all women in the world and to yourself, to approach the work of this conference in a manner that will lead to positive and enduring results.”
Moi used almost the same language to tell the delegates they owed it to the women of the world “to come up with a document” so that the work of obtaining for women equality, development and peace became a reality ensuring that “1985 was not in vain.”
The pleas of both men were not just standard rhetoric for a public gathering. The conflicts were palpable among the 1,400 delegates from 159 nations seated before them. Delegates were seated two per country, at tables of eight, with the same setup of eight seated in a row of chairs behind them. Thanks to the ironies of alphabetical order, at one such table were seated Iran, Iraq, Ireland and Israel, the Iranian delegation consisting of three chador-clad women and one man in a business suit.
Among the early no-shows were the Bahamas, Burma, Lebanon, Qatar, Peru, Singapore and South Africa. Peru is on its way. Only Burma and Qatar have said they will definitely not be sending a delegation.
Earlier, during the two hours that it took for the hall to fill, the three delegates of the African National Congress, an outlawed political party in South Africa that has official observer status with the United Nations but cannot vote, seated themselves in the seats reserved for South Africa.
“We feel it is our right,” ANC member Frene Ginwala, who said she lives outside South Africa, told listeners. With her at the conference were ANC members Gertrude Shope and Ruth Monpati, she said, while more than 30 members were simultaneously participating in Forum ’85, the unofficial conference for non-governmental organizations that is being held at the University of Nairobi. If the official South African delegation showed up, Ginwala said, they would put it to the test and see what the conference officials would do.
In another section sat the four American delegates: at the table, chairwoman Maureen Reagan, daughter of President Reagan, and deputy chairwoman Nancy Clark Reynolds; behind them, Paula Kuzmich, secretary of the U.S. secretariat for the conference, and Alan Lee Keyes, U.S. ambassador to the economic and social council.
The Americans had been up all night, Keyes said later at a press briefing. They had not been partying.
The conference was preceded this weekend by two days of pre-conference meetings for the delegates. Essentially, they were negotiating sessions for matters left unresolved at preparatory meetings held earlier and elsewhere.
One such unresolved matter, regarding paragraph 34 of the rules of procedures (scheduled to be adopted in Monday’s afternoon session), left the Americans and “the group of 77" (a collection of countries, most of them Third World, at odds with the United States on certain issues) at an impasse. They were serious enough for a time that the conference was in danger of not getting past the morning inaugural ceremonies that ended with Margaret Kenyatta of Kenya being elected president of the conference.
The confusion centered around American objections to a majority approach procedure that was used in Mexico City and Copenhagen conferences held in 1975 and 1980 to mark the Decade on Women. Because of the now-famous and so-called “politicization” of those conferences, especially on issues involving Palestinians and Israelis, and language equating Zionism with racism, the American delegations, voting in concert with official governmental policies, had voted against documents they in large part endorsed.
At Nairobi, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the subject of apartheid in South Africa, and positions taken on the world economic order, disarmament, the arms race and definitions of imperialism are certain to rise and likely to put the Americans at odds with the majority.
The major document to be considered at Nairobi is called “Forward Looking Strategies,” which is a plan of action for the years 1986-2000. It consists of 300 paragraphs, 213 of which have already been agreed to at preparatory meetings. The remaining 87 paragraphs are “bracketed,” indicating not all nations agree to them yet.
To avoid what happened in 1975 and 1980 and to steer the discussion toward women’s issues rather than radical politics, the United States has been lobbying for its adoption by consensus rather than majority vote. Consensus, in diplomatic parlance, means unanimous agreement. Differences still could be debated, and resolutions or separate documents adopted, by majority vote.
With the “Group of 77" having reportedly swelled its ranks to 125, the United States delegation did not arrive in Nairobi with the world at its command.
Ready to Compromise
They did arrive, Reagan said at a press briefing held between morning and afternoon sessions, ready to compromise, having accepted a Canadian proposal. This would have entailed adopting the current rules of procedure, with the understanding, to be agreed to in advance, that the Forward Looking Strategies would be adopted by consensus.
This was not acceptable to the “Group of 77" either, and the Sunday night meeting held to slug it out, ended at 1 a.m. Monday with nothing resolved.
Thus began the world conference. Monday was taken up with behind-the-scenes meetings and constant press briefings sandwiched in between the official proceedings. Perez de Cuellar was asked to come up with an alternative plan that both sides might accept and he did, meeting with all factions separately.
By the time the afternoon session resumed, the problem had been resolved. For the moment. All sides agreed to adopt the rules of procedure, after which it would be announced that the Forward Looking Strategies “ should be adopted by consensus.”
As Clear as Mud
A U.N. official, Francois Gioliani, announced this at the press briefing where the consensus seemed to be that the solution was as clear as mud. When the fine points of difference between the words should and will could not be distinguished further, with Gioliani laughingly protesting English was not his first language, the discussion of the two English words continued in French.
Finally, he agreed, the delegates were consenting to a non-binding expression of intent.
And that is how the afternoon proceeded.
At yet another press briefing, Keyes said, “We feel like we have achieved a basis on which we can proceed effectively.”
Maureen Reagan said, “We consider it to be a moral victory.”