Back to Basics at Beijing Meeting : Hillary Clinton returns focus to true issues


“If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” With that, Hillary Rodham Clinton crystallized the issues that have brought tens of thousands of women to Beijing for the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women. Her speech on Tuesday helped to refocus attention on conference matters: education, health care, reproductive rights, violence against women and girls and denial of human rights.

At the same time, the First Lady put Beijing on notice that its human rights record and other repressive policies had not gone unnoticed during the U.N.-sponsored gathering. In doing so, she dispelled much of the controversy surrounding her decision to attend the conference at a time when Sino-U.S. relations are at a low.

HITTING A NERVE: A sign that her words hit a nerve among Chinese authorities was that it was given only a two-second mention on the national evening news and was considered unlikely to be reported in the state-run press. The Vatican, which has been critical of some of the reproductive and family planning issues to be discussed at the conference, endorsed the address.


Mrs. Clinton was careful not to overtly criticize China, but she indirectly condemned its coercive one-couple, one-child population control policy. In lashing out against harsh population policies in general, she said, “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.”

The First Lady also gave voice to the frustration of delegates of Non-Governmental Organizations, whose meetings have been confined to an area 30 miles north of Beijing and stifled by heavy and intrusive Chinese security. Mrs. Clinton complained that it was indefensible that many NGO delegates who wished to participate in the U.N. conference had not been able to attend--or had been prohibited from fully taking part. “Let me be clear,” she told a plenary session. “Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organize and debate openly. It means respecting the views of those who may disagree with the views of their governments.”

RARE OPPORTUNITY: The U.N. conference provides a once-in-a-decade opportunity for women from around the world to empower themselves by devising and directing policies that address their needs. Until Mrs. Clinton’s speech, the issues were obscured by Beijing’s heavy-handed tactics, which included barring South African representative Winnie Mandela from the opening ceremonies because she was late.

In highlighting abuse and violence against women, the First Lady cited many instances, including the thousands of women who are subject to rape as a tactic of terror or prize of war, as in Bosnia. This is one of the many reasons why women’s rights are human rights.