Refugee advocates and abortion rights groups are gearing up to fight the appointment of a veteran Vatican diplomat to head the State Department's refugee and population programs.
The White House indicated last month that it was about to name John M. Klink as assistant secretary of State for population, refugees and migration. Klink, 51, is a member of the Vatican's United Nations mission and frequently represents the Holy See at international conferences.
After reports surfaced of President Bush's intended choice to head the bureau that handles most of the government's refugee assistance and international population control programs, alarms started to sound. Nongovernmental refugee and population groups complained that, as a Vatican spokesman, Klink frequently opposed the use of condoms and other birth control methods--even as part of programs to control AIDS or to treat refugee women who had been raped.
"What is disturbing is that he has strongly advocated the Vatican's views on family planning, reproductive health and opposing the use of condoms," said Kenneth H. Bacon, president of Refugees International, a Washington-based support group. "There is a serious question whether he would continue to promote those views at the State Department."
Although word of Klink's selection has been circulating for almost a month, the White House has not announced its intention to make the appointment--a step that precedes the submission of the nominee to the Senate for confirmation.
Klink joins a growing list of potentially controversial appointees to key posts in the State Department. For instance, John D. Negroponte, nominated as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been accused of turning a blind eye to death squads and other human rights abuses by the Honduran military while he was ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. And Otto Reich, a Cuban American selected as assistant secretary of State for Western hemisphere affairs, has been criticized on Capitol Hill for a perceived focus on Cuba to the exclusion of other hemispheric issues.
Negroponte and Reich were named in March, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not set hearings to consider either nomination. And, with Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont jumping the GOP ship to become an independent, leadership of all the Senate committees has shifted from Republican to Democratic. In the case of the Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms of North Carolina relinquished the chair to Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.
A Senate staff member, who requested anonymity because the lawmaker he works for has yet to take a formal position on Klink, said the newly Democratic-controlled Foreign Relations Committee is apprehensive about the possible appointment.
State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said Klink is not the only candidate for the post. He said Alan Kreczko, a career government official who is acting head of the bureau, remains under consideration. And there are other possible candidates as well.
Reeker denied published reports that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell wanted Kreczko for the job but was overruled by the White House.
"Both are people the secretary has worked with, but only one person can have the job," Reeker said.
Klink did refugee assistance work in the 1970s and '80s on behalf of Catholic Relief Services before joining the Vatican's mission at the United Nations.
"I have no reason to doubt his commitment to refugees," said Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman during the Clinton administration. "But reproductive health and AIDS prevention are important to refugee populations."
Bacon emphasized that his objections went to the policy positions Klink has advocated on behalf of the Vatican, not his Roman Catholic faith.
"If Mr. Klink is indeed nominated, it will be very important to have a clear understanding of two things: Can he and Powell work together on reproductive health and AIDS prevention measures? And what is the extent of his commitment to aggressive refugee assistance programs?"
"We would be in opposition to that nomination," said Sally Ethelston, vice president for communications of Population Action International, a Washington-based advocacy group. "We're not experts in the refugee area. But even though Klink apparently has some experience in that field, it's old and the situation has changed.
"The Holy See is consistently on the record opposing modern methods of family planning and programs for prevention of AIDS."