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But in one arena, American and Muslim leaders are getting along better than ever. As the United Nations summit on the rights of the child officially begins in New York this week, the U.S. delegation will be buddying up with Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria. The Bush appointees to this gathering of 189 member countries make up what is arguably the most conservative delegation in the history of our country's involvement with the UN. In pre-summit negotiations over the past two weeks, representatives from the U.S. have been spotted trading notes on social issues with their counterparts from religious nations.
In 1990, the first time United Nations members got together to discuss the rights of children, there was little controversy over the substance of the summit's project: drafting a document that established that youth around the world were entitled to health care, education, and autonomy rather than lives of hard labor, war, and neglect. Who could object? This time around, though, as member countries update the document that is supposed to protect youth rights, participants are polarized over sexuality and reproduction.
The U.S. delegation to the summit, led by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, is heavily weighted toward the extreme right. In addition to the government officials representing our country, four of five "special private sector advisers" to the U.S. chosen by the Bush administration are outspoken religious activists. The appointments have positioned the U.S., along with its new allies, against blocs of more socially liberal European and Latin American countries.
Even before the summit began, the battle over seemingly technical terms that both sides agree could have a profound impact on children's futures was raging. With the United States out front, a group of religious conservatives, including some from Muslim countries and the Vatican, are focusing their attack on language from the first child summit that called for youth access to "reproductive health services," a phrase they argue includes abortion. Other disputes include whether children should be directly taught not to have sex before marriage (U.S. representatives vehemently argue for abstinence), how the family should be defined, and how much control parents should have over children.
The summit defines a child as anyone under 18, which includes an estimated 82 million girls around the world who are married and vast numbers of adolescents who give birth each year (more than 4.5 million in sub-Saharan Africa alone). Given the complications associated with youth sexuality, some advocates argue teens should be able to get birth control and advice on preventing sexually transmitted diseases without their parents' knowledge.
"Children here desperately need to be able to better protect themselves," says Naira Kahn, executive director of the Child and Law Foundation in Zimbabwe. There, roughly one in four females between 15 and 24 is infected with HIV. Still, she says, contraception is infuriatingly difficult to get. Kahn says many of the children she's worked with don't know what condoms are. And those who do often can't get them. One young boy told her he uses "plastic bread wrappers" to cover himself when he has sex.
Nevertheless, many on the right-leaning U.S. delegation say children ought to be simply encouraged not to have sex instead of getting condoms. Abstinence "is just plain a healthier way to live," says Wendy Wright, senior policy director at Concerned Women for America, a group that will be represented by senior fellow Janice Crouse at the conference. Wright is concerned about granting children too much autonomy, which she fears could result in their suing their parents and otherwise "disrupting the natural order," as she puts it, adding: "When we go outside the order set by God, it's harmful to us."
Such a fundamentalist position is hardly surprising coming from Concerned Women for America, a pro-life group that supports what it calls the "biblical design of the family" and the teaching of creationism in schools. What's more startling is the presence of CWA and other extremely conservative groups on the official U.S. delegationadvisers that are far more strident than Bush's domestic counselors. "It's a good way for Bush to throw a bone to the right," is how Jennifer Butler, UN representative for the Presbyterian Church (USA), explains the makeup of the delegation. "Most media doesn't pay attention to these UN meetings, so this is an easy way for Bush to win points with the Christian right without alienating moderates."
Throughout the Cold War, most hard-line conservatives acted as if the UN, which they viewed as a bastion of Communism, would go away if they ignored it long enough. This Jesse Helms-style anti-internationalism helped make the U.S. one of only two nations, along with Somalia, that didn't ratify the first convention on the rights of the child. No matter that the summit's lofty and then relatively uncontroversial goal was to help children, the first Bush administration didn't want to give the UN its full participationand thus its implicit stamp of approval. Now the allies of Bush Junior seem to have resolved that the best way to fight the international body is from within.