A decade after the landmark International Conference on Population and Development, the statement was handed Wednesday to Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette who called it "a brilliant idea" that will renew the commitment of governments and leaders to achieve the goals that 179 nations agreed to in Cairo.
The United States was one of the 179 nations that backed the Cairo plan of action. Former Colorado senator Tim Wirth, who was in the forefront of helping to draft the 20-year Cairo blueprint as a top official on the U.S. delegation, helped spearhead the global statement in his current job as president of the United Nations Foundation.
Media mogul Ted Turner, who founded and funds the foundation, read the statement and then presented it to Frechette and Thoraya Obaid, head of the U.N. Population Fund.
It notes that in 1994 "the world's governments and civil society committed to an action plan to ensure universal access to reproductive health information and services, uphold fundamental human rights including sexual and reproductive rights, alleviate poverty, secure gender equality, and protect the environment."
While progress has been made, the statement says the world is facing an exponential increase in HIV/AIDS, a growing gap between rich and poor, persistently high death rates related to pregnancy and childbirth, and inadequate access to family planning services. It calls on the international community to fund and implement the goals of the conference, known as the ICPD.
Wirth noted that 134 million couples who want family planning services don't have access to them and there is an average of just three condoms per year available to men in sub-Saharan Africa — "a very, very significant shortfall."
The statement was signed by leaders of 85 nations including the entire European Union, China, Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan and more than a dozen African countries as well as 22 former world leaders, notably U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
The Bush administration responded only on Tuesday to organizers who had asked for the president's support.
In a letter to organizers of the statement, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kelly Ryan reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to "the goals and objectives" of the Cairo conference and "to the empowerment of women and the need to promote women's fullest enjoyment of universal human rights."
"The United States is unable, however, to endorse the `world leaders' statement on supporting the ICPD," Ryan said. "The statement includes the concept of `sexual rights,' a term that has no agreed definition in the international community, goes beyond what was agreed to at Cairo and is not a component of the ICPD."
Technically, the State Department is correct. The Cairo program of action states that women have the "right to make decisions concerning reproduction, free of discrimination, coercion and violence as expressed in human rights documents." But it doesn't specifically mention "sexual rights."
Sexual rights were specifically mentioned a year later, however, in the platform of action adopted by over 180 countries including the United States at the 1995 U.N. women's conference in Beijing.
That platform, which the United States also took a leading role in drafting, states: "The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence."
At a news conference, Wirth and Obaid were asked whether the U.N. General Assembly was holding a commemoration of the Cairo platform on Thursday — not a review as it did five years ago — because of opposition to some provisions by the Bush administration, the Vatican and some Islamic states.
Obaid said the United Nations has agreed "to focus at the country level and at the regional level where real action takes place" rather than to negotiate word-for-word on a document. "The whole issue is to bring people together rather than to divide," she said.
Bush has blocked $34 million in congressionally approved annual assistance to the agency, alleging that the U.N. agency helped China manage programs that involved forced abortions, a charge it calls baseless.
Calling Obaid a good diplomat, Wirth said "there's a lot of disappointment" that the United States isn't taking the leadership role on population and women's issues as it did for 60 years.
But he strongly supported the U.N. decision to look to the future and not rehash "language in a lot of documents that have been agreed to in the past."