After Beijing, new aid and trade conditionalities?

The wrangling over terms and concepts in the Declaration of the Women's Conference revealed some important differences between groups of countries. The Beijing meeting might give a boost to groups fighting for women's rights. However, will Northern countries also take advantage of women's issues for their narrow economic interests?

by Martin Khor

THE biggest international gathering on women's issues ended on 15 September with the adoption of a Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action which is likely to become a key reference point in any future discussions on international standards on women's rights.

The last week of the official UN Women's Conference was occupied with intense disagreements on how to treat such sensitive issues as 'sexual rights' and 'sexual orientation.'

On one hand, some Western governments, reflecting the influence of feminist groups, wanted to include points and terms which they felt would allow for more rights for people with different kinds of sexual orientation, greater rights over 'sexual and reproductive health', and to enable young people to have more access to information on sex.

This was opposed by a grouping that included the Vatican and some developing countries, including some Muslim-majority and Catholic-majority countries, that inclusion of such language in the Beijing document would help transfer unwanted elements of Western culture to their countries.

They especially objected to terms which in their opinion could suggest the approval of abortion, homosexual relations and single parenthood, or the rights of young girls to override parental rights on receiving information on sexual matters.

In the end, compromise was reached at the last moment, with the document finalised only at four in the morning of the Conference's last day. According to press reports, the term 'sexual orientation' was deleted by the Conference chairperson when consensus could not be obtained; whilst a statement that human rights of women include the rights to control and decide matters related to their sexuality was retained in the Platform of Action.

Delegations were however allowed to put on record their reservations on any part of the document, and more than 20 countries did so. Many of these reservations were aired at the plenary sessions of the final day.

Positive values

The Conference participants' disagreements over sensitive issues, on which differences in cultural and religious backgrounds have such an influence, once again show up the possible benefits and disadvantages (depending on the perspective of the participant or observer) that can arise from international meetings.

On one hand, these global processes are useful for spreading positive values such as respect for the rights of individuals, the responsibility of states to stop social discrimination and fulfil their people's needs. For instance, the Beijing meeting was valuable in raising awareness and commitment to redress the many forms of discrimination against women and to campaign against violence done to them.

International conferences are also important for gearing countries up to cooperate on solving urgent problems such as the environment, poverty and housing. Problems, such as global warming, toxic waste dumping and North-South economic inequities cannot be resolved at national level alone as they involve activities or institutions that cross national borders.

On the other hand, there is concern that decisions taken at such international meetings could later be used against the weaker or poorer countries. Sometimes these countries are not even fully aware of the contents or implications of what they have signed on.

In particular, conference declarations or action plans are used to set the terms for new approaches or conditionalities for future aid and loans to developing countries. These countries are thus pressurised to change national policies to qualify for future external financing for development programmes.

This in itself is not necessarily bad. Many aid programmes have been correctly criticised for their socially and ecologically damaging effects, and any reform in the right direction should be welcomed. One problem, however, is that the aid conditions may be applied selectively, for instance only on countries that the donor does not like, whereas political allies can 'get away with murder' (literally in some cases) with the donor keeping one eye shut and continuing to pour in the aid.

A glaring example of this is in the continued very high level of aid to Israel through the years despite human rights abuses against the Palestinians (which are condemned in numerous UN resolutions), whilst aid has been stopped to other countries, especially in Africa, for not respecting human rights or democracy.

Thus, whilst new aid conditionalities are sometimes imposed as part of a change in interpreting the meaning of development, they are also sometimes used by some Northern countries as a political instrument to twist the arms of Southern countries they dislike.

Another problem is that the declarations and action plans of international conferences usually include different commitments by Southern and Northern governments. The documents recognise that both the North and South need to have domestic reforms, but also that the rich countries must help provide financial and other assistance to enable the South to change.

In the case of UNCED, the Rio Declaration also recognised that Northern societies have a greater responsibility to change their consumption and production patterns, as they are the major cause for the global ecology crisis.

Here lies another problem of double standards, this time in implementation of the commitments. The North can use the leverage of aid to get Southern countries to live up to their Conference commitments. But the South has no equivalent leverage to force the North to live up to its responsibilities. Thus, if rich countries don't do anything to change their lifestyles and reduce waste, the South is unable to discipline them.

If the North does not follow its own pledge to increase aid or cut down on the South's debt burden, there is no practical mechanism to force them to do so. Indeed, after the Rio Environment Conference, the North reneged on its commitment to increase aid. Instead, aid levels have plunged in most donor countries. Yet it has imposed new conditions on the South that aid projects should not be ecologically harmful.

Whilst such conditions may be good for protecting the environment, additional resources for the South to become more 'sustainable' is not forthcoming. This experience was in the Southern delegations' minds in Beijing when they asked Northern countries to pledge new aid to implement the Conference's action plans.

Already in the process of drastically cutting their existing aid budgets, there is no likelihood of any 'new and additional resources.' Instead, funds in the shrinking aid budget will probably be from other programmes towards women-related projects. The donors will also insist that aid projects and loans be put through a 'gender screen' to see whether women will become better off. Thus, a greater emphasis on 'gender conditionality' is likely to be one of the Beijing conference's results.

Another likely development is that Northern women's groups will canvass to have gender issues linked to trade in the World Trade Organisation, similar to how some trade unions have campaigned to link trade and labour standards.

'Social dumping'

United Nations officials at a trade seminar in Kuala Lumpur last September said that some US women's groups had enquired of them how to bring women's issues into the WTO. A senior UN official working on women's issues in New York also revealed that some Northern-based women's groups are planning to lobby for the inclusion of women's rights and gender relations as issues to be put on the WTO agenda. These groups believe the WTO is an effective forum to get governments to enforce 'internationally recognised women's rights.'

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action signed by over a hundred countries could be cited as one important source for such internationally-recognised rights and standards.

The advocates for such a linkage could argue that countries that do not implement these standards incur lower costs and are unfairly subsidising their exports. Trade penalties could thus be threatened against those countries that are found to be practising this form of 'social dumping.'

The advocates might feel that the fear of sanctions would get the deficient countries to change their domestic policies in favour of women's rights.

It would thus not be surprising to find the concept of 'trade-related women's rights' entering the future discussion on trade issues, at least within NGO circles. If this scenario is played out, the South is likely to face problems similar to those they are now having on the linkage between trade and workers' rights issue. If the issue does indeed get onto the WTO agenda, how will 'women's rights' or 'gender relations' be defined?

Will the cultural norms of some powerful countries be taken as standards by which others are to be judged? Will countries at lower levels of economic development be unfairly affected? Would Northern countries be tempted to use the issue as an instrument for protectionism rather than to genuinely improve the lot of women?

Would the status and economic interests of poorer women improve or decline? In reality should such a linkage be made in the WTO?

These questions may still lie a little further on the horizon and perhaps they will not even arise at all in trade circles. But for one country at least the consequences of Northern pressures on domestic issues are already being acutely felt.

The host for the Women's Conference and the NGO Forum, China, was bombarded by the Western media and many Western groups and governments for their alleged horrible abuse of human rights in general and on girls and women in particular.

The linkage between trade rights and human rights has already been made by the US in its bilateral trade relations with China. This linkage will probably be extended to include women's rights in the aftermath of the Beijing conference.

Usually the hosts of an international conference are thanked profusely by all participants for organising the meeting, but China seemed to be heaped instead with brickbats in the media and by some key Northern delegations.

Many developing-country participants of the NGO Forum were surprised when they went home to find that press reports from news agencies that were published in their countries had focused on instances of Chinese suppression rather than the actual events which in fact provided them with an enriching and empowering experience.

On the last day of the NGO Forum, 700 grassroots women's groups publicised an Open Letter of Thanks to their Chinese hosts expressing gratitude for the warmth and hospitality shown to them.

They also criticised the media for its negative projection of the Conference which they said showed cultural insensitivity and prejudice. For them, 'the one single message from the women gathered in Beijing to the world is: No to all forms of man made violence.' A fitting message to take from the world's biggest ever gathering on women's issues. (Third World Resurgence No. 61/62, Sept/Oct 1995)

Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network.