342. Editorial Note

The World Conference of the UN Decade for Women took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, July 14–30, 1980. At the World Conference of the International Women’s Year, held in Mexico City from June 19 through July 2, 1975, delegates adopted a World Plan of Action, requested that the United Nations proclaim 1976–1985 the UN Decade for Women and establish a voluntary fund for the decade, and called for a mid-decade conference in 1980. UN General Assembly Resolution 30/3520, adopted on December 15, 1975, endorsed these recommendations and called upon member states to examine the World Plan of Action and pursue the adoption of national strategies, plans, and programs in furtherance of women’s economic, political, and social equality. For additional information concerning the General Assembly’s actions, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–14, Part 1, Documents on the United Nations, 1973–1976, Document 186. The conference was originally slated to take place in Tehran, Iran, during the summer of 1980. Following the Iranian Revolution in January 1979, the Government of Iran withdrew its offer. Eventually, the United Nations selected Copenhagen as the conference location. The Mid-Decade Forum, sponsored [Page 1142] by a variety of non-governmental organizations, ran concurrently with the UN conference.

In November 1979, in preparation for the conference, the Department of State established the Office of the U.S. Secretariat for the World Conference of the UN Decade for Women. Headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Equal Employment Opportunities and Civil Rights Vivian Lowery Derryck, the Secretariat conducted an expansive national outreach program by partnering with the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services; the Environmental Protection Agency; and women’s organizations to coordinate and host meetings throughout the country to discuss conference agenda items and gain insight on problems facing American women. (Department of State Bulletin, April 1980, page 69)

The Department also hosted Copenhagen 80: The Washington Conference for Women, June 12–13, featuring addresses by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Newsom, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Patricia Derian, and Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Richard McCall. Derryck summarized the speeches in a memorandum of conversation transmitted via telegram 169422 to Copenhagen, June 27: “Assistant Secretary Patt Derian keynoted the Conference on a positive note when she commented on the power of public opinion and the strong influence of informed citizens on policy formulation. Assistant Secretary Richard McCall won many new supporters by addressing the group on two separate occasions. Under Secretary Newsom in his address outlined the foreign policy issues facing the US in mid-1980 in a comprehensive factual way that impressed the participants and indicated the seriousness and the respect that he held for the audience. In corridor conversations participants continued to discuss the receptivity and accessibility to high-level Department officials.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800309–1137)

According to the final Report of the United States Delegation to the World Conference on the UN Decade for Women: Equality, Development, and Peace, the Secretariat prepared various scope, position, and contingency papers for use by the delegation on such topics as North/South economic issues, job segregation, reproductive health, pay equity, illegal substances, and refugees. It also assisted Department and White House officials in selecting the delegation. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Donald F. McHenry and Presidential Assistant Sarah Weddington served as the delegation co-chairmen. Representatives included Lowery Derryck, Director of AID’s Women in Development Office Arvonne Fraser, Director of the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau Alexis Herman, U.S. Representative to the Commission on the Status of Women of the UN Economic and Social Council Koryne [Page 1143] Horbal, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Social Affairs, Bureau of International Organization Affairs, Sarah Goddard Power. The full 37-member delegation also included advisers drawn from Congress, other government agencies, women’s organizations, and labor unions. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office File, Unfiled Files, Box 153, Women: World Conference Report: 1/81)

Prior to the conference, the Department provided background information and objectives in telegram 166222 to all diplomatic and consular posts, June 24, 1980. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800305–0146) The telegram explained the dual purpose of the conference: “(A) To review and assess progress and obstacles in implementing the World Plan of Action; and (B) to revise the World Plan as necessary by designing a program of action for the second half of the decade.” As a result of earlier preparatory meetings and UN General Assembly action, employment, health, and education had been selected as conference subthemes and three political issues—women and apartheid, the effects of Israeli occupation on Palestinian women inside and outside the Occupied Territories, and women and refugees—had been added to the agenda. Although Department officials did not oppose the “women and apartheid,” and “women as refugees” agenda items, they did object to the Palestinian item as it would have an isolating effect on the Israeli delegation. The telegram listed nine conference objectives:

“—Keep the focus on the central themes of the conference rather than on divisive political issues. We hope this can be achieved in part by adhering strictly to the established organization of work for the conference. It is contrary to the interests of all women that the work of this unique U.N. conference be undermined by politicization;

“—Develop a strong program of action for the second half of the decade that refines the World Plan of Action by outlining concrete targets and measurable objectives;

“—Identify and support specific measures of assistance to women in South Africa and Namibia without, however, creating any new funding mechanisms in addition to those to which the U.S. already contributes (UNDP, Institute for Namibia, the Trust Fund for South Africa, U.N. Educational and Training Program for South Africa);

“—Develop and upgrade specific programs of assistance to women refugees;

“—Oppose efforts to use the conference as a forum for unfairly criticizing Israel, and oppose inflammatory resolutions on the Palestinian women’s issue;

“—Provide the conference with an accurate and balanced picture of U.S. progress in implementing the World Plan of Action;

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“—Add a section to the draft program on women and access to potable water to encourage women’s participation in planning and implementing water technology and to highlight a linkage between the Women’s Decade and the Decade on Drinking Water and Sanitation;

“—Work for recognition of the economic value of women’s work not traditionally renumerated or counted in national statistics;

“—Work to assure that women and women’s organizations play an active, recognized role in the development process.”

In advance of the departure of the U.S. delegation on the evening of July 11, President Jimmy Carter issued a statement in which he noted that the conference “will provide a constructive opportunity to review the progress of women throughout the world during the past 5 years and to establish a meaningful plan of specific actions to benefit women for the coming 5 years. The work of this Conference to improve the conditions of women’s lives everywhere in the world can make a major contribution to the enhancement of human rights, a goal which has been a vital element of my administration’s policy. The United States is deeply committed to eliminating all forms of discrimination and will continue to work for equal rights at home and abroad.” The President also indicated that he had authorized Weddington to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which had been adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1979. (Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, July 11, 1980, pp. 1335–1336)

Following the opening plenary session on July 14, delegates established two committees for the purpose of reviewing the draft Program of Action. In briefing materials prepared for Secretary of State Edmund Muskie’s July 18 breakfast meeting with President Carter, Department of State Executive Secretary Peter Tarnoff outlined the administration’s position:

“Our objective at the Conference is to keep the focus on women’s problems and to avoid contentious unrelated political issues. The US Delegation is attempting to steer the proceedings toward three subthemes of the conference, ‘employment, education and health’ for women, and to avoid political exploitation of the three main agenda items: ‘The Effects of Israeli Occupation on Palestinian Women Inside and Outside the Occupied Territories,’ ‘Women and Apartheid’ and ‘Women as Refugees.’

“A speech by Sarah Weddington, Co-Head of the US Delegation, July 15 urging a spirit of compromise and describing the progress of women in the US was well received. Ms. Weddington also announced that the US would sign the Convention Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

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“There are, however, political issues at the conference that could lead to confrontation if moderate forces do not rally to prevent this. Cuba is attempting to include language which links Zionism with racism, apartheid, colonialism and other evils in proposed G–77 amendments to the Action program for the conference. There are also G–77 draft submissions which blame women’s inequality on neo-colonialism and an unjust world economic order. Our Delegation is working hard, with support from the conference leadership, to remove such objectionable issues from Action program drafts. Our Delegation is not authorized to threaten withdrawal from the conference if our concerns are not met unless authorized to do so from Washington. If these unacceptable political issues threaten to disrupt permanently the work of the conference, you might then want to consider recommending to the President that our Delegation withdraw. Thus far there has been no challenge to the credentials of the DK (Pol Pot) Kampuchean delegation at the conference. There have been reports that a rival PRK (Heng Samrin) delegation might attempt this.” (National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Secretary—Subject Files of Edmund S. Muskie, 1963–1981, Box 3, Pres Bkfasts Jul, Aug, Sept 1980)

Ultimately the U.S. delegation was unsuccessful in its attempt to remove what it considered inflammatory language antithetical to U.S. foreign policy from the draft Program of Action. During the first week of the conference, the Indian delegation proposed an amendment, ultimately supported by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), to the Program of Action designed to channel financial assistance to Palestinian women through the auspices of the PLO. (Telegram 4763 from Copenhagen, July 18; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800345–0563) Telegram 189457 to Copenhagen and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, July 18, termed the language proposed by the Indian delegation “unacceptable” and instructed the U.S. delegation to “oppose any mention of the PLO as a conduit for assistance to Palestinian women.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800346–0418)

In telegram 4960/USDEL 74 from Copenhagen, July 24, Weddington reported that the Indian delegation had presented a revised amendment that deleted reference to the channeling of financial assistance through the PLO and substituted language that called for funds to be disbursed in “consultation and cooperation with the PLO, the representative of the Palestinian people.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870058–0371) The Department instructed the delegation “not to accept any language calling for assistance to or through PLO,” adding, “Nor can we agree to any language referring to PLO or implying that PLO is the representative of Palestinians.” (Telegram 196775 to Copenhagen, July 25; National Archives, RG 59, Central For[Page 1146]eign Policy File, P870058–0397) According to a situation report National Security Council Staff member Lincoln Bloomfield sent to President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Zbignew Brzezinski the evening of July 25, the Committee approved the revised Indian amendment 85 to 3 with 21 abstentions; all members of the EC–9 did not participate. Bloomfield noted, “Sarah [Weddington] is going to say publicly that the Conference is being subverted from the task at hand and that U.S. Del will be trying to get things back on the track.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office File, Unfiled Files, Box 153, Women’s Conference: 7/80) In telegram 5014 from Copenhagen, July 26, the Embassy reported that the United States, Israel, and Canada voted against the revised Indian amendment, adding, “Second Committee vote breaks a tradition dating back to Mexico City Conference of proceeding by consensus on Plan of Action. The question for WEO del is now whether inclusion of the Indian amendment in the Draft Program will preclude their support of the Draft Program as a whole.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800359–0383)

The Department further instructed the delegation to vote against the final draft of the Program of Action following the acceptance of the Indian/PLO amendment and due to other political considerations. (Telegram 198258 to Copenhagen, July 26; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870058–0382) On July 30, 94 delegations voted to approve the Program of Action. Delegates also approved 48 additional resolutions. The United States, Canada, Israel, and Australia voted against adoption of the Program of Action on the basis of three paragraphs that included references to UN documents questioning the Camp David Accords; equated Zionism with imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, and racism; and incorporated the Indian/PLO resolution language. As the U.S. delegation’s final report, which Muskie transmitted to Carter on January 16, 1981, stated:

“However, the challenge to our foreign policy on the State of Israel was one that could not be ignored. Any other action by the United States at the World Conference would have been construed as a major change in Middle East policy; and that would have been incorrect and misleading. Our continued commitment to Israel is a long-standing matter of integrity and principle. It is very unfortunate that our negative vote has been characterized as an either/or situation, it was not and is not.” (Report of the United States Delegation to the World Conference on the UN Decade for Women: Equality, Development, and Peace, page 140; Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office File, Unfiled Files, Box 153, Women: World Conference Report: 1/81)

In summarizing U.S. accomplishments during the July 30 plenary session, Weddington noted:

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“Sadly, our mutual efforts have fallen far below their potential accomplishments. Those efforts have been subverted by those with a different agenda. The focus on women here was pushed aside and became a victim of those who choose instead to focus on the political polemics of the Middle East situation. We are denied a consensus not by questions of how to help women in developing areas, not by questions of what education women need, not by questions of how to support women who are discriminated against on the basis of race and sex, not by any question uniquely pertaining to women or issues viewed from a woman’s perspective. We are denied a consensus by those who want to focus a statement against Zionism, by those who want to advance their special interests in the Middle East—knowing full well that a special session of the U.N. General Assembly is already working on the highly complicated and difficult problem involved. They have not compromised as they claim; they have denied women whatever their race, religion, or national origin a unique opportunity to contribute solutions to their own issues in their own way. And the intemperate and abhorrent attacks against Israel and the Camp David process are completely false and regrettable.” (Department of State Bulletin, November 1980, page 64)

The text of the Program of Action, entitled “Programme of Action for the Second Half of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace,” is printed in ibid., pages 64–85.

On October 28, 1980, the White House released a statement indicating that Carter intended to send the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women to the Senate in early November. (Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, November 3, 1980, page 2477). Weddington circulated copies of the White House statement under cover of an October 29 memorandum, noting that “The President and I hope the Senate will give early and favorable consideration to the Convention. I am heartened by this positive step by the United States to move the equality of women to the forefront of international issues.” (Department of State, Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs 1980 Subject Files, Lot 82D180, SHUM Women 1980) The Senate received the Convention on November 12, and referred it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by unanimous consent. Although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on the Convention in 1988, 1990, 1994, 2002, and 2010, it has yet to be ratified by the full Senate.