Clinton's Second Term: Making Women's Rights a Foreign Policy Issue

By Mattras, John; Lightman, Marjorie | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Clinton's Second Term: Making Women's Rights a Foreign Policy Issue


Mattras, John, Lightman, Marjorie, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Speculating about die future always engenders risk--after all, time will tell. Nonetheless, the opening of President Bill Clinton's second term provides a fitting opportunity for speculation, particularly in issues of foreign policy, where the flux brought about by the end of the Cold War has opened an unusually wide array of possibilities. In the United States, attention to the post-communist world most often focuses on the transformations in eastern Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union. Recently, however, events in the Afghanistan civil war have brought Taliban into control of the capital and have posed for the United States a choice about whether to recognize as legitimate a government that violates women's international human rights, Thus, assessing the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan emerged as a litmus, test at the end Clinton's first term, as the current human rights component of United States foreign policy converged with fifty years of international human rights jurisprudence and women's human rights.

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by a still nascent United Nations in 1948, there has been an expanding global consensus of what constitutes universally accepted human rights norms. Imposing obligations and incorporating monitoring procedures, subsequent international treaties declarations and program of action have further contributed to an evolution of international human rights jurisprudence. However debated in their specific application, this international jurisprudence of civil, political, social and economic rights represents a broad consensus of individual rights as well as limits and obligations on the part of states.

In its foreign policy the United States has long advocated an international community ruled by law. It simultaneously has sought to protect itself from interference in its domestic sphere by any forms of international governance. Although both President Clinton and his first Secretary of State Warren Christopher have advocated passage of four human rights treaties which have long remained unratified by the United States, no action has been taken by the Senate.(*) There is a widely shared and steadfast belief among the Congress, if not the nation as a whole, that United States domestic law and practice incorporate human rights more securely than participation in any international treaty.

There is also, however, an articulate domestic community of organized support for rights assured under the treaties. It has been particularly evident at the intersection of women's rights and international human rights. Domestic women's organizations have been among the most vocal groups in the growing non-government sector on the international stage. Coalitions of women's non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had been increasingly visible at international meetings since the first conference of the United Nations Decade for Women held in 1975 in Mexico City. At that meeting there emerged a tribune for non-governmental organizations, along side the official meeting. By 1985 and the end-of-the-decade meeting in Nairobi, the tribune had become a full-fledged forum with an agenda that was both independent and intertwined with that of the official conference. The 1992 United Nations conference on the environment, held in Rio, was accompanied by a spectacular NGO forum that gave environmentalists an international scope to rewrite the world's development agenda, and in 1993 at the United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the superb organization of the women's NGOs, ensured specific language that equated women's rights and international human rights in the final document.

The call of the Vienna meeting for nations to undertake a commitment to eradicate gender discrimination was repeated at the United Nations conferences on population in Cairo, 1994, the Social Summit in Copenhagen and at Beijing in 1995. …

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