John Leo
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The United Nations has another September problem now, smaller but in many ways more interesting than the race conference disaster in Durban, South Africa. The U.N. is wondering whether it should tinker with some abortion language to keep President Bush from boycotting next week's conference in New York on the rights of children. A roomful of diplomats stayed up half the night last Thursday scratching their heads about whether to fudge or clarify the code phrase "reproductive health services" in the text of the final declaration of the meeting.

They did neither, though the Bush administration wants the phrase out. Critics of Bush say he is wrong to inject abortion politics into the meeting by complaining about "reproductive health services." It is the announced belief of the U.N. personnel, endlessly repeated, that this phrase has nothing to with guaranteeing access to abortion for children as young as 10.

This is odd. At the United Nations, "reproductive health services" has long been understood to include abortion. At a late-night session in June, however, a weary Canadian delegate lapsed into candor and said right out loud, "Of course it includes, and I hate to say the word, but it includes abortion." Many at the session gasped at this revelation, or non-revelation. A Chilean delegate announced: "Never before have we heard that services include abortion."

At the United Nations, controversial proposals are often cloaked in innocuous or broad language, thus avoiding debate and luring delegations into voting for ideas they don't approve or even understand. Code words covering abortion include "sexual rights" and "forced child-bearing." Seemingly harmless U.N. language on "children's rights" undermines parental authority. It may be an international offense to spank and perhaps even to criticize one's children, since "physical or mental violence" is forbidden. "Gender mainstreaming" refers to the idea that gender is a "social construct," meaning that there are no important sexual differences between males and females.

The Beijing conference on women in 1994 called for "gender balance," which Christina Stolba of the Independent Women's Forum translated into normal English as "statistical parity, international quotas." U.N.-speak is also strong on fill-in-the-blank language, such as the International Planned Parenthood's call for the U.N. to remove "obstacles that make young people uncomfortable about themselves." Who knows what that will turn out to mean in 10 or 20 years?

Many at the United Nations are in fact thinking that far ahead. International activists have been trying to create a form of international law that could supersede national law without any explicit approval by national governments. This may sound preposterous, but the attempt is under way, and it is based on the concept of "customary law" -- unwritten rules generally accepted as binding as a result of long use.

International law depends heavily on customary law, and current theory says that a series of international declarations of principle, even non-binding ones, can be taken as evidence of customary law that binds all nations. The more that terms like "reproductive health services" or "gender mainstreaming" appear in international documents, the better the likelihood that evolving international law will take them for granted.

A great many activists get the point of this tactic, but nobody is supposed to discuss it in public because of those nasty furtive and anti-democratic overtones. However, one of the abortion lobbies actually put it into the text of a suit filed against George W. Bush et al. over the U.S. policy of not sending aid to organizations around the world that promote abortion. The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy wrote this: "To prepare for the eventuality that Roe may be overruled by the United States Supreme Court ... CRLP has worked and will continue to work to guarantee that the right to abortion be protected as an internationally recognized human right by treaties ratified by the United States, international conference documents endorsed by the United States Senate and customary international law."

The key phrase is "customary international law." It shows that the lobby does not feel bound by U.S. law or democratic procedures. It is working on an end run around democracy to get what it wants.

Activists, including those in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) accredited to the United Nations, now heavily stress "international human rights standards," a way of putting national governments on notice that they will be judged by mostly unelected actors on the world stage. The NGOs have become immensely powerful players. Many, shrouded in secrecy, claim to directly represent the peoples of the world. When asked who "the people" are that they represent, a common response is that their goals are the ones the people would choose for themselves if conservative governments and transnational organizations did not get in the way.

Jeremy Rabkin of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who follows the world government movement, says that the rapid proliferation of NGOs and international agencies and agreements are "mostly just straws in the wind right now. But people in the movement have big plans and have gained a fair amount of momentum. Mostly this has gone unchallenged, but the longer it goes on, the harder it will be to put an end to it later."

Most Americans pay little attention to the United Nations and assume that nothing serious ever happens there. Alas, they are wrong.

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John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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