In 1999, the United States government's commitment to women's rights around the world was jeopardized by two competing foreign policy concerns: the desire to promote advantageous economic and strategic relations with other governments regardless of human rights considerations, and the desire to protect U.S. practices at home and abroad from scrutiny and criticism on human rights grounds. In this context of conflicting interests, the government's attention to women's human rights was often compromised.
The United States demonstrated leadership in the area of trafficking, an activity that traps hundreds of thousands of women in exploitative working conditions and debt bondage with little legal recourse. In 1999, the United States played a critical role in crafting a new, markedly improved international protocol on trafficking of persons. The protocol, proposed in the process of negotiating a new Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, would create a new international standard on trafficking to afford trafficked people greater rights and protections. During the negotiations, the U.S. advocated a broad, inclusive definition of trafficking. Despite this positive step, the U.S. stopped short of further advancing trafficked people's rights by failing to provide sufficient support for protocol provisions that would offer greater protections to victims of trafficking, such as psychological, medical, legal, and financial assistance.
The ICC stood as the single greatest hope at the turn of the millennium for stronger accountability for violence against women in conflict situations. However, preoccupied with keeping U.S. citizens outside the court's jurisdiction, the U.S. played an obstructionist role at the February and August Preparatory Committee meetings for drafting the rules of evidence and procedure and elements of crime for the ICC ; it seemed intent on either undermining the power of the court or negotiating a blanket agreement that would exempt any U.S. national from being tried before it. Moreover, the U.S. delegation remained a reactionary force in areas that directly affected women's rights. For example, the U.S. objected to adopting a definition of rape based on the Akayesu decision of the ICTR, insisting that any definition of rape had to include force and penetration as elements of the crime. The U.S. position disregarded the reality of rape in conflict, where, because general lawlessness prevails, physical force during the commission of rape may not be necessary. The U.S.'s insistence on penetration as an element of rape ignored the serious physical and other harm done to women by sexual acts that do not include penetration but are nevertheless against a woman's will.
The U.S. commitment to protecting women's rights in the refugee context was evidenced by its attention to Kosovar women refugees. In July 1999, the U.S. government pledged $10 million for the Kosovar Women's Initiative (KWI), which was being implemented by UNHCR. This initiative, which will continue through September 2000, addressed the immediate survival needs of Kosovar women refugees affected by rape and other gender violence by, among other things, providing psycho-social support and counseling, programs to reestablish women into their communities, and eventually programs for income-generation activities. While the KWI was criticized for being designed without sufficient local NGO input, it was in fact a swift response to a dire situation.
Among the most salient measures of U.S. commitment to women's rights was how vigorously it embraced the application of international human rights conventions in the U.S. and how effectively it responded to international scrutiny of its human rights records. On these two fronts, the U.S. failed miserably. The U.S. government avoided addressing the substantive findings of the report of the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women that detailed human rights violations of women in detention in the U.S., including extensive sexual misconduct andsystematic violations of women's right to privacy. The U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights insisted that women incarcerated in the U.S. have protection from and recourse against human rights violations, even though passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 made it extremely difficult for women to bring legal claims against corrections departments, especially in cases of sexual assault and abuse.
Moreover, as of this writing, 1999 was expected to pass without U.S. ratification of the women's rights treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which languished in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While the Clinton Administration stepped up its efforts to promote ratification of this treaty, which included attempts to cultivate Senate leadership on this issue and the unveiling of a White House ratification strategy, those efforts were, as of late October, minimal, and had not yet resulted in the treaty being offered for a vote.
The Clinton administration was a steadfast critic of women's rights violations in areas where the sheer scale and severity of the physical violence could not be ignored. However, the U.S. government was much less critical about blatant sex discrimination practiced in places like Mexico, its second largest trading partner. Beginning in early 1999, the U.S. government was engaged in ministerial-level meetings with the Mexican government on this issue, in response to a poorly-conceived NAFTA-based agreement it entered into with Mexico in October 1998. One of the showcase components of this agreement was a March conference held in Mérida, Yucatán, a city with a few and only recently established maquiladoras. The U.S. government did not set any goals for the conference and provided for no substantive participation by the NGO community, except for brief question and answer periods. A public report reflecting the issues considered during the ministerial consultation process was due in July, but was expected in the first half of 2000.