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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 07:35 GMT
Abortion row threatens UN funds
President Bush is said to be outraged by the reports
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By Greg Barrow
United Nations correspondent

A US group has accused the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) of promoting forced abortions and the involuntary sterilisation of women.

The accusation - by a group calling itself the Population Research Institute (PRI) - could cause the UN Population Fund to lose more than 10% of its annual funding this year.

Allegations about UNFPA activities in China gathered by PRI seems to have been instrumental in persuading US President George W Bush to stall on signing over about $34m which had been earmarked for the UN Population Fund last year.

Like most UN agencies, UNFPA portrays itself as an organisation dedicated to the highest humanitarian principles.

It says its mission is to save women's lives and promote better reproductive health care and family planning.

It is this aspect of the agency's work, however, which has plunged it into controversy.

PRI has accused UNFPA of assisting in the slaughter of tens of millions of children, and aiding and abetting genocide in the developing world.

Over the past few years, PRI has tracked UNFPA in its work - ranging from the refugee camps of Kosovo and Afghanistan to remote rural areas of China.

In all of these areas, the PRI says it has found the UNFPA guilty of promoting forced abortions, and the involuntary sterilisation of women.

PRI president Steve Mosher says his researchers have found UNFPA guilty of assisting the Chinese authorities in a brutal campaign of population control in which some women are forced to abort their babies, while others are sterilised after giving birth to their first child.

"Our investigation on the ground, which was not assisted or interfered with by the Chinese Government, showed that family planning is not voluntary," Mr Mosher said.

"There is coerced abortion, and coerced sterilisation, and the UNFPA has to take responsibility for these atrocities."

As a lobby group, PRI has mounted a sophisticated campaign against the UNFPA, focusing its attention on the corridors of power in Washington.

Republican Congressman Chris Smith, a leading figure in persuading President Bush to block the release of US government funds for UNFPA, said the agency had supported China's controversial one-child policy.

"The problem with the UNFPA is that they have aided and abetted in China one of the cruellest anti-women, anti child policies that have ever been conceived, the one-child per couple policy," Mr Smith said.

"Forced Abortion, coercive sterilisation, mandatory IUD insertion, are commonplace in China, yet for the past two decades, the UNFPA has been on the ground, aiding and abetting, and most importantly providing cover against all criticism of that particular programme."

UNFPA was at first baffled by these accusations, and then angered that they could be directed against an agency working on humanitarian principles.

UNFPA policy director Stirling Scruggs says that even if the charges being levelled against the agency were true, there is no way it would be allowed to escape the close scrutiny of other foreign donor nations.

"If we were gulity of any of the things they mentioned, Switzerland, Sweden, the UK, developing countries all over the world who all care about human rights would be outraged," he said.

"We'd go out of business, we couldn't do this in secret. They all monitor what the UN does. They visit us, we talk with them all the time. People would know."

UNFPA has tried to defend its programmes in developing countries.

It says it adheres strictly to a voluntary, human rights based approach to reproductive health and family planning, and is not involved in coercive practices.

But UNFPA officials say they have struggled to counter what is in effect a smear campaign by ideological opponents.

UNFPA says that one of the tactics employed by the Population Research Institute is to peddle false allegations to the media in the developing world.

Once these stories are printed in newspapers in developing countries, they take on an air of credibility, and occasionally, they are picked up by international news agencies.

UNFPA says that in this way, the false allegations of the agency's involvement in coercive abortion and sterilisation campaigns become reinforced in the minds of those who are most ready to believe the charges.

Mr Scruggs said it was a campaign of disinformation.

"This goes out everywhere, and you're on the defensive," he said.

"When we should be talking about supporting women's rights and reproductive health, and safe motherhood, we're having to tell people we're not doing these terrible things that are lies to begin with. It affects our funding both directly, and indirectly, and when our funding is affected, women are affected."

Unfortunately for UNFPA, the lobbying campaign by the Population Research Institute has found willing listeners among right-wing religious conservatives in the Bush administration.

They sympathise with their president's concerns about abortion and the right to life.

The release of the $34m promised to UNFPA last year now depends on Mr Bush giving his signature.

UNFPA says the loss of the US funding would have a severe impact on its work in the developing world.

It says the $34m for family planning is enough to prevent almost 5,000 maternal deaths, two million unwanted pregnancies, nearly 60,000 cases of serious maternal illness, and almost 80,000 infant and child deaths.

See also:

20 Sep 00 | Americas
UN reveals women's torment
25 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
China steps up 'one child' policy
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