in New York - Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to be a prostitute? The 3,000 women who served as delegates to last week's massive women's conference in New York City never debated that last question openly. Many of them, clad in traditional dress, were content to sit in the great horseshoe-shaped halls of the United Nations and listen through white plastic earmuffs as speaker after speaker promoted women's literacy and gender equality. The conference, designed to assess developments since the Beijing Conference on Women five years ago, was filled with self-congratulation. But at this conference, like others, what goes on at smaller "working sessions" is more important than the formal speechifying that garners most of the publicity. During a working session on Monday night, June 5, for instance, delegations examining possible amendments to the Beijing Platform debated a paragraph on sex trafficking. A representative from the Philippines zeroed in on the denunciation of "forced prostitution" and moved to strike the word forced-in effect condemning all types of prostitution. The U.S. delegation objected to such a blanket critique and responded that if forced were removed, prostitution should be deleted from the list entirely. With a few computer keystrokes, prostitution disappeared from the text of the document projected onto a white screen behind the dais. More debate ensued. Again "forced prostitution" was added to the list, and the United States sat by without protest. Again the word forced was dropped, and immediately the U.S. delegation objected strongly for a second time. The rationale given: Other language in the paragraph concerned sex crimes, so adding prostitution to the list here would be redundant. And yet twice the delegation had allowed "forced prostitution" to remain in the list unchallenged. No concerns about redundancy there. The message was clear: "Voluntary" prostitution should not be viewed as a crime. Several miles from the Statue of Liberty, with its invitation to "Give me your tired, your poor," the Clinton administration was now suggesting that all countries should open their arms to prostitutes. Sex workers of the world, unite: Among other things, the administration is lobbying the Senate to approve a Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a United Nations, international treaty that is being used to encourage legalized prostitution. One objective of last week's conference, an official "special session" of the UN General Assembly, was to promote CEDAW's goals. Donna Shalala, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Linda Tarr-Whelan, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, have both tried to slide by the significance of CEDAW's pro-prostitution stance. When a reporter asked them about it on May 31, Ms. Tarr-Whelan replied that "one line in a very long report did mention something like-I am not sure of all the details that you raise." But the details are out there. The 165 countries that already have signed the CEDAW treaty are required every four years to report on their efforts at advancing women's rights. Those reports are reviewed by the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, a group of 23 purported "experts of high moral standing and competence" elected by all signatory nations. The agreement gives the official name of the committee once and afterwards refers to it simply as "the Committee." Twice a year, the Committee meets to evaluate the country reports and to issue recommendations for changes in local law and custom. (In the June 12-30 period, eight more countries are taking their turn before the Committee.) As a treaty, CEDAW is considered legally binding on member states. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, for instance, calls a ratified treaty "the supreme Law of the Land." That makes the Committee's pronouncements especially important: Member states have legally obligated themselves to abide by the convention, and the Committee decides whether they are living up to their obligations. Since, as with so many UN documents, the wording of the CEDAW treaty is often open-ended, the Committee has great discretion. For instance, the treaty orders "the elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women"-with no definition of what constitutes a stereotype. Typically, UN documents are interpreted leftward by radical members of the non-governmental organizations that are encouraged to involve themselves in UN activities. That seems to be what is happening with the prostitution issue. The language of the treaty is innocuous enough: Women should have "the right to free choice of profession and employment." But, based on that simple sentence, the Committee-in the country reviews that WORLD last week obtained and analyzed-regularly attempts to legitimize prostitution. Here, for example, is the Committee's verdict on China: "The Committee is concerned that prostitution, which is often a result of poverty and economic deprivation, is illegal in China. The Committee recommends decriminalization of prostitution." The Committee applauded Greece, which has decriminalized prostitution, but worried that "inadequate structures exist to ensure compliance with the regulatory framework." The Committee instructed New Zealand to provide more data on how "sex work" contributes to "economic activity." The Committee told the Congo to provide health and "psycho-educational services" to young prostitutes. And the Committee chastised Germany, where "prostitutes still do not enjoy the protection of labour and social law." It's this process, with its compliance reviews, that President Clinton wants the United States to become part of. The United States was one of CEDAW's principal architects in 1979, but Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, worried about the treaty's broad definitions of terms like discrimination, sexual stereotypes, and reproductive freedom, never pushed for passage. Under the leadership of Hillary Clinton, the U.S. delegation in Beijing five years ago called for Senate ratification of CEDAW, and President Clinton has now declared ratification to be one of his top priorities. The push for prostitution may be CEDAW's most controversial aspect, but it's hardly the only one. Each of the 20 such reports (dated 1998 to 2000) that WORLD examined, without exception, targeted traditional understandings of family and morality. The Committee advised Ireland to limit "the influence of the Church [which] is strongly felt not only in attitudes and stereotypes, but also in official State policy." The Committee admonished Luxembourg to "amend the Constitution to include the principle of equality between women and men." The Committee prodded New Zealand to "reconsider the content of the De Facto Relationships (Property) Bill," which favors married couples over unmarried couples in the distribution of joint property. The Committee wanted Kyrgyzstan to "reconceptualize" lesbianism as a sexual orientation and abolish penalties for its practice. The Committee pushed abortion hard. The Committee advised Burkina Faso to "review ... legislation on abortion and provide for coverage by social security." The Committee admonished Ireland, the United Kingdom, Liechtenstein, Colombia, Myanmar, Luxembourg, and Jordan to (this language is from the advice to the Irish) "facilitate a national dialogue on women's reproductive rights, including on the restrictive abortion laws." But few areas of life were obscure or private enough for the Committee to overlook. The Committee castigated Belarus for celebrating Mother's Day. Spain doesn't have enough women's studies courses at its universities. More German men should take parental leave. More Chinese and Colombian men should be pushed to undergo vasectomies. Frustrated domestically in its efforts to re-imagine society, the Clinton administration wants to subject the United States to this kind of international oversight. Countries already under the UN microscope, however, often resent the lecturing. "Implementation of CEDAW should take into account religious and cultural diversity," the representative of one Islamic nation told WORLD in the hallway between sessions: "We should not have a ready-made formula for every country." (Because he was not authorized by his ambassador to speak for the country, WORLD allowed him to speak off the record.) The representative went on to give an example: CEDAW demands equal inheritance rights for men and women, but under Islamic law male children receive a double portion because they are held responsible for supporting their families. "When the woman receives her inheritance, it is hers, she can do with it what she will," he explained, but "the man must use his portion to support his wife and children. This is something the Convention does not understand." Pro-family groups in New York tried to make U.S. leaders understand their opposition to the treaty. On the third day of the special session, Concerned Women for America called a press conference to present the U.S. delegation with an "Official Petition of Concern." Signed by more that 30,000 members, the petition called on the U.S. delegation to "repudiate the Clinton Administration's past support for the anti-woman, anti-family and anti-child agenda of the [Beijing] Conference on Women." Not that the petition-signers should hold their breath. With Hillary Clinton delivering a highly touted speech on the first full day of the conference, the administration seemed to be signaling its renewed commitment to the international feminist agenda. Swept up in the emotion of the moment, the delegates rose to their feet after the speech and broke into a verse of "We Shall Overcome." But is it proper to ask: Overcome what? In a world where rape is an instrument of war and girl babies are systematically aborted by parents wanting boys, the Clinton administration is focused on a woman's right to self-humiliation and objectification. International feminist leaders are busy making the world's oldest profession more professional. And the UN, founded in the middle of the 20th century to do what the League of Nations could not-make the world safe for democracy-is now concerned with making the world of the 21st century safe for prostitution.