NEW YORK, June 7–Human rights were front and center at the kick-off symposium to the current Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly The speakers provided the framework for much of the discussion and debate that would consume the 16,000 delegates here to assess the progress of women’s rights since 1995.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 outlined fundamental freedoms of all persons regardless of race, sex, or class. It states in part, “Everyone has the right to a . . . standard of living . . . including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, or old age.”

The hundreds of human rights activists packed into a Columbia University auditorium heard speaker after speaker argue that widespread cultural practices–female genital mutilation, domestic violence, sex trafficking and bride burning–are actually human rights abuses.

“Interest in human rights has become a universal issue,” said Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner on human rights and former president of Ireland. “It’s important to recognize different women and their religious and cultural values. But practices like F.G.M. [female genital mutilation] are not compatible with human rights.”

Not only have some countries failed to make progress on women’s rights, but a handful are even trying to undo the progress they have made since 1995, she added at the forum sponsored by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, the United Nations Development Fund for Women and MADRE.

“Those few that don’t want progress,” said Robinson, “are very effective.” She named Libya, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Algeria and the Vatican are particularly determined and powerful lobbyists for changes in Beijing Platform for Action, the basic document that requires nations to assess women’s rights in 12 specific areas and report during this session about the progress women have made.

Pierre Sané, the secretary general of Amnesty International, also expressed his disappointment with these nations.

“They don’t change their legislation, they don’t bring an end to violence against women. They don’t hold state agencies accountable.”

He assailed the move by some of their U.N. delegates to delete references to established human rights treaties within the Beijing platform. “These were already accepted at previous United Nations General Assembly meetings,” he said.

Another strategy some nations have pursued, said Charlotte Bunch, executive director for the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, is to push for the dilution of the Beijing platform by deleting powerful phrases and changing specific timetable targets to “as soon as possible.”

“How do we monitor and hold governments accountable to ‘as soon as possible’?” she said to a round of supportive hoots.

The U.N. did not begin to seriously address how these freedoms have been denied to women until the first women’s conference in Mexico in 1965. Even so, the notion of women’s rights was not recognized until the Vienna Tribunal in 1993.

Robinson, Bunch, Sané and others agreed the U.N. must reaffirm that it is the state’s responsibility to ensure the human rights of women in both their public and private lives.

They also want practical ways to implement that agreement, “not merely data collection and rhetoric,” said Robinson. “These are laws and legal commitments that have already been agreed to.”