Five years ago, he said, delegates from 189 nations and thousands of women went to Beijing ``to right wrongs and promote rights.'' He expressed hope that this week's conference ``will put the world on notice that not only do women belong on this planet, but that the future of this planet depends on women.''
Human rights and women's activists are concerned, however, that the conference may roll back the gains from Beijing instead of moving forward. And the battle lines are looking very familiar to those at the 1995 Beijing conference: Women's activists and many democracies versus the Vatican and a handful of Islamic countries.
The Vatican and some Islamic countries object to the same proposals they did in Beijing--including sexual and reproductive rights for women, adolescent sex education and the definition of the family.
The conference is supposed to come up with innovative, practical ways to accelerate implementation of the 150-page platform for action adopted in Beijing. But U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson worried that the current review might weaken the agenda approved in Beijing.
``I think this review is...worrying because we're having difficulty holding on to the platform of Beijing, never mind moving much, much further as we need to,'' she said Sunday before speaking to about 1,000 women at a human rights symposium at Columbia University.
``I think the few (states) that don't want progress are very effective, and that's a problem,'' she said.
At Monday's opening of the special week-long General Assembly session, Annan cited progress in women's health and education, in making violence against women illegal, and above all in having more countries understand ``that women's equality is a prerequisite for development.''
``But at the same time, much remains to be done,'' Annan said, citing the widening gap between the earnings of men and women, the denial of women's inheritance rights, increasing violence against women despite legislation and ``a worldwide plague'' of trafficking of women and children.
Noting that girls account for two-thirds of the 110 million children who are not in school, he declared that education is the key to equality because it ``is both the entry point into the global economy and the best defense against its pitfalls.''
General Assembly President Theo-Ben Gurirab, who was elected president of the special session, stressed that government policies on gender equality and implementation of the Beijing platform ``cannot be an afterthought or remain simply at the level of political pronouncements or election ploy.''
``Resources for gender equality goals must be mobilized and utilized,'' he said.
``This special session must strive to live up to the expectations of billions of women in the world,'' he said. ``Let us not disappoint them.''
At Beijing, governments committed themselves to a platform that ran the gamut from promoting women's inheritance rights to calling on governments to provide equal education and employment and demanding that business and government put women in top decision-making posts.
In groundbreaking provisions, delegates also stated for the first time in a U.N. document that women have the right to decide freely all matters related to their sexuality and childbearing--an issue with which the Vatican and some Islamic countries disagree out of opposition to abortion or birth control.
More than 200 speeches are on the schedule for the special session. Parallel sessions for thousands of representatives of grass-roots groups will cover topics ranging from the effects of globalization on women to the role of men and boys in ending gender-based violence.
But the most important work will be going on behind closed doors, where negotiators will try to reach consensus on the final document.
Amnesty International's Secretary-General Pierre Sane accused Algeria, Libya, Iran, Pakistan and the Vatican of playing ``a very destructive role'' in negotiations on a final forward-looking document. Other delegates included Sudan on the list.
Both Robinson, the human rights commissioner, and Sane urged supporters of the Beijing platform to start pressuring governments to move forward.