Women's Group Says Biden Insulted State Dept. Official

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - The largest public policy women's organization in the United States says a U.S. Senator insulted a State Department official at a June 13 hearing on the United Nations Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW.

During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), who chairs the committee, criticized the "casual attitude of the executive branch toward the treaty process and the legitimate requests of this committee for testimony."

The hearing, Biden noted, had been postponed twice at the request of the administration.

"In mid-April, I invited Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky to appear at a hearing scheduled for May 15," he said. After that hearing was postponed, Biden said he rescheduled it for June 13 and "issued a new written invitation to Under Secretary Dobriansky."

But the White House never identified Dobriansky as its designated expert on CEDAW. A State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told CNSNews.com that Ambassador Michael Southwick, the deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, would have been "the logical choice" to represent the administration.

Southwick is an expert in the implementation of United Nations conventions and their effects on U.S. policy in the State Department bureau that "develops and implements U.S. policy in the UN, the UN's specialized agencies, and other international organizations."

The ambassador's office would not confirm whether or not he was scheduled to appear at the hearing. A State Department "press guidance" document said only that "the administration offered to provide witnesses" at the hearings.

During his opening statement, Biden referenced the possibility of someone other than Dobriansky testifying.

"I should note that the State Department made a last minute offer to send two mid-level officials," he said. "I decided to proceed with the hearing today, and hear from the executive branch when it is fully prepared to present its position."

The tone of that comment prompted a letter from Concerned Women for America (CWA) President Sandy Rios to Biden.

"I have been reliably informed that the Administration had sought to have two of its officials appear to offer testimony at this hearing. Both of those witnesses were rejected by the staff of the Foreign Relations Committee, allegedly on the grounds that they were not sufficiently senior," Rios wrote.

"It would, in any case, seem to be the responsibility of the Administration rather than Committee employees to determine the qualifications of witnesses appearing on behalf of the Administration. In this particular instance, moreover, one of the rejected witnesses was the ambassador who leads the U.S. delegation at United Nations conferences," she concluded in an apparent reference to Southwick.

Wendy Wright, Senior Policy Director for CWA, said Biden seems to have his priorities out of order.

"What I think is most important is that you have someone who knows the subject and who understands the treaty and knows what the implications of the treaty would be. That's what would have benefited this committee the most," she said. "Hopefully Joe Biden is not only concerned with people's titles or what position they hold, but rather with what they can impart to the committee."

Biden and other CEDAW supporters may have rejected Southwick, Wright speculated, precisely because of his expertise.

"It's very likely that Senator Biden and Senator [Barbara] Boxer (D-Calif.) didn't want a true evaluation of this treaty and perhaps they were trying to use this as a way to cast aspersions on the administration," she said. "This appears to have been a manipulation tactic on the part of Senator Biden."

Wright agrees that Southwick would have been the perfect person to expose the flaws in CEDAW.

"He has been working on issues like this for quite a while. He knows how the U.N. works. He knows some of the problems with treaties and especially treaties like this that affect the family," she added. "There's no reason that Joe Biden should disparage someone like Michael Southwick."

Biden maintains that he rejected the State Department witnesses because the Justice Department is conducting a review of CEDAW for the White House and, therefore, "their testimony would be incomplete" until that review is finished.

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