With an estimated seven million Afghan civilians facing starvation this winter, humanitarian organizations are poised to point fingers of blame. But some of these organizations must themselves share responsibility for the global plight of refugees.

The United Nations, in particular, often seems more interested in imposing social reform than in providing food, clothing and medicine. Its focus on social policy not only diverts resources away from genuine relief efforts, it also causes needless rifts.

For example, the Vatican and the U.N. are currently in bitter conflict. The proximate cause is a 141-page field manual published by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the U.N.'s relief agency. At issue is the controversial morning-after pill that the Catholic Church considers to be a form of chemical abortion. In September, the Vatican's objections were embodied in a document entitled "The Reproductive Health of Refugees" which was sent to bishops conferences around the world.

The U.N. manual opens with the sentence, "Reproductive health is a right," thus making the denial of such health care a violation of human rights. This is a non-trivial statement. Various international agencies and governments have justified their use of force against regimes on the grounds that human rights, as defined by the U.N., were being violated.

The manual then seemingly proceeds to reject abortion. For example, among the health care services it lists in the foreword are the "prevention of abortion and the management of the consequences of abortion."

Yet, the manual also calls for the provision of emergency contraception (the morning after pill), as deemed appropriate, to victims of sexual violence. The manual acknowledges how controversial the treatment is when it notes that some women and health workers may "be precluded" from using the pill by their beliefs.

Speaking for the UNHCR, however, spokesperson Kris Janowski has denied that the U.N. advocates using the pill. Nevertheless, page 40 of the manual describes the treatment for a possible rape-pregnancy as "provide emergency conception, if appropriate, along with comprehensive counseling."

The question is not so much whether the morning-after pill constitutes abortion. The real question is why the tax-supported U.N. is taking a stand on controversial issues of social reform.

The U.N. has drifted far from the peacekeeping, humanitarian function for which it was created in 1942. It has become a global agent of social policy, much of it influenced by radical feminism.

How has this occurred? In 1979, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which the United States has yet to ratify. This was a modest step toward feminist social policy.

The Fourth U.N. World Conference on Women in 1995 was pivotal. Feminist organizations drafted a Platform for Action that the U.N. basically endorsed. The platform called itself "an agenda for women's empowerment" and demanded the establishment, by government, "of the principle of shared power and responsibility between women and men at home, in the workplace and in the wider national and international communities."

The platform went so far as to intrude into the division of housework in families. The section entitled "Women in Power and Decision-Making" reads, in part, "the unequal division of labour and responsibilities within households based on unequal power relations also limits women's potential ..."

Such declarations may seem harmless since U.N. resolutions do not have the power of law. But nations who wish to receive aid or other benefits are pressured to comply. Moreover, in signing conventions such as CEDAW, the signatory nations have agreed to abide by its provisions.

Regularly scheduled follow-up conferences have been broadly interpreting such provisions to include politically correct goals. Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, offers these specific criticisms:

"The CEDAW committee has ordered the government of China to legalize prostitution even though the Convention expressly forbids the trafficing [sic] and prostitution of women. ... the Committee has ordered the government of Libya to reinterpret the Koran so that it falls within Committee guidelines."

A U.N. committee also recommended that Catholic hospitals, such as those in Italy, offer abortion services even if medical personnel have religious objections.

Fortunately, backlash is growing. The Family Research Council recently published Fifty Years After the Declaration: The United Nations' Record on Human Rights.

In the book, nearly two dozen experts roundly criticize recent social policies of the U.N. as they relate to women, abortion and children's rights.

The backlash is greeted with ad hominem attacks. Radical feminists have responded to the latest conflict between the U.N. and the Vatican with typical hyperbole. The Feminist Daily News Wire of Nov. 9 declared, "Vatican Denounces U.N. Effort to Save Refugees." The article claimed that the Catholic Church is criticizing efforts to provide "sound health care information and services" at a time when a "refugee health crisis ... threatens the lives of millions."

This is disingenuous. The Vatican has been a consistent champion of refugees. Along with other critics, it is merely insisting that "humanitarian relief" live up to its label.

The U.N. has a social agenda supported by tax dollars and backed by both military and financial clout. Refugees and the world's impoverished need food, clothing, medicine, and education — not feminist policy on sexual matters.

McElroy is the editor of Ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women(McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.