Monday was the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. This year’s theme was “Preventing Sexual Violence Crimes through Justice and Deterrence.” The UN held a panel discussion at Headquarters in New York, and Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement, writing, “Rape and sexual violence in conflict are tactics of terrorism and war, used strategically to humiliate, degrade and destroy, and often to pursue a campaign of ethnic cleansing.”
Monday, Human Rights Watch submitted a report to the Canadian government on police abuse of Indigenous women in Saskatchewan. Their investigation found patterns of physical assault, sexual harassment, neglect of domestic violence reports, and inappropriate body and strip searches.
Monday, France elected a record number of women to Parliament. Of the 577 newly elected representatives, 223 are women (compared to 155 elected in the last election). This brings France from 64th to 17th in the world rankings of women in parliaments. The increase is due to President Emmanuel Macron's Republic on the Move (LREM) party prioritizing women on their candidate list.
Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that while the lack of Republican women in Congress is often attributed to the Democratic Party’s focus on women’s rights and a stronger political pipeline for Democratic women, it could also be influenced by money. In the Democratic Party, unlike in the Republican Party, female donors give disproportionately to female candidates. This allows female Democratic candidates to raise as much money as their male counterparts, which is not true for female Republican candidates. Only 26 of the 104 women in Congress are Republican.
Tuesday, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against anti-abortion protestors who stand outside of Choices Women’s Medical Center in Queens. The suit seeks to prohibit protestors blocking entrance into the clinic, threatening patients, or protesting within 16 feet of the clinic.
By Marie Wilken
The United States prides itself on being a champion of human rights. Since its founding, the United States has often identified its belief in inalienable rights as a trait that has differentiates it from other countries. The United States pioneered international human rights law when Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the precursor to many international human rights treaties. In the U.S. Department of State’s annual Human Rights Reports, it judges other countries’ human rights records. However, it is difficult to take U.S. commitment to human rights seriously when it regularly favors domestic political concerns over the international human rights community and continually demonstrates a unique reluctance to ratify international human rights treaties.
The United States is alone among other industrialized Western countries in its reluctance. It did not begin to ratify major human rights treaties until the late 1980s, taking almost 40 years to become the 98th country to ratify the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It still has not ratified many significant human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights—part of the International Bill of Human Rights. The United States also has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), one of only seven countries who hasn’t including Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan and Tonga. The United States and Somalia are the only countries that have not ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child.
When the United States does ratify treaties, it uses a unique process that diminishes the treaties’ intended effects. Before the treaty is voted on, Justice Department lawyers search the documents for human rights protections that are more stringent than, and therefore would add to, U.S. law. When found, the United States limits the scope of the treaty by drafting a reservation, declaration, or understanding (RUD) to combat it and sends the treaty, RUDs attached, to the Senate for ratification.
To further strip the treaty of power, the United States declares that treaties are “not self-executing.” This means that without implementing legislation (domestic law guaranteeing the same protections), the treaty is unenforceable in domestic courts. The government often argues that implementing legislation is unnecessary because all the rights in the treaty (except those excluded in the RUDs) are already protected by U.S. law. This leaves citizens without the ability to invoke the treaty in court.
Moreover, because the United States has not ratified the first Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, citizens cannot appeal to UN Review committees—groups of experts who hear complaints from citizens who believe their treaty rights have been violated. These U.S. procedures prevent substantive participation in the international system of human rights, leaving citizens to rely on non-comprehensive domestic protections.
There are a few factors motivating U.S. aversion to international human rights treaties. Many scholars point to the historical context of when the treaties were first being developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Cold War fostered fears about the spread of communism and totalitarianism, and these fears became linked to the international human rights project. Conservatives also opposed these treaties because they viewed them as the federal government’s effort to address racial segregation and discrimination in the South.
This doesn’t explain why these attitudes have persisted. Some suggest that it is the nature of the U.S. government. Treaties require the approval of two-thirds of the Senate or “congressional-executive agreements”—but the latter are not used for human rights treaties. But what prevents ratification via Senate supermajority? The answer: an attitude.
Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth describes the American attitude towards international human rights law as “fear and arrogance—fear that international standards might constrain the unfettered latitude of the global superpower, and arrogance in the conviction that the United States, with its long and proud history of domestic rights protections, has nothing to learn on this subject from the rest of the world.” Scholars suggest that this isolationist attitude—partly driven by fears that international treaties would erode federalism—leads to acceptance of international human rights law only when it merely affirms existing domestic law.
Refusing to ratify human rights treaties weakens U.S. international leadership and deprives American citizens of protections they deserve. The United States is willing to sign onto substantive trade agreements but not human rights agreements, and this superficial participation in the international human rights community reveals its priorities. Human rights treaties are more than symbolic affirmations of values. They are legal foundations that can translate into human rights victories for citizens. (For examples of how international treaties like CEDAW have been used in domestic courts in other countries, see GJC’s CEDAW Casebank.) Only after ratifying these treaties, making them self-executing, and using domestic law to uphold them can the United States genuinely be the human rights champion it has so long claimed to be.
Sexual violence in today’s armed conflicts is systematically used against civilians to demoralize, destroy, terrorize, and even change the ethnic compositions of entire communities. For instance, the ongoing Syrian civil war has seen an estimated 50,000 rapes. Women there describe being drugged, blindfolded, and raped in groups. In Iraq, ISIS has systematically abducted girls and women, held them in captivity, and repeatedly subjected them sexual violence including rape and sexual slavery. In Darfur, Sudan, where sexual violence has been used as a tactic of war for over 12 years, a 2015 attack in Tabit included the mass rape of over 200 women and girls in the span of three days. Finally, in Nigeria, Boko Haram openly targets young girls for kidnappings, forced marriage, rape, sexual slavery and other forms of gender-based violence.
Today, thousands of girls and women raped and impregnated in armed conflict are routinely denied abortions with devastating consequences. A girl or woman who is a victim of war rape and is denied an abortion when she wants one often has three options: (1) undergoing an unsafe abortion; (2) carrying to term an unwanted pregnancy; or (3) committing suicide. The denial of abortion services to these victims is both illegal and inhumane.
In the context of armed conflict, the rights of war victims are protected under international humanitarian law. Specifically, victims of war rape are part of a special class of people called “wounded and sick in armed conflict.” This status means they are entitled to comprehensive and non-discriminatory medical care provided solely on the basis of their condition. Failing to provide – or denying – a medical service needed only by one gender (i.e. abortion) violates these absolute rights.
Abortion as protected medical care under international humanitarian law has increasingly been recognized by states, international policy makers, and legal experts on international humanitarian law. This document complies language and citations of laws, policies, authoritative declarations of public officials, and legal treatises, that affirm abortion as protected medical care for girls and women raped in war under IHL.