GJC Weekly News Roundup

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.

U.S. Aversion to International Human Rights Treaties

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. 

 

International Humanitarian Law And Access to Abortions: Compilation of Citations

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.

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GJC Weekly News Roundup

Friday, the New York Times published an editorial about the United States' mixed messages on human rights. While U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley emphasized U.S. commitment to human rights in her address last week, the editorial board writes, “In President Donald Trump’s transactional worldview, human rights are annoying obstacles to making deals.”

Friday, Devex reported that Sweden’s state secretary for international development, Ulrika Modéer, said that Nordic countries cannot fill the gap created by the U.S. Global Gag Rule alone. She said the European Union must take more action on family planning, and non-European countries need to join alliances for reproductive rights.

Monday, Canada released an International Assistance Policy that heavily focuses on gender equality. Within five years, Canada will allocate 15% of its international aid to gender equality programs. Its Women’s Voice and Leadership Program will direct funding to international grassroots organizations that promote women’s rights and gender equality.

Monday, Politico published an investigation into the gender imbalance in U.S. politics. It found that barriers like media and voter sexism, party influence, and fundraising have lessened in importance. Now, the gap stems mostly from the lack of women who run for office. Interest has spiked since the presidential election, however. Politico suggests a few strategies for encouraging this interest: identifying female candidates earlier, pushing women elected to bodies like school boards to run for higher office, and changing the sales pitch used to recruit women by framing politics as a way to fix problems.

Tuesday, the United Nations ruled Ireland’s abortion ban to be a human rights violation. In 2010, an Irish woman traveled to the U.K. to terminate her pregnancy when she learned that the fetus had a fatal birth defect. The United Nations Human Rights Committee released a decision ruling that Ireland owes her damages for the cost of the abortion and “high level of mental anguish.” The UN made a similar ruling on Ireland’s laws last year.

Photo credit: Dmitry Dzhus Flickr CC-BY-2.0

Why a U.S. Exit from the UNHRC is Counterproductive

by Marie Wilken

On Tuesday, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for the first time. The UNHRC adopts resolutions and orders investigations into governments’ violations of human rights. Though the United States began a new three-year term in January, there are rumors it is assessing the possibility of pulling out of the council. During her appearance and in an op-ed in The Washington Post, Haley asserted that the council gives too much negative attention to Israel and that many of its 47 members are serious human rights violators. A politically-motivated exit from the council, however, is a counterproductive strategy, not a solution to the United States’ objections.

The UNHRC is undeniably flawed. As with most political bodies, politics often sway decisions, and some voices are given more weight than others. Also as with other political bodies, loopholes distort well-intentioned rules of operation. For example, countries are elected to the UNHRC through a regional voting bloc system, but because backroom negotiations often result in a noncompetitive number of candidate countries, many human rights-violating countries are elected to the council. In her op-ed, Haley does suggest worthwhile changes – one of which is addressing this issue by making the voting for membership more competitive and inviting true consideration of countries’ human rights records.

If the United States wishes to see these changes, it should use its seat to continue to advocate for them. Disengaging from the council entirely would be counterproductive to its goals. A January Council on Foreign Relations report found that U.S. involvement in the UNHRC has “improved the body’s performance in several ways.” These even include the Trump administration’s objections to the UNHRC; the report found that U.S. involvement in the council can combat anti-Israel bias and encourage accountability for countries that violate human rights. It also found that the United States could create further positive change through “catalytic leadership” – not by withdrawing. Many fear that a U.S. withdrawal could allow for even more human rights violations. A U.S. departure would not end the discourse on Israel. If anything, it could encourage it.

Furthermore, consideration of withdrawing from the UNHRC follows a trend of the United States retreating from international cooperation such as the Paris climate accord and President Donald Trump’s criticism of the U.N. and NATO. This goes further back than Trump’s administration, though: the United States has a tendency to not sign onto international agreements or resolutions that have global consensus. (For example, only seven of the 194 U.N. countries have not ratified the U.N. Convention to Reduce All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the United States is one of them.)

This creates contradictions in U.S. policies regarding human rights and international intervention and cooperation. International cooperation toward ideals as morally unambiguous as women’s rights or human rights is criticized as too much of an international intervention and a threat to sovereignty for the United States. However, the United States has no problem intervening in other countries using more extreme means such as military intervention. And what has the United States often used to justify this intervention? Human rights. This hypocrisy is heightened by the Trump administration’s disregard for human rights in other arenas, such as its immigration policies, friendliness with Russia, and the ban on Muslims.

If the United States’ goal truly is to strengthen the UNHRC, its strategy should not be to delegitimize it. A senator unhappy with Congress’s political agenda, mode of operation, or composition would not resign in protest. Why? Because it’s better to be an active force working for change than to quit. Institutions like the UNHRC, though flawed, have merit. Change from within is more powerful than a denunciation and resignation. Exiting the council would place politics above the mission of human rights. To improve the council and signal U.S. devotion to human rights, the United States should heighten, not end, its involvement in the UNHRC.

Photo credit: United States Mission Geneva Flickr (CC-BY-ND-2.0)

GJC Weekly News Roundup

Monday, women gathered outside of the capitol in Hartford, Connecticut as the marches and protests against the Trump administration continued. Women came promoting women’s rights and addressed lawmakers that they were unhappy with the lack of equal rights.

Tuesday, reproductive rights activists protested the new vote to defund Planned Parenthood nationwide. Many protesters and Planned Parenthood supporters site the importance of the organization, which offers not only abortions, but also mammograms, pap smears and contraceptives, all of which are essential to women’s reproductive health.

Tuesday, an interesting article was posted on the importance of essential maternity care and the need for insurance companies to provide women with post-natal medical coverage. It criticizes the new healthcare plan that Republicans are pushing for, as it allows state governments to “waive such essential coverage” which “threatens the small but significant gains made for vulnerable women in the years since Obamacare became law.”

Women’s Rights and Right Wing Politics

In recent years, right-wing populism has been spreading across Europe and the United States. The US, France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands have seen a surge in public support for right-wing parties. Ranging from fascist groups like Golden Dawn in Greece to parties attempting to soften their image to gain more followers like the Front National in France, rightist ideologies have squeezed their way into mainstream politics. What does this represent for women’s rights and reproductive rights? A challenge.

Typically, right-wing parties are politically conservative, support traditional women’s roles and family structures. Most do not speak out for gay rights or women’s rights and do not favor a progressive feminist agenda, which includes equal pay and supporting family planning organizations. Furthermore, right-wing leaders have also spoken out against access to abortion and reproductive rights. Sound familiar?

When it comes to human rights and women’s rights, the US, Canada and many European countries are leading the conversation and promoting activism. With the Trump Administration and prominent right-wing groups gaining more power and influence in Europe, this conversation may become severely limited. Many family planning organizations and health clinics rely on federal funding to remain open and provide health services. Organizations that also provide women with abortions are often targeted and threatened with the withdrawal of funding. Such actions and restrictions do not result in a decreased number of abortions, but result in harming women who need abortions and can only get them outside of a doctor’s office, often in a non-sterile environment with limited access to proper medical tools.

Two of the leading right-wing parties in Europe, both of which are led by women, are the Front National and Alternative for Germany. Both leaders, Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry, during their campaigns and interviews have spoken out against access to abortion and gay rights. They have also promoted the return to traditional family values, where a nuclear family is the ideal. The Front National in France does not support abortion or progressive women’s rights. Alternative for Germany promotes similar ideas, as well as a strong anti-immigrant sentiment.  Similar ideas have found support in President Trump’s administration and across the United States. What is it exactly that these political party and leaders support? While Trump’s administration and President Trump himself claim to be great supporters of women and say they are supporters of paid maternity leave and maternity benefits, people argue that his claims are not reflected in the laws he passes and the bills he signs. Furthermore, Trump introduced the expanded Global Gag Rule that will cut funding to foreign family planning organizations that rely on US money. This includes many organizations in developing countries, where such organizations are the sole source of birth control and safe abortions.

Although social activism is bright and promising, with many joining women’s rights and human rights movements across the globe, it is important to make sure that these political shifts and the resulting sentiments do not become normalized in our societies. Whether it is through more organized protest, the work of human and women’s rights organizations or liberals running for office, unity and perseverance are more important than ever. 

Donald Trump picture courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Marine Le Pen picture courtesy of Antoine Bayet

Frauke Petry picture courtesy of Harald Bischoff

GJC Weekly News Roundup

Thursday, here’s a good list of the main provision of the new Republican Health Care Bill. Some of the changes include allowing insurers to charge older adults more than younger adults for the same coverage and Medicaid cuts amounting to $880 billion over the next 10 years. 

Thursday, the Global Gag Rule is negatively affecting women in India where abortion is considered a woman’s right. The Gag Rule could negatively impact India’s sovereignty and put women in danger if access to healthcare is limited. People are arguing that abortion cannot be separated from women’s healthcare, as it should come together as one package in order to protect women.

Thursday, Hillary Clinton speaks out against the “troubling ideas” regarding women and healthcare that have been spreading because of the current administration and President Trump. In her speech, she mentioned that women’s issues should not be considered minor and criticized the efforts to repeal ACA.

GJC Weekly News Roundup

Monday, President Trump is vowing to drastically cut finding for aid programs in developing countries and merge the State Department with USAID. The money slashed from aid programs will be transferred to national security programs. The cut in funding will also affect programs and offices that promote women’s rights and foreign assistance.

Tuesday, the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women has approved Saudi Arabia as a new member of the Commission for the 2018-2022 term. While it received the lowest number of votes when considering a new member, it is still enough to pass the majority threshold. This led to an outrage among human rights activists who say that Saudi Arabian laws repress women. Some, however, see it as an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to reform its laws and for people working to promote women’s rights to find support from leading international organizations.

Wednesday, the House Freedom Caucus gave its approval to a more conservative version of ACA, giving the Republicans another opportunity to repeal President Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act. One of the latest proposals allows “states to obtain waivers from federal mandates that insurers cover certain “essential health benefits,” like emergency services, maternity care, and mental health and substance abuse services, which many Republicans argue have driven up premiums.” As for reproductive healthcare, the article does not mention any new developments, which is not to say that the new healthcare plan will have the same benefits as Obamacare.

Wednesday, the US is expected to announce revised global gag rule implementation guidelines, which can potentially lead to slashing of approximately $8 billion in U.S. international health assistance. As many global healthcare organizations, including those that offer abortions, rely on US funding, the new guidelines will negatively affect the ability to provide crucial healthcare to women in need. However, there is not guarantee that all NGOs will comply with the new guidelines.

GJC Weekly News Roundup

Tuesday, researchers asked what helps to establish a democratic society? According to a study published by the European Journal of Political Research, it is increased women’s rights that helps a country become more democratic. When women have access to political and social rights and representation, it aids democratic development and helps a country transition from an authoritarian regime.

Wednesday, despite the recent elections in the Netherlands, the “She Decides” fund for family planning is still receiving support from the new leadership and expects support to continue on a national level and international level. Recently, Iceland and Slovenia have joined the campaign and have promised to contribute a total of $190,000. Still, there is a long way to go before the fund reaches its $600 million annual goal to support organizations that will no longer receive financial support from the U.S. due to the expanded Global Gag rule.

Thursday, following the U.S. airstrike against a Syrian air force base on April 7, President Trump was met with both support and criticism. The question that concerns the critics is whether the airstrike is legal by international law standards and whether it constitutes an act of aggression. There are only two justifications for the use of force under international law and Trump’s strike does not meet either criterion.

Thursday, President Trump signed legislation that will cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide abortion services. This measure nullifies a rule that was put in place by President Obama that barred states and local governments from cutting funding for family planning services. While President Trump’s decision has been met with approval from conservatives, there is widespread opposition. Human rights and women’s rights activists worry of the repercussions of the lack of funding for women’s healthcare.

Friday, following the inauguration of President Trump, women across the nation have united to oppose and fight back against new rules and regulations imposed by the Trump administration. Female activists are attempting to maintain the progress that has been made with the Obama administration and encourage more women to join the mobilization against the new President through protest and democratic ideals.

GJC Weekly News Roundup

Sunday, this interactive New York Times article shows the harsh reality of women and children who are fleeing continuous violence brought on by Boko Haram in the Diffa area of Niger. Many settle along the only highway in the region where they are far away from a water source and with limited access to schooling and healthcare.

Monday, the Trump administration announced that it will be terminating funding for the United Nations Population Fund, the leading global provider for family planning services. This is a harsh blow to women and children in the developing world and to advocates for reproductive health care as most of their funding comes from the US and UN.

Monday, President Trump signed an executive order that revokes the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order, which demands fair pay and safe workplaces for women. This order is deemed a counter-progressive measure and negates “hard-fought” victories for women in the workplace.

Tuesday, with recent political decisions made by President Trump undermining U.S.’s leadership in human rights advocacy, former diplomats worry that human rights are not of much importance to the Trump administration. Furthermore, when the US loosens its grip on human rights leadership, many people suffer because of the lack of funding and loss of support for organizations that provide health care.

Friday, following the toxic gas attack in Syria and the UN council meeting to discuss Assad’s regime, the US missile airstrike on a Syrian air base garners outrage as people declare it a violation of international law.

Global Justice Center at the Women's Strike

GJC Weekly News Roundup

Sunday: Having women vote in elections and making their voices heard is important regardless of where they are from. The story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, first female President in Liberia and in Africa, is a miraculous tale of perseverance, power and unity of women in a war-torn country and the incredible power of peaceful negotiations and democratic norms.   

Monday: Republicans announced their health plan that will replace the Affordable Care Act. It is a plan that eliminates many parts of Obamacare and introduces a system where Americans will buy health insurance on the open market. However, not all Republicans are on board with the replacement. Many people are concerned that they will be left without any coverage and that health benefits will become a more difficult to obtain than under Obamacare.

Monday: When it comes to international law and ratifying UN treaties, it seems the US prefers to take the back seat. From decisions ranging from children’s rights to protecting endangered species, the US, particularly the Republican Party, backs away from support citing fears that it will limit US sovereignty.  Here’s a good overview of the complex relationship the US has with international law.

Tuesday: Still have any questions about President Trump’s expanded Global Gag Rule? You’re not the only one. This ‘Questions and Answers’ page provided by Human Rights Watch explains what the Gag Rule is in depth and is great if you have lingering questions or concerns.

Wednesday: In celebration of International Women’s Day, women all around the world have gathered in demonstrations celebrating womanhood, but also bringing to light the devastating issues regarding women’s rights, wage gaps, reproductive health and discrimination.  

Friday: With the Trump Administration well underway, it seems that the US’s role in the realm of human rights is changing. As a Western power, the US has often played the role of defender of human rights, but now diplomats and advocates are noticing a shift in foreign diplomacy and the US’s commitment to upholding democratic values.

GJC Weekly News Roundup

Tuesday, Republicans are having and will continue to have trouble repealing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The reality is that the Republicans do not have a credible, alternative health care plan and continuing to criticize ACA is turning away groups of people that depend on Obamacare. More and more people are supporting ACA and the Republicans are having trouble garnering support for getting rid of it. However, Republicans can still repeal certain aspects of ACA and that includes Birth Control coverage. This means that birth control will no longer be cost free as it has been under Obamacare.  

Tuesday, the article encourages the Australian government to take action to support Australian women who will suffer from the Global Gag Rule, citing the issues that may arise from the lack of funding and access to health care and health benefits.

Wednesday, despite reassurance that women’s health is on Trump’s agenda, benefits and funds are still being slashed for women’s health organizations and charities. This is resulting in various protests around the globe and even prompting female Democrats to wear white during Trump’s speech to Congress.    

Thursday, more and more countries are joining the fight against the Global Gag Rule. The “She Decides” conference that is held in Brussels this week is a platform of powerful leaders that seek to raise $600m. According to news sources, around 50 governments will attend the conference to raise funds. There will be representatives from Canada, UK, Afghanistan and Chad and other countries who are standing up for women’s rights and availability of reproductive healthcare.

Thursday, after further investigations, the United Nations declared that all Syrian sides that fought in Aleppo committed war crimes. According to Dawn, there is proof from the investigation that a humanitarian convoy was deliberately targeted in Aleppo province on September 19. These recent events have also attracted the attention of many human rights workers who want to bring to the public’s attention that Syrian civilians are often targeted and that the “warring parties” do not fear consequences for their actions regardless of the international laws that are put into place.