Statement on the US Decision to Withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - June 19, 2018

[New York]– Today’s decision to withdraw from the UN  Human  Rights  Council  is shortsighted and will further marginalize the United States in the international arena.

The Council is an important venue to address the human rights records of all countries, including the United States. Just yesterday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called the Trump Administration’s family separation policy “unconscionable” and demanded its immediate cessation. The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights is scheduled to present a report to the Council this Thursday that criticizes US policies as “cruel and inhuman,” and driven by a “contempt for the poor.” 

As the Trump Administration continues its abhorrent racist, xenophobic and misogynist policies, withdrawal from the Human Rights Council will not shield the United States from being held accountable under the human rights framework.

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)

Justice in Sri Lanka Must Include Investigations of Genocide Allegations

Seven years ago this month, a quarter century of armed conflict in Sri Lanka reached its violent conclusion. The Government of Sri Lanka’s take-no-prisoners approach to defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the “Tamil Tigers,” was accompanied by massive violations of international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and international criminal law. From January to May 2009, the military killed at least 40,000 to 70,000 Tamil civilians and also targeted Tamil women with rape and sexual violence. However, there have been no UN recommendations to investigate this onslaught as genocide, despite evidence of genocidal intent. The silence on both genocide and the crimes unique to women flows from the politicization of genocide and perpetuates gender discrimination and crimes. Next month, the topic of reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka is on the UN Human Rights Council’s agenda. The time is now for the international community to call for investigations into genocide and to use the specific protections and obligations under genocide law to redress the ongoing harms against Tamil women, including rapes and denial of their reproductive rights.

The war started in “Black July” 1983, when the Government of Sri Lanka sponsored violence against Tamils across the country. For about one week, in a classic hallmark of genocide, the Government provided voter registration lists identifying Tamils by ethnicity and incited Sinhalese mobs to kill and rape their Tamil neighbors and to destroy their homes and businesses. Over two decades later, the war ended as it started, with Government forces killing and committing sexual and gender-based violence against the Tamils. All of these crimes were seemingly committed with the intent to destroy the Tamil population, in whole or in part—a crucial component of genocide.

GJC President Janet Benshoof Question Burma’s Minister of Foreign Affairs

Below you can read the question that Janet asked Wunna Maung Lwin, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Myanmar, about accountability for human rights abuser General Ko Ko at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Janet Benshoof:
Thank you very much, my name is Janet Benshoof, Global Justice Center. After a 4 year on the ground investigation, Harvard Law School Lawyers concluded, using the standards of the International Criminal Court that Myanmar’s Major General Ko Ko has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Karen ethnic group. I have a two-part question:
First, could you explain, given that Myanmar has been in armed conflict for 60 years if there have been any prosecutions of military commanders for international crimes: war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. And second, could you explain the government process by which 6 months after the Harvard report, the government selected General Ko Ko to present and defend Myanmar’s human rights record before the Human Rights Council next month. Thank you very much.


Response by Wunna Maung Lwin, Minister of Foreign Affair of Myanmar
To answer your first question, there is no Myanmar General prosecuted or facing any kind of trial in the International Criminal Court or any other court because some of the allegations were unfounded and untrue. Because whenever there is a military operations or whenever there is an insurgency problem, every country has to defend their people, especially the innocent people who were hampered their livelihood by those insurgent groups. So for the military commander that you have mentioned, he is the Commander of the Southern Myanmar regions. So in his region there were insurgent problems and he commanded some of the military operations in that area. He is doing his responsibility as a military commander to defend those people from the scourge of insurgency. This is one question.
Another thing is that in the next month I think we will be submitting our universal periodic review report to the Human Rights Council. So we will be sending a delegation and we will be submitting our universal periodic review for the second time.

Over 50 Human Rights Groups Urge President Obama to Overturn Helms

Today, more than 50 human rights groups from over 22 different countries took action on behalf of women and girls raped in conflict by sending a letter to President Obama pressuring him to issue an executive order that would lift the Helms abortion ban. Among the organizations that have signed the letter are the Global Justice Center, Amnesty International, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Human Rights Watch, and the World Organization Against Torture. Groups have also signed onto the letter from conflict countries directly impacted by the abortion ban, including the West African Bar Association, the Iraq Women’s Network, the Syrian women’s League, and the Nigerian Medical Women’s Association. This letter is a testament to the pressure that is mounting on the United States to affirm the rights of female war rape victims as mandated under the Geneva Conventions.

At the United States’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that took place in May 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council reviewed the United States’ human rights record. Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom formally recommended that the United States take action on an outdated abortion ban that violates the Geneva Conventions: the Helms Amendment.

The 1973 Helms Amendment is a huge obstacle in giving women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence the medical care that they need. These war rape victims are being denied lifesaving medical care, as the Helms Amendment prohibits U.S. foreign aid from being used to fund necessary abortions. Being the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid, the U.S. is currently imposing its abortion ban on the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, and the countries of conflict themselves.

With the systemic rape and forced impregnation of women and girls by extremist groups such as ISIL and Boko Haram, it is vital that the U.S. overturn its abortion ban. The denial of abortions, especially in these circumstances, violates the rights of women and girls in conflict as mandated under the Geneva Conventions. These women and girls have the right to non-discriminatory medical care and freedom from torture.

The U.S. must respond to the UPR’s recommendations regarding the Helms amendment by this September. The Global Justice Center urges President Obama to execute an executive order to lift the abortion ban tied to U.S. foreign aid for, at a minimum, women and girls whose lives are endangered or who have suffered through rape and/or incest. Furthermore, the Global Justice Center encourages the President to affirm U.S. support for non-discriminatory medical care for women and girls around the world.

The clock is ticking. President Obama has less than two months left to respond to the UPR recommendations. The Global Justice Center urges the President to overturn the ban so that U.S. aid will serve its purpose, lives will be saved, and suffering will be alleviated.

Read the full letter sent to President Obama here.

Read GJC’s press release regarding the letter here.

Five Countries Directly Challenge US Abortion Restrictions at Universal Periodic Review

Today, during the Universal Periodic Review of United States, several member states of the UN Human Rights Council made statements condemning the anti-abortion restrictions that the US places on foreign aid, such as the Helms Amendment.

The UN Human Rights Council is responsible for monitoring the human rights records of the member states; every four years each country is reviewed and presented with recommendations on how to comply with their human rights duties.

The effects of Helms are can be seen in conflict zones around the world, most recently with the rescue of 214 pregnant Nigerian women from Boko Haram. The issue of comprehensive medical care has gained traction in recent months. As a result, today the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Norway, Belgium and France orally recommended that the United States work to ensure access to safe abortions around the world and limit the negative impact of the Helms Amendment.

War rape is an illegal tactic of war, constituting torture or genocide, and denial of medical care allows the perpetuation of those crimes. The constraints of the Helms Amendment deny women and children access to safe abortions, and restrict aid agencies from even providing information about abortion services.

In September 2014, the Global Justice Center submitted a report to the UPR, highlighting the ways in which constraints against women’s reproductive rights are incompatible with the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In April 2015, GJC traveled throughout Europe advocating for countries to use the UPR process to question the current anti-abortion restrictions the US imposes.

In addition to the five oral questions, written recommendations were also submitted, requiring a response and justification, should the United States continue to uphold the Helms Amendment. The US government has three months to formulate a response. It is clear that the Obama Administration has a responsibility and urgent duty to remedy these violations.

Click here to read more. 

Executive Summary: The International Legal Framework of Peace Negotiations: Requirements and Recommendations for Enforcing Women’s Rights

Peace negotiations regularly exclude women participants and neglect to sufficiently address issues pertaining to women and girls. These omissions violate international law, including the Security Council Resolutions on women, peace, and security, which require that peace negotiations involve equal participation by women and ensure women’s rights. Getting women to the table is a critical first step, but it can only be the starting point to meaningful women’s participation in peace negotiations. Women must not only be present but also be equipped with knowledge of the international legal framework that governs how peace negotiations ensure the rights of women and girls. Their fellow negotiators must likewise be made aware of this body of binding international law, so that they are more likely to cooperate to advance, rather than obstruct, equal rights for women and girls. The Global Justice Center has developed a compilation of relevant provisions from international legal instruments that govern which rights must be ensured in the course of peace negotiations. While the compilation is not an exhaustive list of all relevant provisions, it provides a representative sample of important gender equality requirements. Following is a table identifying these provisions.

While some of these instruments are legally binding, either on all parties due to their incorporation into customary international law or on certain parties that have agreed to be bound, others are persuasive in that they represent the growing consensus of States.

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Chilean Health Minister Reply

JULY, 2013: Chilean Health Minister Dr. Jaime Menalich Muxi responds to a letter from the GJC requesting that he allow an 11-year-old rape victim to have a life-saving abortion.

This letter states that though the pregnancy is risky, he cannot grant her an abortion because it is against the law.

This is a translated version of the letter.

Read GJC's original letter here.

Read the original version of the Chilean Health Minister's response letter (in Spanish) here.

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Letter to Jaime Mañalich Muxi, Re: Denial of Life-Saving Abortion to Pregnant Chilean Girl Violates International Human Rights Law

GJC writes a letter to Chilean Minister of Health, Jaime Manalich Muxi, asking him to allow doctors to perform a life saving abortion on an 11-year old girl who was impregnated after being raped repeatedly by her mother's boyfriend.

Excerpt:

On behalf of the Global Justice Center, I am writing to urge you to immediately permit doctors to perform a therapeutic abortion to save the life and prevent further cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of a young Chilean girl, “Belén,” who faces a life-threatening pregnancy resulting from rape.

Belén, an 11-year old girl, was impregnated after being raped repeatedly for more than two weeks by her mother’s boyfriend. According to Belén’s doctors, the pregnancy has placed her life at risk. If, however, her doctors were to provide her a life-saving abortion, they and Belén would both be found in criminal violation of Chile’s absolute ban on abortion, which allows no exceptions for rape, incest or life of the mother. As Chilean law now stands, an 11-year old girl will be forced to endure a life-threatening pregnancy that will either kill her or compel her, a child herself, to give birth to and raise the child of her rapist. This forced pregnancy will continue the violation of her bodily integrity and sovereignty, extending the pain and abuse she has already experienced.

We call on your government to permit a therapeutic abortion as the only humane response to Belén’s predicament, and to reform your restrictive ban on abortion so that future girls and women are not subjected to the physical and psychological dangers of unwanted and life-threatening pregnancies.

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Chilean Health Minister Reply - Original

 Chilean Health Minister Dr. Jaime Menalich Muxi responds to a letter from the GJC requesting that he allow an 11-year-old rape victim to have a life-saving abortion. This letter states that though the pregnancy is risky, he cannot grant her an abortion because it is against the law. This is the original, untranslated copy of the letter the Chilean Health Minister sent in reply to the GJC.

Read GJC's original letter here.

Read a translated version of this letter here.

Download PDF

GJC in Geneva: Challenging US Policy that Denies Abortions to Victims Raped in Conflict

We are pleased to share with you a crucial step in our work to repeal the illegal U.S. policy that prevents women and girls raped and impregnated in conflict from accessing abortions.

Previously, we wrote about the international legal arguments that we were developing to challenge the abortion restrictions that the United States places on all of its humanitarian aid going to organizations and governments working in conflict countries.

After six months of research and advocacy, Janet, Akila, and Gina from the Global Justice Center are in Geneva raising these legal arguments at the UN Human Rights Council’s Review of the United States. They are meeting with member states of the Human Rights Council to urge them to question the US about these restrictions that effectively deny necessary care to the thousands of girls and women raped and impregnated during war.

Today, we are excited to report that Norway has taken the lead by submitting the following question:

“The Global Justice Center (GJC) filed a shadow report for the universal periodic review of the US expressing concern with regard to US blanket abortion restriction on humanitarian aid and abortion speech restrictions on US rule of law and democracy programs. Does the US have any plans to remove its blanket abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid covering the medical care given women and girls who are raped and impregnated in situations of armed conflict? Does the US government apply abortion speech restrictions on its rule of law and democracy programs?”

These questions form the very basis of the Human Rights Council’s recommendations. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is the UN body tasked with monitoring the human rights records of the 192 members of the United Nations. Every four years, member states are required to have a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in front of the Human Rights Council, during which each country receives recommendations on how to comply with their human rights obligations.

The US State Department has said they intend to comply with the UNHRC’s recommendations, so Norway’s questions sets the stage for changing U.S. policy in order to better protect and advance the rights of women and girls raped and impregnated in conflict.

Women who have been raped and impregnated in armed conflict in countries such as the Congo and Sudan have the legal right to non-discriminatory medical care under the Geneva Conventions. This includes the right to abortions wherever victims of rape request them.

As a party to the Geneva Conventions, the United States must change its policy of attaching conditions to its humanitarian aid which prohibit recipients from speaking about abortion.

Click here to read the Global Justice Center’s Call to Action that we are distributing right now to Human Rights Council member states in Geneva.

UK Baroness Uddin Uses GJC Legal Arguements in House of Lords Debate to Call for end to Discriminatory Care of Women Raped in Conflict

In her statement last Thursday, UK Baroness Uddin used a new legal argument from the Global Justice Center to call for the end to the routine denial of access to abortions for women who are raped and impregnated in conflict. Baroness Uddin identified the United States policy of censoring humanitarian aid recipients from speaking about or providing access to abortions as playing a major role in the continuing violation of the rights of these victims and called on the UK to ask questions of the United States about this policy when it is reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council. 

From UK House of Lords debate on the Millennium Development Goals, October 7, 2010, at link below, columns 307-308:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/101007-0002.htm#10100714000795

Baroness Uddin: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for initiating this important discussion. In the UK we should be rightly proud of the British leadership in advancing the millennium development goals which represent a vision of a world transformed where equality and justice prevail.

However, while we are very pleased, one group of women remains outside the MDG effort. Until we address this failure, we cannot speak of real progress. Today I ask our Government to call explicitly for girls and women who are forcibly impregnated by the vicious use of rape in armed conflict to be included under MDG 5-reducing maternal mortality. “Rape as a weapon of war” is a phrase commonly used accurately to describe what is happening alongside today’s armed conflicts, but we rarely speak about the consequences of this weapon. Thousands of girls and women impregnated by rape used as a weapon of war are routinely denied access to abortions. Girls and women die from their attempts to self-abort and from suicide resulting from untold stigmatization leading to social marginalization.

We should do what no other country has done: to ensure that the humanitarian medical aid provided to girls and women in places such as Congo, Sudan and Burma-an endless list of countries-gives them choices and access to abortion when pregnancy is a direct result of rape as a weapon of war. This is a moral imperative and a legal obligation. The Geneva Convention requires that civilians and combatant victims receive non-discriminatory medical care, whether it is provided by the state in conflict or by others. Why, then, are pregnant rape victims given discriminatory medical care through the routine denial of access to abortion? The embedded inequality towards women in conflict settings has been recognised by the Security Council in such historic resolutions as 1325 and 1820. Equal justice for women is not limited to the courtroom, it must be extended to supporting those women who are victims of the inhuman practice of rape as a weapon of war.

I draw the attention of the House to the recent report of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Oxfam, which details examples of the impact, stigma and suffering of raped children and women in Congo, Sudan and elsewhere, where no legal provision exists to support them. It also mentions that women should be given preventive care-that is, utilisation of contraception-as though women who are raped can be prepared for such horrors.

One of the solutions proposed by women’s organisations, including the international human rights organisation the Global Justice Center, is that access to abortion must be a critical part of the support available to women. The centre filed a shadow report with the Human Rights Council asking it to recommend that the US remove the prohibitions put on humanitarian aid to rape victims in conflict, as it violates the US obligation under the Geneva Convention. The UK can and must support this issue by asking questions of the US during the council’s review process due shortly.

I know that these are difficult matters for many individuals and countries to address, and international donor communities have thus far resisted pressurising countries to review their policies. Neither criminal abortion laws in the conflict state nor foreign aid contracts with the United States can serve as defence to a state provision of discriminatory medical care to all victims under international humanitarian law.

Time is short, and I should have liked to highlight many examples of countries such as Bangladesh where the suffering and humiliation of rape has left decades of suffering, ill health and stigma. The UK must take a lead to end that discrimination. This will mark real progress towards the millennium development goals and towards ensuring equal rights for women under international humanitarian law.