Countdown to August 12th: Will the U.S. Step Up to the Plate at This Year’s Universal Periodic Review?

At the 2nd Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States, five countries- Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom- urged the U.S. to reconsider its stance on the Helms Amendment. This amendment makes it illegal for any U.S. foreign aid to be directed to abortion services. This leaves many women and girls who are victims of war rape no choice but to carry the child of their rapist or unsafely try to abort it themselves. The Helms Amendment impinges upon the rights of women and girls in conflict, and is in violation of the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Geneva Conventions.

The UN Security Council, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, countries and organizations around the world have recognized the gravity of the Helms Amendment and the necessity for clarification so that women and girls in conflict can have access to the medical care that they need.

Out of the 293 women and girls who were rescued from Boko Haram in Nigeria, one-third of them are pregnant. 214 of these women and girls are being denied proper care, and this is the fate of many others around the world.

The Obama administration has 3 months to respond to these charges and overturn the Helms Amendment and its abortion ban. GJC encourages President Obama to respond to these suggestions as soon as possible, as the end of the 3-month time frame for U.S. response to UPR recommendations, falls on August 12th, 2015. August 12th is the anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, and is also the inspiration for GJC’s August 12th Campaign to “Ensure the Right to Safe Abortion for Women and Girls Raped in Armed Conflict.”

Pressure is mounting and the clock is ticking. Will the U.S. overturn the Helms Amendment by the deadline, and show the world that it is upholding its obligations under the Geneva Conventions?

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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.

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Open Letter to Commissioner Georgieva

GJC writes open letter to Commissioner Georgieva of the European Commission in response to her September 8, 2014 letter explaining the European Union's position on abortion and the Geneva Conventions.

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Letter to Norwegian Foreign Minister

Letter from the Global Justice Center to Norway's Foreign Minister Eide asking for Support for a General Assembly Request to the International Court of Justice for an Advisory Opinion on Burma's Constitution.

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Letter to Secretary Hillary Clinton

Letter from the Global Justice Center to Secretary Hillary Clinton, asking for Support for a General Assembly Request to the International Court of Justice for an Advisory Opinion on Burma's Constitution.

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How Women in Power Can Help Change Society

“Sisters in Law”, a documentary following State Prosecutor Vera Ngassa and Court President Beatrice Ntuba in the small Muslim village of Kumba in Cameroon, is a wonderful example of how women in government can help transform the lives of women.  These women used their positions to help eliminate injustice towards women and to fight against Cameroon’s patriarchal society, where traditional attitudes ignored violence against women and even silenced them.  The documentary follows Ngassa and Ntuba as they prosecute a man for beating his wife and successfully convict him (the first time a man has been successfully convicted for spousal abuse in Kumba in over 17 years), in addition to helping a young girl get justice after being raped by an adult neighbor.

This documentary is a shining example of how women in positions of power can truly help achieve social change and improve situations for women.  Women in the small village of Kumba began to feel more confident and secure under Ngassa and Ntuba’s lead, and began to stand up against their abusers and against the male-dominated structure of their society to enforce their rights.  Women are severely underrepresented in the political world, despite making up about half of the population in any given country.  Currently, women only make up 19.6 percent of the membership of parliaments around the world.  In the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women’s General Recommendation No. 23, it is suggested that countries implement gender neutral quotas requiring that neither sex constitute less than 40% of a public body, quotas for women in public office, and rules giving preference to women nominees.  The Committee also noted that “research demonstrates that if women’s participation reaches 30 to 35 percent (generally termed a ‘critical mass’), there is a real impact on political style and the content of decisions, and political life is revitalized.”  Gender quotas do not have to apply only to the public sphere, as shown by Norway’s gender quota for “market-listed companies to fill 40 percent of the seats on their corporate supervisory boards with women.”

In order to boost political participation, and improve basic human rights and women’s rights, countries should consider implementing gender quotas for both legislative and judicial bodies.  If more women like Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba were put into positions of power, whether by being elected or being placed through a quota, it is almost certain that the situation for women around the world would improve greatly.

Advancing Gender Equality: What I Learned from the 55th Commission on the Status of Women

In late February, I attended the 55th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women. The purpose of CSW is to create a forum where leaders and activists in the gender equality field can brainstorm on how to formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and advancement of women worldwide. My impressions from the event were, (1) cooperation from government is essential to the advancement of gender equality; (2) that cooperation has increased over the years; and (3) there are viable non-government solutions that are essential regardless of the level of government cooperation. It seems that the fight for gender equality has become “workable”; in other words, there seems to be a light at the end of what has been a long, long tunnel.

The State Department’s response on March 18, 2011 to recommendations made at the 2010 Universal Periodic Review of the US appropriately reflects exactly where we are in the struggle for gender equality. In response to Norway’s recommendation that the US  “remov[e] blanket abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid covering medical care given women and girls who are raped and impregnated in situations of armed conflict”, the US responded that it could not remove the blanket abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid because of “currently applicable restrictions.” On the one hand, there’s hope because the response implies that we have a government amiable to the idea of change. On the other hand, there are restrictions requiring removal or begging for a work-around solution. GJC believes this is “a subtle but clear milestone in our global campaign to ensure victims of rape in conflict receive full medical care, including abortions.” You can read the GJC’s press release and full legal update here.

One of the events I attended at CSW on February 22nd called Making Countries Accountable on Gender Equity and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights emphasized the importance of government accountability as a way of achieving gender equality. The Foundation for Studies and Research on Women (FEIM) and Strategies from the South (SOUTH) organized a panel of experts and representatives from UN agencies and several civil society organizations[1] to highlight their experiences and lessons learned about holding governments accountable forgender equity and women´s sexual and reproductive health and rights. The panel speakers were in unison that they want a way to track what help is being offered at the country and level and a way of measuring how useful that help is to the problems of gender equity and women´s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

One solution is to have real-time information gathering drive solutions and government assistance. For example, this year, the General Assembly launched the UN Women (formerly UNFriend), an organization which aims to raise $500 million in program funds to help meet its goals of eliminating discrimination against women and girls; empowering women and achieving equality between women and men as partners and beneficiaries of development, human rights, humanitarian action and peace and security. An important initial goal for UN Women will be to access the needs and gaps in programs worldwide and then, to ensure that government expenditure is meeting those needs by monitoring those programs. The underlying idea is that learning from progress and pitfalls needs to be a strategy built into the operations of UN Women and its program affiliates. In this way, holding the government (and its expenditure) accountable will be a way to measure whether its assistance is actually effective.

While it is clear that there has been a steady increase of effort from the government to address gender inequalities and to prevent violence against women as a way of preventing HIV and AIDs, according to the UNFPA, women still account for nearly half the 33 million people living with HIV worldwide. The fact that the epidemic is still at staggeringly high levels is a sobering reality; but the panel’s message is that it is not one that is insurmountable. One pitfall is the information disconnect between governments and country women. As a panel speaker from the Asia Pacific for Law and Development[2] (APWLD) articulated, women do not always know the status of the law within their country; in many countries, there is non-existence of legal mechanisms, discriminatory laws are still in place or States lack the will to implement existing law that may be favorable to gender equality. One possible solution is to promote information sharing and access through grassroots organizations. Kakamega District Home-Based Care Alliance in Africa is one grassroots women-led effort working to improve AIDS governance at the local level.  In addition to providing essential support to vulnerable community members impacted by the epidemic, the Alliance unites caregivers and draws recognition to grassroots work, most often done on a voluntary basis.

Another way of addressing the problems of reproductive health is by providing medical practitioners information and guidance on how to treat women during times of crisis. On February 28th, I attended another CSW event hosted by the Women’s Refugee Commission to launch the 2010 Inter-Agency Field Manual on Reproductive Health in Humanitarian Settings[3]in New York. The field manual is an update of its 1999 version and has become an authoritative guidance on reproductive health interventions in humanitarian settings. Encouragingly, the latest report includes an entire section on comprehensive abortion care, a section that was not included in the last version. However, the report restricts the provision of abortion services to raped girls and women to circumstances where abortion is legal under local law. GJC reported in its 2011 report The Right to an Abortion for Girls and Women Raped in Armed Conflict, that this deference to local abortion laws is inaccurate because in situations of armed conflict, the Geneva Conventions and norms of customary international humanitarian law take precedence over national laws. Nonetheless, the field manual is undoubtedly a necessary practical tool. Some medical practitioners have no or little medical training and having a reliable resource will be invaluable in times of emergencies.

The solution to some challenges in promoting gender equality and advancement of women worldwide is partly financial. World-wide circulation of the field manual and developing it as an online, living document will take time and resources, both of which require money. The first panel discussion emphasized the importance of communication and accountability as a way of achieving gender equality and global reproductive health. The fact that UN Women has a $500 million dollar campaign goal doesn’t make one hopeful for immediate change. The way forward is not entirely reliant on financial support for grassroots activity, but it does seem like it offers the most immediate solution while governmental organizations continue to evolve their internal legal process for addressing the problem. Predictably, diversifying our efforts across many potential avenues for change continues to be the most effective way of advancing the solution.

Lisabeth Jorgensen

April 25, 2011

[1] Panel Speakers included: Purnima Mane (United Nations Population Fund – UNFPA); Nazneen Damji (UNIFEM – part of UN Women); Alexandra Garita (International Women’s Health Coalition- IWHC); Ebony Johnson (International Community of Women – ICW); Mikiko Otani (The Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development – APWLD); and Shannon Hayes (Huairou Commission). The Panel was moderated by Mabel Bianco, President of FEIM.

[2] APWLD is a NGO, non-profit organization committed to enabling women to use law as an instrument of social change for equality, justice and development.

[3]The audience was welcomed by moderator Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, Humanitarian Response Branch Chief, UNFPA and Ambassador Gary Quinlan, Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations; Ambassador Hasan Kleib, Permanent Representative of Indonesia to the United Nations and Ms. Purnima Mane, Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund. The rest of the speakers present were Sandra Krause, Reproductive Health Program Director, Women’s Refugee Commission; Dr. Grace Kodindo, Assistant Professor, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University and Ms. Ashley Wolfington, Reproductive Health Specialist, International Rescue Committee.