Disappointment at Rio+20 for Women

The outcome of the Rio+20 summit failed women everywhere. Language regarding reproductive rights and gender equality was dropped from the draft agreement, representing a significant step backwards from earlier agreements.

Going into the summit, the draft document included specific language ensuring reproductive rights and gender equality. A handful of oppressive regimes opposed this language and the Holy See led the opposition in an influential campaign that insisted on equating women’s reproductive rights with abortion. In reality, reproductive rights are about a great deal more than abortion, but unfortunately, the Holy See was able to assert enough pressure to succeed in getting the language removed from the agreement, leaving behind only vague references to reproductive health.

Ironically, most states are already under obligation to ensure reproductive rights and gender equality. As of today, 187 states have ratified Convention on the Elimination on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which requires member states to, among other things, take affirmative action to eliminate gender discrimination and to ensure that women have access to affordable, quality health services, including reproductive health. In fact, lack of access to reproductive health services and information is considered discriminatory against women under CEDAW. Unfortunately, due to weak enforcement mechanisms and a substantial number of reservations taken by states in ratifying the convention, performance of state obligations under CEDAW has been relatively poor. Including strong reproductive rights and gender equality commitments in the Rio+20 agreement would have been an excellent way to reinforce the importance of these issues, especially since it would have been from a sustainable development perspective.

Every day, evidence of the importance of reproductive rights and gender equality can be found in the news. For instance, Save the Children just came out with a  report on family planning finding that complications during pregnancy is the number one killer of teenage girls worldwide; babies born to mothers under the age of 18 are 60% more likely to die before their first birthday; and a “major barrier to family planning is that many vulnerable women and girls are unable to exercise their rights to make decisions over their own health care, including family planning.” Additionally, in Uganda, where approximately 16 women die during childbirth every day, women activists are currently taking a case to the Supreme Court in an effort to force the government to provide better maternal health care.

Rio+20 represents a lost opportunity. What could have been a significant step forward for women’s rights turned into yet another instance where women were left out of the picture.

Malawi Upholds International Law for the Sake of Economic Interests

Under the leadership of newly appointed president Joyce Banda, Malawi has refused to host the upcoming African Union summit due to its unwillingness to condone the ongoing impunity of Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, war crimes, and human rights atrocities committed in Darfur under his command. Although an ICC arrest warrant has been out for Bashir since 2010, he has repeatedly attended meetings and summits in a number of African countries over the past two years, including in Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Chad. Even the former Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika welcomed Bashir at a regional economic summit last year. As the ICC has no law enforcement mechanism of its own, it relies on the local officials of member nations to apprehend individuals accused of crimes by the Court.

Bashir is wanted by the ICC for multiple international legal offenses as a result of his major role as Sudanese President in the atrocities in Darfur, which began in 2003 and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 300,000 people and the displacement of almost 4 million. In 2009, a warrant was issued for his arrest on five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, and rape) and two counts of war crimes (intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population or against individual civilians not taking part in hostilities and pillaging). While the Court stopped short of issuing a warrant on charges of genocide, upon further investigation of the evidence, such a warrant was issued just a year later in July 2010. The effect of charging Bashir with the crime of genocide was to oblige all states party to the UN Genocide Convention (all UN member states) to arrest the accused upon entry into the country or stand in violation of the Convention by condoning impunity for genocide, a significant violation of the convention which could plausibly (and should) result in serious political, diplomatic, or economic consequences.

The July AU summit was set to be held in Lilongwe next month, but will now be moved to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. The decision came after President Joyce Banda threatened to arrest Omar al-Bashir upon his entry into Malawi, in accordance with the ICC warrant currently issued for his arrest. She has also declared her intention not to attend the meeting and to send Malawi’s vice president as the country’s representative at the summit. Banda has avoided questions as to whether her absence at the meeting is in protest of Bashir’s attendance, and she has repeatedly stated that her first concern is maintaining the health of the Malawian economy and ensuring continued revenue from foreign donors.

While Banda’s move is clearly a step in the right direction in terms of the ICC’s international legal effort to apprehend Bashir, the President’s actions were likely motivated more by the desire to protect Malawi’s economic interests than as an expression of righteous indignance at al-Bashir’s continued impunity in the face of international condemnation. Banda has indicated that her boycott of the summit was intended to placate western governments and organizations which contribute significant sums of foreign aid to Malawi, donations which comprise an estimated 40% of the country’s annual GDP. She has noted that a visit from Bashir would be frowned upon by international donors and said in a statement, “My main agenda is to put Malawi on an economic recovery path and that’s what I am trying to do.”

Many have argued that we should be concerned by the way aid conditionality is being used under the ruse of “Malawi’s best interest” – is that to remain under donor colonization? It’s always more powerful to know choices are made from conviction rather than under threat.  It would of course be ideal if countries were motivated to comply with ICC mandates—to which they are already signatories—simply on the basis of justice and respect for the rule of law. However, in the current international political climate such idealism is unfortunately not the reality. The truth is that state actions are motivated by a multitude of economic, social, and political factors, and it’s important to take all of these into account when assessing government action.

In addition, while it is legitimate to point out the flaws in the conditionality of foreign aid, it is also important to consider the alternative. Should governments and institutions contribute significant sums of aid money to countries whose governments openly flout the international legal mandates with which they have officially agreed to comply? Should there be no circumstances under which foreign aid contributions are denied to a government that openly supports the impunity of accused war criminals and perpetrators of genocide such as Omar al-Bashir? In response to allegations of “donor colonization,” international legal experts have responded by contending that continuing and reverberating voices and pressure from the CICC, various NGOs, activists, and political leaders are essential pieces of the puzzle to ensure compliance with the ICC. In other words, these institutions and actors have a unique power to influence government to take the right steps towards compliance with the ICC.

The international community has a legal obligation to ensure that human rights violations and crimes against humanity are not condoned by any state. In order to achieve this end, governments often resort to economic sanctions and the (sometimes limited) political tools at their disposal. While criticism of the use and distribution of foreign aid is a vital aspect of non-governmental oversight, it is important to consider each situation from multiple perspectives. Perhaps President Banda’s actions were motivated by economic and political interests rather than strong personal conviction, but the refusal to welcome Bashir into the country was an obligation Malawi had already assumed as a member of the UN and an official supporter of the ICC. In addition, the resulting discussion over international legal compliance and respect for international norms is a valuable opportunity to highlight the continued impunity of accused war criminals such as Omar al-Bashir and the legal obligation of the international community of states not to tolerate or condone the failure of governments to comply with international law.

Women Empowerment, Sustainable Development, and the Rio+20 Summit

With the debate of the effectiveness of the Rio+20 Summit still lingering, it is important to assess where the dialogues of the Summit could and should have gone. This discussion is inspired by the article, “The elephant in the room at Rio Summit,” by Jenny Shipley, which is an opinion piece on CNN addressing the role of empowering women and family planning in sustainable development.

The Rio Summit was designed as a milestone in the renewed discussions focused on the environment and moving towards a more sustainable and equal world. The Summit was described as trying to shape, “how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want.” In order for the Summit to have effectively discussed how to advance towards these objectives there were seven priority areas which had been identified to further guide discussions in a positive manner. These priority areas include: “decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.” However, there are a few things missing from the above “priority areas” which remain essential to the progression of our planet towards a global reduction in poverty while improving our social equity and global environmental protection clauses: the empowerment of women and family-planning.

In our world today one of the major problems we face is controlling our rapid population growth. Many environmentalists and experts have expressed their concerns that we have indeed passed the world’s carrying capacity, and this fact has become continuously more apparent in the last ten years with the increasing concern for environmental issues such as: global warming, resource depletion, deforestation, degradation of water resources, etc. The Rio Summit was theoretically responsible for addressing all of the above issues; however the real problem was without including the discussion on the role of women we were and continue to ignore the solution to our problems.

It has been proven that literate women who have access to education, not only in general but specifically related to reproductive health, put a higher emphasis on the importance of education for their children. In addition, literacy and education level are negatively correlated to the number of children a woman is likely to reproduce. Meaning, with an increase in literacy levels we are likely to see a decrease in child-bearing rates. Education, as deemed by many countries as the key to success, should have been discussed and encompassed as a key player in the fight for future successful implementation of sustainable development. This education factor, if directed specifically at women, can change the way our population is growing allowing for the strain on our Earth’s carrying capacity to be eased. Instead, some of the most influential leaders of international relations left Rio without a real plan or any solid progress towards a sustainable future.  If as a part of the Rio Summit, we strove towards implementing globally-focused education plans for women we could in the future make enormous strides for not only the environment, but also in reducing poverty, world hunger, infant and mother mortality while increasing quality of life and changing the way we view education as a whole. The Rio Summit instead of aiming high, lead us disappointingly to yet another conventional plateau of recycled ideas and promises.

Excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Global Studies (2012) published by SAGE Publications Inc. "Global Justice and Legal Issues"

The concept of global jusitce is premised on the belief that all poeple are entitled to certain fundamental human rights solely by virtue of being memebers of the human community. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a seminal step toward this vision; for the first time, states agreed to uphold the fundamental rights and liberties of their citizens. Enforcement of these human rights guarantees, however, has been severly constrained by the nearly impregnable doctrine of state sovereignty. International law, traditionally limited to regularting behavior between states and not between individuals and a state, reinforced this state-centric view of human rights. This article was written by Janet Benshoof for the Encyclopedia of Global Studies in 2012.

Download PDF

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

UN Establishes the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances

On May 31, 2011, I attended a panel discussion at the United Nations marking the first meeting of State Parties to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.  An enforced disappearance takes place when a person is arrested, detained, or abducted by the state or agents acting for the state, who then deny that the person is being held or conceal their whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law.  In 2006, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN after many years of hard work and commitment from relatives and loved ones of disappeared persons, NGOs, and governments.  As of May 2011, twenty-five states have ratified the convention, however José Luis Díaz of Amnesty International voiced his concern for States that have not yet ratified it, and stressed the duty of States to deal with enforced disappearances.

The testimonies given by the panelists were moving and informative, and emphasized the critical need to address this issue.  Estela Carlotto, President of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo spoke on the panel, and shared the story of her daughter who disappeared over thirty years ago.  The first meeting of State Parties to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances was a joyous day for those involved, and organizations like GJC, that work on the legal enforcement of human rights treaties.  

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. http://www.apwld.org/

[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.

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.

Advancing the Legal Enforcement of SCR 1325: Structural and Political Obstacles Imposed by the United Nations

The passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (SCR 1325) in 2000 was a legal milestone for women’s rights to equality and non-discrimination. For the first time the UN Security Council not only recognized the gender-biased impact of internal or country conflict,  it also mandated that the UN itself and all member states erect and monitor enforceable protections from such gender-based violence. However, there is still an urgent need to address:

  • The lack of any systematic progress towards parity for women as decision-makers in UN sponsored and other peace negotiations;
  • The failure to recognize SCR 1325 as a binding international law, particularly, as applicable to transitional justice processes;
  • The total exclusion of women stakeholders from such pariah states as Burma who are forced to operate only in exile and because of their difficult legal status are prevented from travel and access to critical  INGO and UN networking;
  • The discrimination against women survivors/victims of conflict from certain countries like Iraq where the politicized nature of the conflict has led to such actions as the de facto UN “blacklisting”, stopping any UN  support to the war crimes tribunal or to women victims of gender crimes under the Saddam regime;
  • The absence of any penalties or sanctions for repeated violations of SCR 1325 or country funding conditions based on compliance in country action plans.

Download PDF