Weekly News Roundup

By Julia d'Amours

On Thursday, US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos claimed the Department of Education would reform how universities handle accusations of sexual assault. Though DeVos did not say what specific changes would be made, she remarked that universities are “ill-served by a quasi-judicial process.” DeVos’s statement focused on the rights of the accused, whom she claimed are mistreated under current systems. Critics from the Right claim DeVos’s proposal grants disproportionate weight to the testimonies of victims, while voices from the Left say it undermines essential changes made during the Obama Administration. 

On Sunday, federal prosecutors in Brazil opened an investigation of ten murdered indigenous tribe members. The altercation arose when the members of the previously uncontacted tribe encountered Brazilian gold miners along a river near the Colombian border. This is the second reported killing of uncontacted indigenous peoples this year. Survival International, an indigenous rights organization, claimed that given the diminished populations of uncontacted tribes, a single armed conflict could carry serious repercussions for the survival of the ethnic group.

On Monday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that California will file a law suit against the Trump Administration over the repeal of DACA. This comes after a coalition of 15 states announced joint legal action against the proposed repeal. California is estimated to be home to more than one in every four DACA recipients. 

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported on the bleak living conditions of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in Pakistan. Residents of the Rohingya-populated Arkanabad slum report police brutality, malnutrition, and lack of work and education opportunities. Rohingya in Pakistan wish to see the country taking a more firm stance against military persecution in Burma, as it holds the highest concentration of Rohingya outside of their native lands. 

On Wednesday, it was announced that Burma’s defacto leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be skipping the UN General Debate, which is scheduled to begin on September 19th. Burma has been under heavy criticism for its treatment of the Rohingya, and the UN has accused it of ethnic cleansing. Spokespeople for Ms. Suu Kyi claimed that she “has more pressing matters to deal with” and she will “speak for national reconciliation and peace” on national television instead.

Photo by Htoo Tay Zar

The Winding History of the Global Gag Rule

By Julia d'Amours

On September 7th, Senate lawmakers presented “a twofold rebuke” to the Trump Administration’s abortion policy. The proposed legislation would reinstate funding to the United Nations Population Fund and overturn the Global Gag Rule, a hallmark Republican presidential policy that bans US support for international organizations that offer or promote abortion services.

The first segment of the bill regards support for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which has a winding and tumultuous relationship with the United States. The UNFPA aimsto promote family planning, maternal health resources, and improved childcare in developing countries. It was founded at the urging of President Nixon in 1969, with the US being one of its core leaders. By 1984, however, President Reagan became one of the UNFPA’s greatest adversaries, accusing it of supporting the Chinese “one-child” policy.  He pulled funding from UNFPA through the Kemp-Kasten anticoercion law, which revoked US support from any organization that “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization”. Since then, funding for the UNFPA has waxed and waned with the party of presidential leadership, with Democrats offering support for the organization and Republicans being quick to rescind it.

The second facet of the proposal is an amendment presented by Jeanne Shaheen (D- New Hampshire) to undo the “Mexico City Policy”. The Mexico City Policy, also known as the Global Gag Rule, bars federal aid to foreign organizations that provide or promote abortion. Under Trump, however, the policy has been expanded to all organizations that receive global health funding, such as those offering maternal health, anti-Zika, and preventative HIV/AIDs programs.The proposed legislation would undo Trump’s reforms, limit future efforts to reinstate the Mexico City policy, and restore US funding to UNFPA. The Amendment narrowly passed in a 16-15 vote with Republican Senators Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Ark) casting the final votes in favor.

The proposal has been praised across party divides. Shaheen applauded the bipartisan support for the new policy, claiming it would “preserve and restore funding levels for international organizations that help to prevent over 50 million unintended pregnancies around the world, and reduce the number of maternal deaths we see from those accessing unsafe abortions when the lack of family planning leaves them without options.” Family planning proponents hailed the move for “sending the message that the lives of girls, women, and families who rely on reproductive healthcare matter here and abroad,” said Brian Dixon, Senior Vice President of the Population Connection Action Fund.

Despite the acclaim, the future of the amendment remains uncertain. Unlike previous efforts to reinstate UNFPA funding and repeal the Global Gag Rule, the amendment has to pass through a Republican Senate, House, and Executive branch. Social conservatives in the House have controlled the US reproductive health agenda since 2011. Typically, the Senate has rebuked their more radical proposals, but now that social conservatives have more control there, the fate of the bill is even more uncertainRemarked Dixon, “[the bill] has to be passed by the full Senate… It’s hard to know what they’re going to do… At some point, these two bills are going to get negotiated into something that both houses will pass.” Senator Lindsay Graham (R- S.C.) commented that the GOP-dominated house would insist on keeping Trump’s policy in place. “This is the same debate we have every year, probably with the same outcome,” he claimed.

Another indication of the amendment’s uncertain future is that the House spending plan includes no financial provisions for it, hinting that the proposal is unlikely to pass or at least will be watered-down before becoming law. Historically, Capitol Hill has opted to retain a traditional budget that preserves the status quo, and the foreign aid required to enact an amendment restoring funding for the UNFPA and rescinding the Gag Rule could amount to as much as $8.8 billion.

This bureaucratic push-and-pull between Republicans and Democrats on the Global Gag Rule may appear strictly political, but it has a very real effect on people’s lives and health throughout the developing world. For example, the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association received 426,000 condoms from USAID over two years during the Clinton Administration. Once the Gage Rule went back into effect upon the election of Geroge W. Bush, the shipments ceased because the association was the only accessible conduit for condoms in the entire country, in which one in four women was HIV/AIDS positive.

Nor do Republicans’ intentions to curb abortions through rescinded funding seem productive. The claim that cutting family planning funding will make “abortion more rare” has never been supported with data. Studies by Stanford University and a survey of abortion rates in Ghana have shown the contrary to be true. Moreover, cuts to family planning services means abortions are more likely to be performed unsafely, a leading cause of maternal death. 

The global trend towards liberalizing family planning services throughout the world indicates the common understanding that access to family planning services and abortion is a right and essential dimension to healthcare. Limiting maternal health and family planning resources does not reduce rates of abortions, but raises the death tolls for women and their children, meaning Republicans’ “pro-life” policy is actually the contrary. 

 

GJC Weekly News Roundup

By Julia d'Amours

Chile proceeds with the repeal of its total anti-abortion laws. In August, legislation was presented to permit abortion in three cases: if the life of the mother was in danger, if it the fetus would not survive, or if the pregnancy was a result of rape. Lawyers argued that a total abortion ban was inhumane and a violation of women’s rights. Though polls indicate more than 70 percent of the population supports more lenient abortion laws, the Catholic Church and elite upper class staunchly opposed the bill. The repeal is considered a major victory in women’s rights and reproductive rights, and many hope it will lead to similar legislation in the region.

Last Friday, Kenya’s Supreme Court ruled that the re-election of the sitting president would be revisited after discovery that the vote counts had been irregular. It is the first example in Africa in which a court voided the re-election of an incumbent. Many are at unease considering Kenya’s fragile political landscape—the last disputed election in 2007 resulted in at least 1,300 dead and 600,000 displaced around the country.

On Sunday, Cambodia arrested Kem Sokha, the main opposition leader, accusing him of treason. This follows accounts of government harassment on the free press and expulsion of NGOs, such as the pro-democracy National Democratic Institute. A Human Rights Watch official called the arrest “a disastrous setback” for Cambodia as the country prepares for elections next year.

On Monday, Malala Yousafzi joined an increasing number of human rights activists in publicly criticizing Myanmar’s effective leader Aung San Suu Kyi for the treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma. More than 73,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh after they were attacked by Burmese military factions on August 25th. The UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar has described the situation as “grave.” Widely seen as a champion of democracy, Suu Kyi has remained quiet on the subject of the Rohingya.

On Tuesday, President Trump broke headlines by announcing the end of DACA—the federal program that protected nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children. He claimed DACA’s establishment was an abuse of electoral power and rebuking it would establish rule of law. Many of those enrolled in DACA already have families, started careers, or enrolled in higher education in the US. Permits that are set to expire in the next six months will be renewed, but the Department of Homeland Security will stop processing new applications for the program. Officials say there will be no formal guidance that former DACA recipients are not eligible for deportation.

On Wednesday, the Trump Administration introduced a Security Council resolution that would empower the United States Navy and Airforce to interdict North Korean ships and evaluate if their cargo contains military equipment. It also included a ban on the shipment of crude oil, petroleum, and natural gas, which would have severe results for the North Korean population as winter approaches, and aims to block the assets of Kim Jong-un. The resolution is careful not to encompass a total blockade, which is an act of war, but permits the US and UNSC to “nonconsensual inspections.”

On Thursday, a federal appeals court permitted thousands of refugees who had been blocked by President Trumps’ travel ban to enter the country. Since June, the government has frozen refugee resettlement applications and brought resettlement programs to a standstill.  Yesterday’s ruling mandated that the government resume refugee resettlements in the next five days. It also upheld a lower court decision that exempted grandparents and other relatives from the ban. A Justice Department representative remarked that they will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

Also on Thursday, the High Court of Australia ruled that a postal survey on the legalization of gay marriage was legitimate, despite the objections of same-sex marriage advocates. The results of the survey could not make same-sex marriage legal or illegal, but it could spark a vote in Parliament. Polls suggest that a “yes” vote in favor of legalizing gay marriage will prevail. The results will be announced the 15th of November.

Photo by Alsidare Hickson 

Global Justice Center Applauds Senate Committee Vote Against Global Gag Rule

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - September 8, 2017

[NEW YORK, NY] – On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee moved to reinstate funding for the United Nations Population Fund and overturn Trump’s reinstatement and expansion of the Global Gag Rule. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen from New Hampshire proposed an amendment to the 2018 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill that would overturn Trump’s expanded version of the Gag Rule, reinstate US contributions to UNFPA and limit the power of any future president to reinstate the Gag Rule. The amendment was approved with the votes of two female republicans, Senator Collins from Maine and Senator Murkowski from Alaska, but still needs to pass the full senate to become law.

Trumps's First UN General Assembly Week: What to Expect

By Julia d'Amours

The 72nd UN General Assembly will start on Tuesday, September 19th. This year’s theme is “Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet,” as chosen by this year’s GA President Miroslav Lajčak of Slovakia. Lajčak has designated six themes for this year’s GA: improving the lives of ordinary people; prevention and mediation to sustain peace; migration; achieving SDG and climate standards; human rights and equal opportunities for both genders; and improved quality of events hosted by the UN General Assembly Presidency.

The UNGA always garners international attention as the “hottest ticket in diplomacy,” but this year’s is leaving delegations in heightened anticipation as President Trump makes his UN debut. According to State Department officials, the US delegation will be smaller than earlier years, scaling down attendance from 1,000 to about 300 US personnel.  US diplomats will also reportedly need permission to attend the myriad side events and debates hosted throughout the week. This diminished presence is partly due to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s aims to scale down departmental spending. It’s also sending the message, however, that the US is disengaging from its international obligations and the UN as a whole.

President Trump will be present for three days of the UNGA, more time than most US Presidents have traditionally spent, beginning his participation with an address to the General Assembly on Tuesday, September 19th. From there, he will proceed to several key events, such as a luncheonhosted by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The Trump Administration has indicated counterterrorism, conflict in Syria, North Korea, and UN reform as its priorities during this GA session.

Another change in this year’s GA will be the venue of the negotiations. Typically, the US hosts meetings at the UN or in nearby hotels. Trump has opted instead for his New Jersey golf club. It is rumored that his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner will play significant roles in these discussions.

Recent tensions between the Trump Administration and UN have left foreign diplomats with apprehension. At the White House in April, Trump remarkedthat he has “long felt that the UN is an underperformer but has tremendous potential”. Ambassador Haley toldthe UNSC in April, “You don’t see the United Nations, like, solving conflicts.” The relationship between the White House and the UN has only grown more contentious over the summer. Last month, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN Human Rights Chief, said that Trump’s repeated denouncements of the press and incitement of violence was “poisonous.”

Historically the US has used the UNGA to demonstrate its commitment to global leadership and indispensable role in the UN. This year, however, many expect touting an “America First” agenda. On September 18th, Trump will chair a meetingon streamlining UN services which will give him and Haley the opportunity to present themselves as big UN reformers. It is anticipated Trump will threaten to revoke funding in certain reforms are not made.

With the increasing hostility with North Korea, the ongoing conflict in Syria, global terror attacks and countries all over the world dealing with the ravaging effects of climate change, the world needs national level leadership to meaningfully address international crises.  Unfortunately, the signs are pointing to Trump’s visit to the UN further fraying global tensions.

Photo by Gage Skidmore

U.S. Lacks Concrete Domestic and International Modes of Legal Protection for U.S. Women

By Marie Wilken

Most Americans—80%—believe women’s rights are guaranteed by the Constitution. Most would likely similarly assume that the U.S. is one of 189 countries to have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). But the United States neither constitutionally protects women’s rights nor is a state party to the treaty considered an international bill of rights for women. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and CEDAW share similar stories of failed ratification: both passed the initial stages of adoption in the 1970s but, despite decades of activism, have yet to be ratified, denying women in America access to rights they are entitled to and deserve.

The United States has a current set of laws protecting women’s individual rights, so why are CEDAW and the ERA necessary? Both serve as tools to advance gender equality by codifying women’s rights and providing stronger legal frameworks to combat discrimination. CEDAW is an international human rights treaty that pursues equality between men and women in all areas of life. The UN General Assembly adopted CEDAW in 1979, and a committee to ensure compliance was established in 1982. While Jimmy Carter signed the treaty in 1979, it did not get the necessary two-thirds vote from the Senate to ratify it. This puts the United States in the company of a small number of countries—Somalia, Iran, the Holy See, Sudan, Tonga and Palau—that have not ratified CEDAW.

Ratification would positively influence both policy and court case decisions. When the United States previously considered CEDAW and other human rights treaties, it watered them down with reservations, understandings, or declarations (RUDs)—conditions that limit the applications of the treaties by preventing them from being more stringent than standing domestic law. Assuming that the United States didn’t adopt prohibitive RUDs, CEDAW could significantly strengthen protections of women’s rights.

By ratifying CEDAW, the United States would agree to periodic reviews by the independent experts on the CEDAW Committee to evaluate its implementation of the treaty. Other countries’ reviews have prompted public debate, policy decisions and national equality action plans. CEDAW’s provisions cover many areas in which the U.S. is still lacking, such as equal pay, parental leave, domestic violence and healthcare access. In the courts of countries that have ratified CEDAW, it has been used to strike down a number of laws criminalizing abortion and other laws that contradict the Convention. CEDAW has also often been applied in domestic court cases (see the examples in GJC’s CEDAW Casebank).

Ratification of the ERA would similarly benefit women’s rights. The ERA was introduced by suffragette Alice Paul in 1923 after women won the right to vote. In 1972, pushed by the women’s movement, Congress passed the ERA, but it was three states short of the 38 states needed to ratify a constitutional amendment before the deadline (last year, 35 years past the deadline, Nevada ratified the ERA).

The ERA would constitutionally guarantee women’s equal rights. The main section of the short amendment simply states: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Other than the right to vote, the Constitution currently does not explicitly guarantee equal rights for men and women. The 14th Amendment, created to ensure freed slaves equality, is often interpreted as also including equal rights for women—but it hasn’t been and still isn’t always interpreted this way. The amendment was ratified in 1868, but it wasn’t until 70 years later that women won the right to vote and not until 1971—almost a hundred years after ratification—that the 14th Amendment was applied against sex discrimination in Reed v. Reed. The 14th Amendment does not provide the same uniform protections that the ERA would, and its ambiguity endangers women’s rights. The late Justice Antonin Scalia said explicitly that the Constitution does not prohibit sex discrimination. He applied this specifically to the 14th Amendment, saying, “Nobody thought it was directed against sex discrimination.”

The ERA would defend advancements in women’s rights from such ambiguity in judicial interpretation and changes in legislation. While there are rights for women protected under individual laws, such as Title IX, the Equal Pay Act, etc., these could just as easily be reversed. Only by enshrining these rights in the Constitution will cases on sex discrimination be subject to strict scrutiny, the highest level of judicial review. This would shift the burden of proof to those charged with discrimination, and it would heighten the level of justification, making it equal to the level applied to cases related to race and religion.

Both CEDAW and the ERA remain viable options for women in the United States. Ratification of CEDAW would require the support of 66 senators, and there are two possible strategies for ratification of the ERA—restarting the traditional amendment process or extending the previous deadline to gain the support of the two additional states needed for ratification. In the meantime, progress has been made on both CEDAW and the ERA at the local level, with a Cities for CEDAW movement growing and many states adopting versions of the ERA in their constitutions. In a political climate where women’s rights are increasingly under threat, we should not leave them vulnerable to changes in legislation or judicial interpretation. It's time that the United States justified the majority of Americans' belief that women’s rights are guaranteed by making it true.

GJC Weekly News Roundup

Thursday, the UK government released its “Repeal Bill”—the Brexit legislation that converts EU law into domestic law—and it’s missing the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. Inclusion of the Charter was one of the Labour Party’s six requirements for support of the bill. The Charter guarantees a number of economic and social rights such as healthcare and the protection of personal data. Excluding the Charter could limit the ability to appeal bills that threaten those rights in court.

Monday, The Guardian showed “Why Donald Trump is bad for the health of the world – in five charts.” Most of these charts tie back to the Global Gag Rule, which will raise the abortion rate in sub-Saharan Africa, help triple Uganda’s population in 30 years by decreasing access to contraception, hurt funding to more than 60 countries and increase the number of unsafe abortions and maternal deaths. Trump’s 2018 budget also makes deeper cuts to global healthcare funding than ever before.

Wednesday, the United States eliminated its war crimes bureau, the Office of Global Criminal Justice. In Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s restructuring of the State Department, he is downgrading the office to a section of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The demotion will make it more difficult to shed light on war crimes and prosecute war criminals. Three former U.S. Ambassadors-at-Large for War Crimes Issues condemned the decision in an op-ed, writing, “In effectively closing this office and eliminating the ambassadorial position, this administration removes the most potent diplomatic weapon in its arsenal and sends an unequivocal signal these are no longer priorities for the United States.”

Wednesday, Chile’s senate passed a bill legalizing abortion in some cases: when the pregnancy is a result of rape, when the fetus is unviable and when the mother’s life is at risk. Abortion had previously been illegal under all circumstances. The senate narrowly approved the bill, and it now proceeds to the house. President Michelle Bachelet, former Executive Director of UN Women, campaigned on changing the strict abortion law when she was re-elected in 2014.

Photo credit: UK Department for International Development Flickr(CC-BY-SA-2.0)

GJC Weekly News Roundup

 Wednesday, Turkey detained eleven human rights defenders near Istanbul. The activists were attending a workshop on protecting the work of human rights groups when Turkish police arrested them on the baseless suspicion of belonging to an “armed terrorist organization,” and they are still in custody. Two are leaders of Amnesty International Turkey.

Friday, the Financial Times explored Brexit’s impact on women. The British government drew attention last month because of the lack of women on their negotiating team (two of the twelve negotiators at the initial meeting were women), but concerns extend beyond that. Laws on women’s rights might change with Brexit, particularly if Britain is no longer under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. This could remove decades of progressive decisions on issues including equal pay, pregnancy discrimination, and sex discrimination laws.

Saturday, in an article about the Afghan province Ghor, The New York Times described what happens when the law provides no protection for women. Ghor’s weak rule of law and their marriage customs leave women vulnerable. There have been 118 registered cases of violence against women in the past year—with many more going unreported—and zero suspects in these 118 cases have been arrested. Extreme stories of women being abducted, shot, stoned to death and more have emerged from the province in recent years. Law officials say they have to balance justice with security when sharing borders with violent, Taliban-occupied territories.

Monday, Oregon’s legislature passed one of the most progressive pieces of reproductive rights legislation in the country. The Reproductive Health Equity Act requires health insurance to cover, at no cost to patients, a number of reproductive health services such as abortion, contraception and prenatal and postnatal care. Religious employers can opt out of covering abortion and contraception. It also reaffirms Oregon citizens’ rights to an abortion, protecting them from possible changes in federal law. The bill will now go to Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat who is supportive of reproductive rights.

Tuesday, in retaliation against the United States’ Global Gag Rule, Sweden’s development agency announced it will no longer give funding for sexual and reproductive health services to organizations that follow the Gag Rule. Sweden is also allocating new funds to organizations that agree to not follow the Gag Rule.

Wednesday, Buddhists protested the arrival of a UN human rights envoy to Myanmar. The envoy is on an information-gathering trip in the Rakhine state to investigate security forces’ human rights abuses against the Muslim Rohingya minority. The protestors said Yanghee Lee, who is leading the envoy, is too “one-sided.” Earlier this summer, Lee recommended a special UN mission to investigate the problems in Rakhine, which the Human Rights Council approved; however, Myanmar wouldn’t allow the mission members to enter the country.

Wednesday, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is re-examining the college sexual assault policies instituted under Title IX during the Obama administration. She is meeting with victims of sexual assault, men accused of assault, and higher education officials. Obama’s policies sparked a backlash from some who believed the policies and investigations went too far in ignoring the rights of the accused.

GJC Weekly News Roundup

Friday, Missouri is moving toward passing a bill that would allow landlords and employers to discriminate against women who have had abortions or use contraception. The House passed an expanded version of the bill, known as SB 5, which the Senate first passed on June 14 during a special session called by Governor Eric Greitens. The session was intended to overturn an ordinance that prevents employers and landlords from discriminating against women because of their reproductive health choices. While the Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination against women who have had an abortion, it makes no mention of discrimination based on birth control.

Thursday, the United States rejected a United Nations resolution against gender-based violence because of a paragraph calling for access to reproductive health services, including abortion where it is legal. U.S. official Jason Mack said that while the United States agrees with the “spirit” of the resolution, it cannot endorse the paragraph on reproductive services because t the U.S. does “not recognize abortion as a method of family planning, nor do we support abortion in our reproductive health assistance.”

Monday, the Polish government passed legislation restricting access to emergency contraception. The president signed a bill that classifies the “morning-after pill” as a prescription drug, meaning that women will now have to make a doctor’s appointment to obtain it. Polish doctors are allowed to refuse treatment based on religious grounds. 

Monday, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivered a speech criticizing Western countries for undermining human rights, arguing that “the dangers to the entire system of international law are therefore very real.” He warned that U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s threat to abandon human rights if they hinder terrorism investigations would encourage authoritarian regimes.  He also condemned the Trump administration’s travel ban and “flirtation” with torture.

Photo credit: Yassie CC-BY-SA-3.0

U.S. Continues to Prioritize Anti-Abortion Policy Over The Wellbeing of Women

By Marie Wilken

The United States recently rejected a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on violence against women because it contained language calling for access to abortion in countries where it is legal. This is yet another example of the Trump administration using international aid and laws to limit access to abortion around the world. Like the Global Gag Rule, this rejection ignores that in addition to infringing on reproductive rights, these actions have many negative ramifications that are unrelated to abortion.

After a resolution aimed at eliminating violence and discrimination against women, introduced by Canada, was adopted by consensus, the United States dissociated from the consensus because of a sentence about abortion.  While abortion was not a primary focus of the resolution, it stated that all women should have access to “comprehensive sexual and health-care services” including “safe abortion where such services are permitted by national law.” U.S. First Secretary to the U.N. in Geneva Jason Mack delivered a statement saying that the U.S. agrees with the “spirit” of the resolution but cannot endorse the paragraph on reproductive services because the U.S. does “not recognize abortion as a method of family planning, nor do we support abortion in our reproductive health assistance.”

This is not a singular action; its motivations and effects parallel other Trump administration policies. Congress’s new health care bill defunds Planned Parenthood—a policy that, though driven by anti-abortion sentiment, will have a much broader impact on women’s health care. This year President Trump reinstated and greatly expanded the Global Gag Rule. The administration refuses to fund international aid even loosely related to abortion, and its rejection of the UN resolution suggests it is adopting a similar approach toward international law. Because of the Gag Rule, organizations are afraid to even reference abortion out of fear of losing their U.S. funding. There is now fear that the same chilling effect to mentions of abortion and other reproductive rights will spread to international law. The Global Gag Rule, health care bill, and rejection of the UN resolution not only violate women’s reproductive rights, but all also deny women unrelated services and protections.

The United States’ resistance to international reproductive rights is dangerous. By denying women around the world safe and accessible abortion, it risks the lives of women and girls. Approximately 830 women die from preventable pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes per day. U.S. policy forces some of the world’s poorest women to choose between giving birth to a child they cannot afford to care for and seeking an unsafe abortion. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 225 million women in developing countries want to prevent pregnancy but are not using contraception, mostly due to the limited reproductive health services available.  The administration’s policies are also dangerous because of the message they send the international community about abortion and U.S. ideals. Abortion is a reproductive right, and reproductive rights are an essential aspect of women’s rights—but Mack’s statement separated abortion from other rights and reproductive health services and demonized it. He wielded United States influence over international norms to push them backwards, away from progress toward equal protection of rights.

Because of one sentence on abortion, the United States obstructed the entire resolution. In addition to attacking women’s reproductive rights, the U.S. missed its opportunity to show commitment to improving the lives women through preventing violence and eliminating discrimination. By doing so, the Trump administration reaffirmed its willingness to sacrifice women’s rights, health care, and even lives.

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)