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.

Helms Amendment at Work in the Congo

The late August four-day onslaught of mass sexual violence in Walikale, in Eastern Congo, is just the most recent example of a societal epidemic that has come to define the region with devastating consequences. Although early figures suggested that approximately 150 women were raped during this outbreak (most of whom were gang raped by between two to six people), these numbers have continued to escalate.  As of now, a staggering 303 cases of women, children, and men have been reported; it is likely that many more victims have remained silent. Further, in recent testimony to the Security Council, the Special Representative of the Secretary General to the DRC, Robert Meece, said that “[t]he best data available, for example, suggests that over 15,000 rapes were committed last year in eastern DRC.”

These events continue to illustrate the severity of the conflict, as well as the urgency with which we need to address the US restrictions that impede complete humanitarian assistance for female victims in conflict.  Rather than doing everything in its power to help these victims, US anti-abortion conditions on foreign aid deny access to abortion services to women and girls raped in conflict.  Many human rights reports have found that pregnancy exacerbates the consequences of rape in conflict settings for the victims.

The only medical response in the situation in Walikale was provided by the International Medical Corps (IMC), whose work in eastern DRC is funded by USAID.  Because of the aid restrictions outlined in the Helms Amendment, IMC cannot provide abortion services to any women who present at their treatment center.  This is particularly disturbing in light of information from IMC stating that only two of the victims from Walikale received treatment within 72 hours, the timeframe during which emergency contraception is effective.   The MONUSCO report documenting the incident further states that only 100 of these victims received treatment within 3 weeks.  It is clear that while IMC occupies the medical assistance field there, any woman impregnated as a result of these rapes will not have access to abortion – a violation of international humanitarian law guarantees of non-discriminatory medical care and prohibitions on torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

A Call For All Member States of the Human Rights Council: End the Gross Violations of the Rights of Girls and Women Raped and Impregnated in Armed Conflict, to Non-Discriminatory Medical Care, Including Abortions, Under the Geneva Convention

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—November 2010

[NEW YORK, NY] - Thousands of girls and women, impregnated by rape in armed conflict are routinely and illegally denied lifesaving abortions in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burma and Sudan. The right to non-discriminatory medical care for these victims, which includes the option of abortion, is enshrined in common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Justice Center Challenges the Abortion Speech Censorship Imposed by the U.S. on all Foreign Aid Recipients, at the UN Human Rights Council

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - May 26, 2010

[NEW YORK, NY] - The Global Justice Center, in a submission to the UN Human Rights Council, challenges the censorship of abortion related speech imposed on all U.S. foreign aid. The Global Justice Center identifies the alarming effects of this censorship, including denying impregnated rape victims in conflict access to information about abortion services. “For the United States to prevent women and girls who have been gang raped and impregnated by the military in places like the Congo, Sudan, or Burma from their full range of medical treatment options, including abortion, is cruel, inhumane, and violates fundamental international laws such as the Geneva Conventions,” says Global Justice Center President Janet Benshoof. “It is not what America stands for.”