The annual meeting of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, held in New York every March, may be in trouble because of uncertainty and fear about the Trump administration’s attempt to ban immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. One major group has announced it is pulling out, and calls are being heard to move the meeting to the UN’s base in Geneva.
The 102-year-old Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom will not be participating this year in the global meeting. The league, based in Geneva, is the oldest women’s peace group in the world. It is led by Madeleine Rees, a lawyer who worked for the UN in Bosnia, where she helped expose sex trafficking by UN peacekeepers. Rees’s role was portrayed in a 2010 film, “The Whistleblower.”
In an announcement released on Feb. 9 and posted on its Twitter page, the league said that in light of the Trump ban announced on Jan. 27 as “a matter of principle, and in solidarity with our partners from excluded countries,” the group known as WILPF, which brings women from all over the world to participate in the annual UN conference, will not take part in the 61st Commission on the Status of Women session.
In explanation, it said, “WILPF warns that the absence of women from countries affected by the recent US travel ban undermines the basic premise of the CSW as being an inclusive and participatory process and threatens its legitimacy.” It did not acknowledge that the Trump ban has been frozen for now.
Another important feminist group, Apne Aap, founded by Ruchira Gupta, has dropped out of the conference in solidarity with women who cannot obtain visas to New York. Apne Aap is a grass-roots group focused on ending prostitution and sex trafficking in India.
The UN conference attracts thousands of women from governments, civil society and other walks of life to assess progress on women’s equality, gathering in workshops and other formats. It finishes with an “outcome document” that clarifies the annual theme and recommendations going forward.
This year, the theme is “women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work,” and the conference is March 13 to 24.
The overall mission of the commission, which was established by the UN’s Economic and Social Council and first met in 1947, is to “raise the status of women, irrespective of nationality, race, language or religion, to equality with men in all fields of human enterprise, and to eliminate all discrimination against women in the provisions of statutory law, in legal maxims or rules, or in interpretation of customary law.”
Given, however, the exclusionary nature of Trump’s immigration ban of people trying to enter the United States from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, the women’s league felt compelled to boycott the CSW, it said.
The travel ban is now in legal limbo, though, after American courts rejected Trump’s original plan. A new version is apparently being written by the White House.
“Women from the countries subject to the ban have either been denied visas or cannot, with any confidence, attend the CSW,” the league said in its statement in English and Arabic.
Even though the immigration ban was frozen by a US federal judge on Feb. 3, the decision was upheld by a federal appeals court and people from some of the banned countries are entering America again, there is much concern among many civil-rights parties and others that traveling into the US from the named countries could mean encountering difficulties.
Talk had been made by a handful of powerful groups lobbying to have the women’s conference postponed in New York and moved to Geneva, one person knowledgeable about the discussions told PassBlue. Most groups oppose this proposal, the person added.
Conflicts over the women’s conference amid the Trump ban have been brewing since the order was made, on Jan. 27. But there is no mention of tensions on the website of UN Women, the conference organizer and the lead entity at the UN promoting women worldwide.
The most public airing of problems with the 61st session appeared in an essay published in OpenDemocracy, the open-source journal. In an article by Lisa Davis and Yifat Susskind on Feb. 4, they wrote: “Every March, when the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meetings are held, women’s rights activists seize the chance to come to New York City, lobby global policymakers and collaborate with each other.
“Now, many are asking themselves how we keep the doors open for those activists from banned countries. Some are questioning if CSW should be postponed or even moved to Geneva, in solidarity with those who cannot attend.”
Davis is a human-rights advocacy director for Madre, a global organization based in New York that promotes women’s rights, and a professor at the City University of New York Law School. Susskind is the executive director of Madre. Their article said that canceling or moving the conference would not be fruitful.
“Far from it,” they wrote. “Substantial civil society participation at CSW in New York this year would be an act of solidarity, creating a critical show of resistance against autocracy and the US administration’s xenophobia and misogyny.”
Right now, they added, “we should be talking about how to best leverage CSW in New York to make a stand for global gender justice in this moment of crisis. Rather than accommodating Trump’s exclusionary agenda, we should be asking ourselves how to fortify and expand our movements amidst the global rise of right-wing authoritarianism, closing borders, and shrinking civil society spaces.”
Now that WILPF is “girlcotting” the conference, it could pave the way for more organizations to do the same, although none have stepped forward.
At the same time, the idea of holding the conference in New York and another in April in Geneva — for people who might not be able to attend in March — has been broached, said a person involved in discussions.
“If WILPF is ‘girlcotting,’ that is quite significant,” said Tanya Domi, an adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University who has worked on gender and other matters in the Western Balkans. “Led by the morally strong leadership of Madeleine Rees [of WILPF] — such an action sends a powerful message to the UN and its institutions.”
Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, an Iranian-born feminist who lives in the US and is executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network, also wrote in a Jan. 30 essay in OpenDemocracy about the possibility of women from banned countries being unable to attend the UN conference.
As to the recent move by WILPF and the CSW, Anderlini said in a recent email to PassBlue: “I’d like to see the UN itself inviting women from the 7 countries to open the CSW & keynote each day’s session. One member state cannot & should not determine who has access to UN events.”
“I appreciate the sentiment & wanting to hold CSW in a country that welcomes the citizens of all UN member states,” she added, about a meeting in Geneva. “So I think we should be everywhere — at CSW in New York & at alternate CSW gatherings elsewhere.”
Jessica Neuwirth, the founder of Donor Direct Action, which supports women’s-rights organizations “working on the front lines,” voiced a more optimistic note about the recent US legal decision on the immigration ban and its effects on the women’s conference.
“We were very glad to see that United States courts have halted implementation of the discriminatory measures President Trump attempted to put in place,” Neuwirth said in an email. “We are hopeful that American constitutional safeguards will continue to block discrimination on the basis of religion and national origin, in which case all those planning to attend the CSW would be able to do so.”
This article was updated.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.