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In Year 2 of Trump Presidency, the US Is Still Eroding Both the UN and Women’s Rights


Trump at a luncheon held by UN Secretary-General António Guterres for heads of state attending the General Assembly on Sept. 19, 2017, at which President Trump offered a toast. Although Ambassador Nikki Haley has toned down her remarks at the UN, the US agenda is still damaging the UN’s role in global affairs. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

After a year of bombast and threats by Ambassador Nikki Haley and the ever-evolving Donald Trump administration, the tone appears to be turned down a few notches in the second year of the Trump presidency.

But efforts to undermine the United Nations and what it stands for have not stopped, at least for now, even when the United States has put itself in a precarious diplomatic situation with its defiance of a Security Council resolution by withdrawing from the international binding agreement to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons.

On North Korea, after endlessly berating Kim Jong Un and browbeating the Council into adopting harsher sanctions on Kim’s dictatorial, lethal regime, the unsettling fear among many analysts around the world is that Trump will flip the story and give away the gains in talks with the man he now calls “honorable” (about 5:00 into the April 25 video below).

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At the same time, violence has erupted in the Muslim and Arab worlds over Trump’s decision to become the first government across the globe to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and begin, at least symbolically, to move the American embassy to the city from Tel Aviv.

On social issues of importance to the UN, not only has the Trump administration deliberately damaged the effectiveness of American assistance to women in developing countries with his reimposition — and toughening — of the “global gag rule,” which prohibits in absolute terms any involvement with abortion, down to even counseling girls and women about it or advocating for safe procedures where they are legal.

The Trump White House, with considerable help from Ambassador Haley, has also has sought to undermine UN institutions by reinvigorating a conservative Republican tactic of appointing consensus-wreckers to represent the US in important commissions and official positions.

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In March and April, the targets were the Commission on the Status of Women and the Commission on Population and Development, where US delegations forced changes in documents reaffirming support for women’s reproductive rights and blocked consensus on final outcome documents for the second year in the population commission.

“The US is a pro-life country,” Bethany Kozma,  a senior adviser with Usaid’s Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment office and a member of the American delegation was reported to have declared in a closed-door session of the women’s commission session in March, where the US tried, with limited success, to change wording in documents to avoid, for example, “contraception” and to promote “abstinence.”

Most shocking to women’s rights advocates and American diplomats around the world who have contributed freely and trenchantly over the years to the US State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practice, are the distortions and omissions that illustrate the Trump administration’s ideological definitions of sexual and reproductive health that appear this year in the latest edition.

On May 2, Katherine Olivera of the International Women’s Health Coalition wrote that the new version, based on 2017 data, as edited, reflect Trump officials’ disregard for women.

Olivera wrote: “This year’s reports removed the section titled ‘Reproductive Rights’ and replaced it with the much narrower heading, ‘Coercion in Population Control.’ This change has major implications for the substance of the reporting. In many cases, where the 2016 reports contained comprehensive information about the availability of contraception, maternal health care, and other key facets of reproductive rights, the 2017 reports offer only the narrowest look at coercive practices. This effectively obscures and shrouds substantial human rights violations.

“Last year’s report on El Salvador, for example, documented the effects of the country’s complete abortion ban, including the wrongful imprisonment of women following miscarriages. The report noted that ‘between 1999 and 2011, 17 women (referred to as ‘Las 17′) were charged for having an abortion and convicted of homicide following obstetric emergencies and were sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.’

“Fast forward to this year’s report, which simply states: ‘(t)here were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods.’ Reporting on Las 17 and the effects of the country’s draconian abortion laws were omitted, despite the fact that most of the women remain imprisoned and legal challenges are ongoing. In fact, in November 2017, following a visit to the country the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights deemed the imprisonment of these women unjust and appealed for their immediate release. . . . Similar changes are seen across other 2017 country reports.”

The Trump team has recently turned its attention to two important positions in the UN system: the next high commissioner for human rights, to replace the outspoken Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, a Jordanian, and a new director-general for the International Organization for Migration, which became part of the UN in 2016.

The appointment of a human-rights commissioner lies in the hands of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who could face pressure from both the Americans and the Chinese, who want a tamer official in that position. The US has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the Human Rights Council, which works closely with the high commissioner, but pulled back from doing so in the Council’s last session, ending in March.

In the case of a director-general of the International Organization for Migration, the Trump team, led by Haley, seems to be openly bending to both anti-abortion and anti-immigrant-anti-Islamic lobbies.

Ken Isaacs is the US candidate to head the UN’s migration organization, an intergovernmental body of 169 members that fosters orderly migration and assists migrants in the process of resettlement, working with international agencies like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and nongovernment groups of all kinds.

There are only two other candidates in the race: António Vitorino of Portugal, who was deputy prime minister and defense minister in the mid-1990s, in the first term as prime minister of now-UN Secretary-General Guterres; and Laura Thompson of Costa Rica, the IOM’s deputy director-general.

The election for a director general of the IOM takes place in Geneva on June 29. The voters are governments and some observers. The head of the organization has always been an American; the US contributes about half of its budget, which in 2017, was $1.8 billion. If the US loses the position and withdraws from the organization, other countries would have to pick up the bill.

Isaacs has decades of experience working with displaced people and victims of natural disasters. However, in the eyes of advocates for women’s rights and liberal social policies generally, there is concern that he has spent the last 12 years as an official of Samaritan’s Purse, which is rated fairly high as a charity but identifies itself publicly as “pro-life.” Its founder and chief executive, who is grossly overpaid, according to nongovernmental watchers, is Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham.

Franklin Graham, who is close to Trump and shares his views on immigration and women’s rights, has called abortion “evil because it’s murder.”

Moreover, as head of the International Organization for Migration, Isaacs would have to abide by Trump’s decision not to join the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, an awkward situation at best. Isaacs skirted the issue in a news conference sponsored by the UN Correspondents Association, when he emphasized the importance of working with government policies.

Internationally, Isaacs has been widely criticized for comments on social media about Muslims that appeared to be derogatory to Islam and unacceptable in a director-general of a migration organization — or anyone else. He told reporters at the UN that he had apologized in the past for comments that Muslims found offensive, that he believes “all human beings have rights” and that he has worked with many Muslims — “even treated ISIS fighters,” he said. Still, the charge lingers.

He has also been challenged for past comments that appeared to be denying the reality of human-caused climate change. At the UN correspondents’ news conference, he said that who or what drives climate change “doesn’t matter to victims.”

“I don’t deny climate change,” he said. “I have seen the results.”

Whatever its role in humanitarian projects, however, there is a clearly intended evangelical missionary commitment in the programs of Samaritan’s Purse, a factor that disturbs many people in aid work who try to keep religion out of universal relief assistance.

“Samaritan’s Purse is a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world,” the organization says forthrightly on its website. “Since 1970, Samaritan’s Purse has helped meet needs of people who are victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease, and famine with the purpose of sharing God’s love through His Son, Jesus Christ. The organization serves the church worldwide to promote the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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In Year 2 of Trump Presidency, the US Is Still Eroding Both the UN and Women’s Rights
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