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At the UN’s Global Summit on Women’s Rights, the US Looks Chaotic


At the 2018 meeting of the annual UN megaconference on women, a scene of which is captured above, the United States delegation created controversy over its conservative stances on women’s rights. This year, days before the meeting starts, the US has offered scant information on how it will participate, revealing major disorganization in the government. RYAN BROWN/UN WOMEN

More than 10,000 people will soon converge on the United Nations for its annual Commission on the Status of Women conference, providing a unique forum to gauge progress and to press for the rights of women and marginalized populations around the world.

Founded at a forward-thinking moment in 1946, the commission’s yearly meetings offer a chance for attendees to think both globally and locally while networking, exchanging ideas and rallying for women’s rights — still a contentious issue 73 years later.

The conference, which runs March 11-22, is taking place against a backdrop of gender-related and political turmoil in the United States, the most powerful member of the UN by far. Despite a record number of women in US Congress (131) this year, the US is still reeling from revelations spurred by the #MeToo movement.

[This article is being updated regularly during the CSW to cover US actions.]

As women’s rights advocates are fighting for social, economic and political traction, President Trump continues to say and tweet harsh, demeaning remarks about women while his administration strives to undo such basic rights as women’s access to birth control.

Each year the commission, better known as CSW, addresses specific issues and barriers in the lives of women. This year it will focus on “social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality,” such as how to alleviate poverty, increase access to needs like transportation and persuade data crunchers to include statistics on women.

The conference is “the single largest gathering dedicated to women’s rights,” in the words of Rachel Jacobson, a program officer at the International Women’s Health Coalition, an advocacy group in Washington and New York.

Experts who attend and follow the CSW closely predicted that the US would continue, as it has in the last two years, to undermine common international goals, like those around health care, reproductive rights and climate change and to disrupt the commission’s agenda. As the conference unfolds, it is clear the US government delegation is using the forum to tighten women’s reproductive rights.

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To get a sense of American politicians’ and officials’ attitudes toward CSW’s mission, PassBlue contacted at least two-dozen local, state and federal leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Marco Rubio (R-FL). New members of Congress were also contacted, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). None of the people responded.

Melissa DeRosa, the chairperson of New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s Council on Women and Girls (and his secretary), and New York State Assemblyperson Crystal Peoples-Stokes, another Democrat, were also contacted but didn’t respond.

New York State famously served as host of the first women’s rights convention in the country, in Seneca Falls in 1848.

Women’s rights are currently supported in the US by the national action plan on women, peace and security as well as by local commissions and associations. For example, in New York State, there is the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women. Massachusetts has the Commission on the Status of Women. Cities throughout California have CSW associations.

In the US Senate, women’s rights fall under a Foreign Relations Committee panel that sounds like a catchall: the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women’s Issues.

The sole woman on the Foreign Relations committee, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), is not a ranking member. She also did not respond to PassBlue’s request for comment.

The Senate has other committees with overlapping jurisdiction on women’s issues, as does the House of Representatives.

The UN conference also assesses progress of the LGBTIQ community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer or questioning) and other marginalized populations.

Jessica Stern, the executive director of OutRight Action International, a UN-accredited organization that supports LGBTIQ rights, argues that issues of sexuality and gender have never been more important. Homosexuality, she noted, is criminalized in 70 countries. Yet CSW has never used the language of “sexual orientation” in documents, she said at a media briefing, unlike the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, she said.

Attacks on transgender people are anticipated at this year’s conference “more than any time in past,” Stern said, because of backlash against transgender people demanding their rights. She predicts that the US delegation will also ramp up attacks on sexual and reproductive health rights, as it has in the last two UN conferences under the Trump administration.

Some of the record number of new female representatives in the US Congress, from left: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Deb Haaland, Veronica Escobar and Sharice Davids. Davids, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley and Omar were contacted by PassBlue for their thoughts on the annual UN conference on women but none responded.

In 2017, the State Department abruptly removed all references to reproductive rights in its annual country human-rights report. A bill introduced in Congress on March 7, 2019, would require the State Department to include reproductive rights in the report.

The bill states: “The Department of State’s deletion of the reproductive rights subsection from its 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices demonstrates an alarming level of politicization of human rights by the Trump Administration and undermines the human rights of women around the world.”

In 2017 as well, the US delegation to the CSW included representatives from two conservative organizations, C-FAM, a Roman Catholic entity, and the Heritage Foundation, an openly anti-UN group. The delegates held up ratification of the final outcome document, or formal declaration of the conference, over language around family planning and reproductive justice.

One of the 2018 US delegates, Bethany Kozma, a senior adviser in the office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment for the US Agency for International Development (Usaid), drew attention for what many people considered regressive views on transgender people, especially children.

Kozma also called the US a “pro-life” country during the UN conference. Other US delegates rejected the notion of climate change and promoted abstinence as a tool for family planning. Kozma is on the delegation this year, PassBlue learned through a nongovernmental office. The US mission to the UN press office would not confirm this information.

When the Pew Research Center surveyed adults in the US in 2018 on abortion, 58 percent of those responding said it should be legal. Climate change is considered a global threat in most countries, according to the research group, and among Americans ranks it as a top threat to national security, along with nonstate terrorist threats and cyberthreats.

Negotiations over this year’s CSW final outcome document — which helps countries formulate their own gender policies — are underway. As of March 15, the negotiations had already become contentious, with part of the argument centering around language on “family” and even rewriting the preamble.

The US and others aligned with restricting women’s rights, such as Poland, Hungary and Russia as well as some Gulf countries and Malaysia, want to remove from the preamble the word “reaffirms” the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a document that sealed the work of the momentous women’s rights conference in 1995, and replace it with “take note of.”

In addition, the word “families” is being pushed to become “family,” say some negotiators, to emphasize the traditional unit of men and women as a family component, excluding same-sex families as a unit.

As for US leadership at this year’s meeting, after many delays and changes, the US most recently announced that Cherith Norman Chalet is leading the delegation. She is the US representative to the UN for UN management and reform.

But her announcement came after weeks of guessing games. At first, the acting US ambassador to the UN, Jonathan Cohen, told PassBlue that he would lead the delegation. The US mission press office said just days before the opening of the CSW, however, that it had nothing to share at the moment but “look forward to engaging at the 63rd Session.”

Soon after, on March 8, the White House announced that Kelley Currie, formerly the deputy ambassador to the US mission to the UN, was nominated by President Trump to be the ambassador at large for global women’s issues in the State Department and would lead the US delegation at the CSW.

On March 12, that plan changed, and the US mission to the UN announced that Norman Chalet was in charge of the delegation. Courtney Nemroff, acting Representative of the US to the Economic and Social Council of the UN is deputy head.

Besides Kozma of Usaid, other members of the US delegation include, per information provided by a nongovernmental organization and not confirmed by the US mission: Valerie Huber, senior adviser in the office of Global Affairs and US Health and Human Services; Pam Prior, senior political adviser in the Office of Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, State Department; Michelle Bekkering from Usaid; Kathy Wills Wright, deputy assistant secretary at the State Department; and Katie Sullivan, acting director of the US Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women.

According to people who attended an event held by C-FAM and the Nigerian mission to the UN on March 13, Huber was the the guest speaker. The event featured a film, “Strings Attached,” which criticized the Marie Stopes International organization for offering  abortion services. Huber also said that the US would not support sexual and reproductive health and rights language in this year’s CSW final document. Relatedly, women from authoritative countries are apparently afraid to speak up for women’s rights for fear there will be retaliation when they return home.

In addition, some nongovernmental organizations told PassBlue that the US delegation is promoting Ivanka Trump’s Global Women’s Entrepreneurship Program at CSW, most specifically through Kathy Wills Wright. 

(As for Currie, on March 13, she spoke for the US mission in Geneva at a human-rights event on the Uighur minority in China.)

Last year, the US delegation was slight more organized and led by Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the UN, but she never showed up for the CSW events. (She resigned as ambassador on Dec. 31, 2018.) Last year, the State Department had provided a shred more information in the lead-up to the conference than this year.

Several factors could explain why there is so little awareness among US politicians to this year’s CSW — and this may not be a new phenomenon. The US government recently ended a five-week partial shutdown, which reduced staff numbers at federal agencies. And key leadership positions in the State Department and the US mission to the UN remain vacant —including the top posts of UN ambassador and deputy ambassador.

Under Trump, no one has been leading the State Department’s Office for Global Women’s Issues, which was created under President Obama and directed by Melanne Verveer, the first US ambassador at large for global women’s issues.

Asked about the UN conference, Verveer said recently in an email: “The meeting provides an important opportunity for governments to speak to their commitments and raise important issues to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality. Governments should take seriously not only this New York meeting, but also the implementation of gender equality policies and initiatives at home.

“Unfortunately, CSW is used by some as a way to push back on progress and on UN agreements already achieved.”

Houry Geudelekian, the gender program coordinator for the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, NY, a coalition of nonprofits that encourages members to advocate locally, sees mayors as a countervailing force, partly because in their cities they help implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or Cedaw, an international treaty that the US government has actually not ratified.

In the words of one state-level organizer who asked not to be named, “We can be dispirited in terms of federal discourse, or we take action on local level and be proud of it.”

In contrast to the US silence about the UN conference, Canada is going into the conference at full throttle. It has an openly feminist foreign policy, thanks to the minister of foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland, and despite the turmoil now wracking the Trudeau government. Maryam Monsef, minister for women and gender equality, will lead a large delegation to the event, having worked closely with the Canadian Department of Global Affairs to fund the participation of representatives from 12 civic groups.

Like the US, Canada has participated in CSW since its start, decades ago.

“No government can do this work alone,” wrote Valérie Haché, a spokesperson for the Department of Women and Gender Equity, “and civil society organizations play a crucial role in advancing gender equality. Funding leaders from civil society organizations to join Canada demonstrates a united front on an international stage and a willingness to create partnerships towards a common goal.”

This article was updated to reflect news from the US mission to the UN.

Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.

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