“Hold the line” was the frequent refrain heard during the contentious negotiations swirling around the annual meeting at the United Nations ensuring the rights of women. Delegates from the UN’s 193 countries were urged by conference leaders to remain steadfast against a rising tide of conservative national positions, which included the United States, regarding the conference’s final document enshrining women’s rights.
At the 63rd Commission on the Status of Women, held in New York and attracting 10,000 people worldwide, tensions were palpable throughout the 11-day gathering, starting on March 11. The Commission, established in 1946, is dedicated to promoting gender equality and empowering women.
But it was the negotiations on the agreed conclusions, setting in stone positions on women’s rights, where top diplomats and their delegations spent the most energy haggling — including one day until dawn — over such loaded language as “gender,” “family” and “sexual health.”
Even the conference’s facilitator, a Kenyan named Koki Muli Grignon, had been harassed, receiving text messages damning her work, and “felt pushed around” physically by people who thought she didn’t have “their interests at heart,” she said publicly.
The attacks on Grignon were condemned by a range of delegates, from across continents. Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador, thanked Grignon and others for their work at the CSW, especially amid the “unacceptable and hostile external pressure” exerted on those people, especially Grignon.
And in a surprising twist, Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as well as other nations that traditionally maintain right-wing positions against rights like sexual and reproductive health, found new allies. Depending on the particular issue or word, some unlikely alliances emerged in which the US, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Russia and Saudi Arabia agreed, mostly with the overarching goal of weakening women’s rights.
Joining the US on certain issues was also the Holy See, a UN observer state, in demanding but failing, for example, to remove language in the final document around sexual health, contending that the language promoted sexual activity among girls as well as abortion. (Here is the final outcome document.)
Debates on whether to follow the word “empower” — the mission of the document — with the phrase “and dignity” to seemingly reinforce women’s femininity, also raised hackles. The US group sought to prevent the word “gender” being used as a substitute for “women and girls,” and tried to restrict wording around migration, technology and climate change.
As one delegate remarked, “The US position has been bonkers.”
Protecting women’s rights against this “astounding” alliance, as another delegate put it, were longtime supporters of multilateral diplomacy like Canada, Mexico, the European Union and the Caribbean-Latin American region. Africa also remained a regional supporter of the rights of women.
Russia, in another odd twist, stood to the left of the US on many issues, with one Russian delegate telling PassBlue that the country was fine with the language of “sexual and reproductive health” as long as it wasn’t in every paragraph of the document. China waited until the document was approved to “disengage itself” from language around human rights.
Each year, the final outcome document, or agreed conclusions, is approved after much intense debate, although some years no such document gets through because of lack of consensus. While nonbinding, it is supposed to be a guide for countries in producing policy on gender and equality.
This year, negotiations ran from the usual arcane nitpicking — the placement of a comma — to the provocative, such as watering down language that exists in international frameworks, such as the momentous Beijing Declaration on women’s rights, from 1995.
Despite the rancor in this year’s negotiations, the newly agreed conclusions enhance the equal rights of women and girls in such matters as social protection systems and public services. They feature guaranteeing, for starters, the availability of safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation, including for menstrual hygiene, in homes, schools, refugee camps and other public places.
For the first time, recognition of the rights of widows were included in the document, a diplomat said.
Yet the statements made by delegations before the agreed conclusions were gaveled on the evening of March 22 (see video above) once again revealed the combative currents underlying the entire conference. The US repeated its anti-abortion views as well as its restrictive views on gender and health. Ironically, this position does not match opinions of the majority of the US population.
(During the final public session on March 22, emotions ran so high that a US delegate complained to a UN security guard when an editor of PassBlue took photos of the US group for this article. The guard then demanded the editor’s cellphone but relented after she refused.)
The US delegation and others aligned with it deployed disruption as a tool throughout the conference to push its agenda of undermining women’s rights, most significantly the right to abortion. This behavior echoed the US at last year’s CSW, but the delegation was more aggressive and outspoken this year.
Moreover, at side events and panels, nongovernmental organizations against abortion and other topics hijacked discussions, swamped meeting rooms as a delaying tactic and hired a bus to canvas the UN area, featuring a photo of a fetus on its sides.
The US mission to the UN has been without an official ambassador this year so far, leaving it vulnerable to having to strictly follow directions from Washington. This year’s representatives to the CSW were led by an ambassador from the US mission to the UN, Cherith Norman Chalet, but most of the people on the delegation were not professional diplomats.
Chalet was appointed by President Trump last year to lead the US in management and reform issues at the UN. She is a graduate of Bob Jones University, a Christian institution. In her final speech, she quoted two men, President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on the American positions of women’s rights.
The other US delegates included Bethany Kozma, a senior adviser for the Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Usaid. Last year as a delegate, Kozma caused an uproar when she called the US a “pro-life country.”
Valerie Huber, a top Department of Health and Human Services official, was also a delegate. She is an avid anti-abortion proponent and promotes abstinence as a form of birth control.
Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN, led the US delegation to the CSW the previous two years. Some participants in this year’s conference suggested that the absence of Haley, who maintained a strong anti-abortion role while protecting inclusive definitions of gender and sexuality, enabled extremists in the US delegation to speak loudly.
Despite the high volume, the US forfeited many demands it made at the beginning of negotiations, according to numerous participants. Chalet called the process “flawed” on “sensitive issues.”
Delegates from other countries involved in the negotiations also suggested that the actions of the US representatives were trying to satisfy Washington’s orders. For instance, the cohort aimed to reduce the number of times “gender” appeared in the final document.
In another chilling effect at the conference, the vice chair of the conference representing Africa, who also facilitated the negotiations, publicly declared she had been cyberbullied through a blog directed at her and her work and received almost 1,000 bullying text messages on her phone, also criticizing her role at the CSW.
Koki Muli Grignon, the deputy permanent representative of Kenya, told the roomful of delegates on the last night, in tears, that she felt both “incredibly supported” from people at the conference but at the same time “felt scared” from the aggressions.
“I was very shocked that this kind of thing can be allowed to happen at the United Nations,” she said.
Every year, women travel far and wide to attend the CSW, seeking inspiration for their work. Tracy Montague, for example, journeyed 3,182 miles from Northern Ireland to New York this year. She is part of the Training Women’s Network, which aims to empower women living in places dominated by paramilitary groups through education, outreach and entrepreneurship.
As for her experience at the CSW this year, she said, it was “emotional, awesome and humbling.”
Her experience as a civil society representative from one of only two UN-accredited organizations from Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, gave her a chance to soak up an environment driven to strengthen women from across the world.
“You go to these panels, and you hear these women, it doesn’t matter where they’re from,” she said. “They all have the same needs as women in Belfast. We all want the same rights.”
This article was updated to include the final outcome document.
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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.