After four weeks of tumultuous negotiations over a resolution that reinforced decades of international efforts to combat sexual violence in conflict and to introduce more legal reassurances and services for victims, the 15-member United Nations Security Council approved a text whose wording had been fought over between the United States and many of its fellow Council members.
The latest battle over words at the UN shows how difficult it is becoming for women to decide and hold on to their rights, as the Trump administration wrestles for full control over women’s bodies and minds not only in the US but across the world.
Many Council members had hoped and prayed that the Germans, who were leading the negotiations, would not cave in to US pressures to weaken commitments to women’s rights in conflict. Some members even threatened to walk away from the text if the US got its way, while others wanted the Germans to call the Americans’ bluff and put the resolution to a vote with the forbidden wording in. Ultimately, some capitulation was necessary, it turned out, to save the resolution.
The text aimed to be all-encompassing, building on a chain of previous resolutions to enhance the legal recognition of victims’ needs, such as justice and reparations. Yet what the resolution lacked and caused tremendous consternation among many UN member states in and outside the Council and among women’s rights advocates were the words “sexual and reproductive health.” It is language that has become a fixture in some related UN resolutions, such as No. 2106, but that the Trump administration — circling back to Vice President Pence, an evangelical Christian — contends connotes abortion.
The language of “sexual and reproductive health” is what vanished during the tail-end of negotiations led by a German diplomat, Andreas Glossner, through threats of a veto by the US if the draft resolution dared to mention women’s rights that way. (The resolution, however, affirms earlier resolutions, including 2106.)
The success by the US in banishing this language in the new resolution symbolizes how the Trump administration is fast making inroads, now in the Security Council, to eliminate women’s rights word by word, including references to abortion or any other language that implies a termination of pregnancy.
Resolution 2467, devoid of the SRH language, as diplomats call it, was approved at lunchtime on April 23, although no one could have said confidently minutes before the vote how the US would go. (It voted yes, with 12 others; Russia and China abstained.)
The vote seemed deliberately delayed at the morning debate by the Germans, who lead the rotating Council presidency this month and whose foreign minister, Heiko Mass, had flown in from Berlin to preside over the meeting. The parade of Council members’ speeches was preceded by guest speakers, who relayed the graphic stories of women raped in wars in intimate, clinical and legal detail.
Among the speakers were Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, who together shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 2018. Dr. Mukwege runs the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for rural women; Murad is a survivor of sexual slavery by ISIS.
Amal Clooney, the British-Lebanese human-rights lawyer who represents Yazidi clients and other victims of rape in conflicts, also spoke. She told the Council that the debate is the Council’s “Nuremberg moment” to take actions to prosecute ISIS for its atrocities against Yazidis.
The three speakers sat near the US acting ambassador to the UN, Jonathan Cohen, at the Council horseshoe table, as if to remind him of what he might be voting against in the resolution: people who had suffered immeasurably by rape and other sexual abuse in wars. (A fourth speaker, Inas Miloud, heads the Tamazight Women’s Movement and spoke about the situation of women in Libya.)
Yet it was the Council’s 15 elected and permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US in the latter camp — that mattered the most. The speech by the US ambassador sounded sincere and even sympathetic at times — “we put survivors at the heart of our work” — but reverted to stony language when he suggested that the UN should invest more in “early warning indicators” to prevent sexual violence in conflict, as if he were referring to a weather report.
Over the weeks of negotiations, including through the recent Easter and Passover holidays, the threat of a veto by the US hung over diplomats’ heads like a guillotine. The US made it clear early on what it would not accept: a proposal to create a formal mechanism in the Council for tracking sexual violence in conflict, saying it would “require dozens of reports and negotiations, creating significant new work for council members” — aligning itself with China and Russia on the matter.
In addition, the US refused to accept references to the International Criminal Court and a reference to “comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and safe termination of pregnancy” — or the more extensive “comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care such as access to emergency contraception, safe termination of pregnancy and HIV prevention and treatment.”
Several delegates linked the court’s deletion to John Bolton, the US national security adviser, who declared last year that the ICC “is already dead to us,” a sentiment echoed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (One ambassador described the huge logistical problems in negotiating with the US mission to the UN as two-pronged: running an obstacle course in a disorganized State Department and facing a near death-knell in Bolton’s office.)
The voices who spoke up in Council for the missing language on sexual and reproductive health came mostly from Europe and Africa. At least three countries had toyed with abstaining on the vote. Among Africans, South Africa voiced objections the most loudly, as did Belgium, Britain and France.
It was the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti in the Caribbean and is mostly Roman Catholic, that stood up the tallest for the right of women and girls to have access to sexual reproductive health services.
José Singer Weisinger, the country’s special envoy in the Council, called such access “non-negotiable” and that to refuse it is “tantamount to degrading cruel and inhuman treatment and greater suffering.”
China and Russia, reasserting their abhorrence to all human rights, proposed their own resolution on sexual violence in conflict, focusing mostly on preventing such atrocities and prosecuting terrorists. It never got to a vote because it would have failed miserably, some diplomats said.
Yet, as if to please everyone in the chamber, the Russian ambassador said that his country was committed to combating the “odious crime” of sexual violence and that it read “with interest” the recommendations in the UN secretary-general’s recent report on the topic. He added, as if to swat away the lifelong debilitating effects of rape that “this is just one crime in war: there are others.”
In a world where “it is still largely cost free to rape women,” as Pramila Patten, the UN’s envoy on sexual violence in conflict, told the chamber, the new resolution is written to end such lawlessness.
But what resonated the most in the April 23 debate was the refusal of the US, the most potent democracy in the world, to allow three certain words into a resolution to stop women, girls, men and boys from being raped in conflicts.
“We also note that watering down” the resolution, as an African diplomat put it, “will certainly not be good for survivors of sexual violence who are most in need of it.”
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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.