Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

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Mixing Politics and Religion, the US Stalls UN Work on Women’s Rights


President Trump with UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, at the 74th session of the General Assembly, Sept. 24, 2019. Melania Trump is in the center. The US is blocking progress on women’s reproductive rights globally. ARIANA LINDQUIST/UN PHOTO

It did not take long after the 74th General Assembly session opened this fall for the Trump team to signal that its strategy in key United Nations meetings would be to act as uncooperative and obstructive as possible, especially on human-rights agendas.

The 2019-2020 UN year — September to September — is likely to be remembered as eventful. It includes the 25th anniversaries of two landmark international conferences that greatly advanced the rights of women, making those gains targets of Republican politicians in Washington, D.C. Plans are being made to celebrate the UN’s 75 birthday next autumn, with much uncertainty surrounding American financial and political commitments to the organization.

The Trump administration’s delegates to various meetings have now established a pattern of arriving or intervening late in deliberations, nongovernmental organization leaders and diplomats say. The American representatives are often chosen by the government based on their opposition to even the concept of reproductive rights for women, which they see as covers for abortion. The representatives have proved that they can disrupt and delay negotiations, and the US has also balked on child rights and  LGBTQ issues at the UN.

Diplomats said that the Americans recently challenged European nations with last-minute “hostile amendments” to agreements during closed sessions of the General Assembly committee dealing with the rights of women, children and youth.

A diplomat told PassBlue that the US delegates, sometimes obviously inexperienced on issues and procedures at the UN, have acknowledged that they are taking directions from Washington. They circumvent the US mission to the UN, which has been weakened by the lack of an ambassador for nine months in 2019 as well as the departure of many other top officials to new jobs.

The US, influenced by strong anti-abortion lobbies from both Evangelical Protestant and conservative Catholic groups supported by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has the most restrictions on aid to international health providers among donor nations. The US has used the tactic of lining up support on these issues from other governments, mainly developing nations that are generally opposed to actions and declarations on rights.

In mid-November, a summit-level conference in Nairobi marked the quarter-century anniversary of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo. The Nairobi meeting was attended by leaders from more than 170 governments and many nongovernmental organizations. It was designed to assess progress in areas such as access to contraception, ending female genital mutilation and advancing women’s health globally.

Notably, the Vatican declined to take part, describing the issues on the table as “divisive.” The US sent a relatively low-level delegation that was mostly opposed to rather than supported the conference goals. The Washington-based independent population research and advocacy group PAI wrote in its post-conference analysis:

“The U.S. delegation at the Nairobi Summit was composed of a veritable rogues gallery, who in their private capacities, before they joined the Trump-Pence administration as political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Agency for International Development, were some of the most extreme anti-choice, anti-contraception, abstinence-only activists” in government.

PAI named four members of the US delegation: Valerie Huber, a longtime advocate of “abstinence education,” now a senior adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services; Diane Foley, also from the federal health department, who was recently involved in adding restrictions on family planning funds within the US;  Bethany Kozma of the gender equality and women’s empowerment office at the Agency for International Development, remembered for calling the US a “pro-life nation” during the 2018 session of the Commission on the Status of Women; and Monique Wubbenhorst, also of Usaid, who asked in a recent widely circulated article, “Should evangelical Christian organizations support international family planning?”

At the Nairobi conference, the US delegation issued a statement condemning the meeting for focusing too much on “certain aspects” — reproductive rights — in the Cairo, or ICPD, plan of action. The statement was signed by Belarus, Brazil, Egypt, Haiti, Hungary, Libya, Poland, Senegal, St. Lucia and Uganda, as reported by PAI.

These events are a prelude — and maybe a template — for the next annual conference of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, from March 9-20. The 2020 commission session will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, which built on the basic reproductive rights of women enshrined in Cairo to deepen and broaden them into pledges to women. At Beijing, gender equality and the empowerment of women in all aspects of their lives was an overarching theme, but it inevitably was linked to reproductive rights. In the media, that became the right to “just say no.”

As the fundamental rights and conditions of women globally will be debated at the commission gathering in March, more questions will be asked about how US strategies will play out amid the extremely intense American politics during a presidential election year and how much damage to women’s rights the US has done internationally in the last three years, under Trump. The administration of Barack Obama, from 2008 to 2016, had supported UN initiatives. Among other steps, it resumed funding to the UN Population Fund and cleared the backlog of US debt to the agency.

Another key question now heard is whether the assault on women’s rights by Trump officials is more about politics than religion. President Trump, who is not notably religious nor a supporter of women’s rights, farmed out the reproductive rights issues to politicians like Pompeo and Pence. They seem comfortable accepting the most conservative opinions of people who call themselves “right to life” advocates and who will probably vote for Trump if he is the Republican candidate again.

In the White House, this issue is all about politics. However, there are millions of women among the Evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics who seem out of synch and may be drifting from Trump policies, according to polls.

In 2011, the Guttmacher Institute looked at one aspect of the reproductive health situation in the US — contraceptive use in family planning — which some Trump administration representatives seem willing to downplay or deny in international settings.

The Guttmacher report found that most American women of reproductive age (15–44) “have a religious affiliation, attend religious services at least once a month and indicate that religion is very important in their daily lives.” It also found that 99 percent of women across all faiths who had ever had sex had used effective contraceptive measures other than “natural” family planning, an outdated and often risky course. Surely that 99 percent must, ironically, include those who would deny such help to others abroad.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, in a policy paper published in July 2019, called attention to the importance of international support for family planning and reproductive health, which it found to be in some jeopardy.

“Each year, an estimated 303,000 women die from complications during pregnancy and childbirth, almost all in developing countries,” the Kaiser report said. “Approximately one-third of maternal deaths could be prevented annually if women who did not wish to become pregnant had access to and used effective contraception. Worldwide, 214 million women have an unmet need for modern contraception.”

While the US has been a generous pioneer over decades in international family planning and reproductive health generally, that record is being questioned, the report said, with more restrictions attached and funds cut.

“In recent years, growing global attention has highlighted the need to augment FP/RH [family planning/reproductive health services] worldwide and increase coverage and access,” the Kaiser report said. “The future of U.S. efforts is more uncertain.”


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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Mixing Politics and Religion, the US Stalls UN Work on Women’s Rights
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