This year will be an urgent moment for the United Nations and its 193 member countries to renew their commitment ensuring women’s equality in all walks of life. Twenty-five years have passed since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was ratified at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. That document was designed to be a blueprint for women’s empowerment since then, including the right to sexual and reproductive health.
Now, a 25-year review will occur at various UN forums, as many of the rights enshrined in the Beijing declaration are being subjected to reconsideration if not elimination. The United States government, for one, has been fighting women’s right to abortion, under the rubric of sexual and reproductive health rights. As President Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign intensifies, so will the US administration’s opposition to reproductive rights universally. The anti-abortion position by the US and others could take center stage during the UN deliberations on women’s rights this year. But at least one large regional bloc in the UN, Europe, will be pushing back.
The Beijing+25 commemorations are not the only important milestones this year. Twenty years have passed since the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which acknowledges that women and girls are uniquely affected by armed conflict. Two Generation Equality forums are taking place in May in Mexico City and in July in Paris, to reinforce the norms assuring women’s rights. The forums will be convened by UN Women and hosted by Mexico and France.
The annual UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is an intergovernmental body that holds its session this year from March 9 to 20, and it will set the tone for the other UN commemorations marking women’s rights. The session promises to be momentous, particularly on sexual and reproductive health rights. Here is the schedule of hundreds of “parallel events.”
As Olof Skoog, a Swede and the new ambassador of the European Union to the UN said, Europe “sees risks” and it will “work with partners to make sure pushback on such rights is resisted.” So far, the continent — including Britain, which exits the European Union on Jan. 31 — is aligned on women’s rights. Last year, however, Hungary and Poland had to be persuaded to stay within the European Union ranks on sexual and reproductive rights particularly.
The Commission usually features a final outcome document, but this year, like every five years to mark the Beijing declaration anniversary, it will issue a political declaration reinforcing the original one and those agreed on since 1995. The new feature this year will be references to the Sustainable Development Goals. Here is the baseline draft of the declaration, expressing concern, among other aspects, that “progress has not been fast or deep enough, that in some areas progress has stalled and even reversed in the face of persistent structural barriers and growing pushback, and recognize that 25 years after the Fourth World Conference on Women, no country has fully achieved equality and empowerment for women and girls . . . “
The ambition, one ambassador involved in the preparations told PassBlue, is to produce a 4-5-page political declaration by the first days of the CSW, to avoid the acrimonious negotiations that upset the meeting last year. In 2019, the US and a handful of other countries fought certain language in the final document. During the process, a Kenyan ambassador, Koki Grignon, who chaired the negotiations, was sent thousands of bullying text messages on her cellphone to intimidate her and rattle the procedures.
The current steps to create a declaration have been underway for months: UN member states were asked to conduct national reviews of progress and challenges framed within the Beijing Platform of Action. They will be compiled into a report to be released soon by the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, to serve as the basis for the declaration. Final negotiations on that begin in February, in meetings held at the UN and offsite in New York, facilitated by two UN regional bloc co-chairs, from Australia and Algeria.
In addition to the national reviews, the UN regional commissions across the world have been holding separate meetings to conduct additional 25-year reviews and issue individual final statements. Four regional meetings have already occurred, while Latin America’s meeting is Jan. 27-31 in Santiago, Chile.
[Update, Feb. 6: The regional conference for Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Chile, issued an eight-page “commitment” seen by PassBlue, saying, among other things, that it promotes the “full exercise of sexual and reproductive rights in relation to . . . safe, good-quality abortion services, in those cases where abortion is legal or decriminalized under national legislation.”]
The regional meetings’ final documents will also guide the work of UN Women in its role as convener of the Generation Equality forums. UN Women acts as the secretariat for the CSW, and the commission itself is represented by five vice-chairs plucked from the UN’s regional blocs: Armenia for Eastern Europe; Australia for Western Europe and Others Group (including New Zealand, US, Canada and Israel); Iraq for Asia-Pacific; Algeria for Africa; and Trinidad and Tobago for Latin America and the Caribbean.
This year’s CSW is chaired by Mher Margaryan, Armenia’s ambassador to the UN.
“We see 2020 as the year to demand accountability, both with Beijing +25 and looking at almost 20 years of [UN Security Council Resolution] 1325,” said Mallika Iyer, a program officer for the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, a nongovernmental group in New York. The organization is one of dozens of international civil society groups involved in preparing the Beijing+25 commemorations.
In 2015, the last political declaration for the CSW, expressed “concern that progress has been slow and uneven, that major gaps remain and that . . . no country has fully achieved equality and empowerment for women and girls, that significant levels of inequality between women and men and girls and boys persist globally, and that many women and girls experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, vulnerability and marginalization throughout their life cycle.”
Progress has remained slow and uneven since 2015, while some gains have been reversed or stalled. While negotiations on the political declaration aim to keep it short, sources for this article say that discussions may not be any smoother than last year.
One former US official who worked on the Commission for many years, suggested that the worst-case scenario would be if the US insisted that no political declaration be issued if its own agenda is not accepted. Such a move could render the Beijing document “useless,” this person said.
In 2019 at the CSW, the US worked with a collection of strange bedfellows, including Bahrain, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, El Salvador and the Holy See. Unifying this coalition was a push to drop such language in the outcome document as “gender” and “sexual and reproductive health services,” which those parties say connotes abortion. (“Gender” is being construed by conservative countries and some nongovernmental organizations as code for LGBTQ rights.) Cherry-picking by the US to gain support for its agenda this year could rely on the same partners as in 2019.
THE US TEAM THIS YEAR
This year’s US delegation will be led by Kelley Currie, the new ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues at the State Department. People familiar with past US delegations under the Trump administration suggest that Currie will work closely with Valerie Huber, a senior adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS. Other people in the “rogues’ gallery,” as one nonprofit group called it, could include Diane Foley, also from HHS; Bethany Kozma, Monique Wubbenhorst and Michelle Bekkering from USAID; Pam Pryor in the State Department; and Bill Steiger, chief of staff for USAID.
C-Fam, which self-describes as a “pro-family” and “pro-life” organization in New York, has also been cited by a few sources as an influence in the Trump administration and has become part of the US delegation to the CSW since 2017.
Susan Yoshihara, a senior vice president at C-Fam, told PassBlue that it is focusing again this year at the CSW on sexual and reproductive health and maternal health. It is working with the US and “a lot of countries,” she said, to zero in on the “original intent” of the Beijing declaration, including whether it contains an inherent right to an abortion. The declaration refers to the “explicit recognition and reaffirmation of the right of all women to control all aspects of their health, in particular their own fertility, is basic to their empowerment.”
But C-Fam and like-minded groups and nations consider a right to abortion a “sovereignty” issue of national legislatures and not implicit in the Beijing platform, Yoshihara said. She added that C-Fam will be working with Huber of Health and Human Services but did not say how.
The US participation in the UN Asia-Pacific (Escap) regional dialogue in November in Bangkok indicates what could happen in discussions on the political declaration in February. In a Dec. 3, 2019 article in the AsiaSentinel, it said, “American objections to women’s reproductive rights apparently extend all 14,130 km from Washington to Bangkok.”
The US position paper at the meeting, delivered by Amanda Van Dort, a senior adviser to the State Department says, “Consistent with the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and its report, we support the principle of voluntary and informed family planning, and do not recognize abortion as a method of family planning.”
The position of the US on sexual and reproductive health rights — including abortion — and on legal protection for the “unborn” was not supported by the other 37 countries participating in the review, including China.
According to a tweet posted on Nov. 29, the last day of the Bangkok meeting, Shannon Kowalski, the director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, wrote that even “China, Pakistan and Russia are imploring” the US “to reconsider,” its stance to preserve the value of the regional review.
Nevertheless, Eric Goff, a US Foreign Service officer who was also a delegate in Bangkok, read a statement furthering the government’s position: “The United States believes in legal protections for the unborn . . . As President Trump has stated, Americans will never tire of defending innocent life. . . . There is no international right to abortion. We do not accept . . . language that suggests or explicitly states access to legal abortion is necessarily included in the more general terms ‘health services’ or ‘health care services.’ “
The Asia-Pacific declaration was accepted but the word “abortion,” not surprisingly, was not included. The document was criticized by some rights groups for not fully addressing climate change and global attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and queer populations as well.
Recently, the Trump administration convened ambassadors, ministers and other government officials “to discuss a way forward for the pro-life cause internationally,” C-Fam wrote on its website, saying the representatives came from 37 countries. It did not name the countries, but Brazil and Hungary apparently spoke at the session.
On Jan. 22, National Sanctity of Human Life Day, Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the UN, tweeted: “No nation does more on the global stage to promote and protect the health of women and children, and we do so while ensuring no taxpayer unwillingly supports the provision or promotion of abortion. @UN, I will always be a forceful voice for women, children, and the unborn.”
Jan. 22 is also the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which protects the right to an abortion without excessive government interference.
The National Sanctity of Human Life Day was instituted by President Ronald Reagan, who also instituted the policy known as the global gag rule, blocking funds to organizations that provide abortion services. It has been reinstituted by consecutive Republican presidents since then, with Trump expanding the policy.
He spoke at the Right to Life annual march in Washington on Jan. 24, the first sitting US president to do so. Reversing his “very pro-choice” statement in 1999, he said last week, “The unborn have never had a stronger defender in the White House.”
Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this article.
This article is being continuously updated.