From the start, the diplomats leading the negotiations on the new political declaration for the United Nations’ women’s rights conference in March wanted to keep it short and sweet. That meant five pages maximum, one diplomat told PassBlue before the discussions began, inevitably frustrating diplomats who had hoped to produce a generous endorsement of women’s rights.
“It is a low-ambition document,” said one diplomat in a background conversation about the negotiations for the declaration, which marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action at the Fourth World Conference on Women. He not only described the original, “zero draft,” as “weak” but also characterized a lead negotiator, Algeria, as “extremely conservative,” negatively influencing other Africans on their positions on women’s rights, coordinating with Egypt and Eritrea.
The draft text now under the microscope builds on the original Beijing declaration from 1995 and succeeding ones that have reviewed progress and challenges every five years on women’s empowerment in all its dimensions. The Beijing+25 declaration does not appear to be backpedaling on women’s rights, and for that reason alone, some diplomats are breathing a qualified sigh of relief.
Yet some aspects in the text that are most likely to be excluded — as negotiations end soon — are considered substantial by dozens of national delegates. These include references to human rights in general and sexual reproductive and health rights, or SRHR, specifically. For conservative governments or countries where conservative religious leaders have large sway, SRHR connotes abortion. For proponents, it covers a sweeping category of rights that allow women to control their own bodies.
For the United States (and other “like-minded” countries), no mention of sexual and reproductive health rights signifies triumph in a US presidential election year. The negotiators from Washington, mainly Trump appointees like Valerie Huber, the global women’s health envoy from Health and Human Services, have been seeding alliances on other fronts, now that their agenda for the political declaration appears to have succeeded.
The focus for the US at the annual women’s rights meeting, called the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), was laid out in January in Washington to a gathering of “foreign health leaders.” US Secretary Alex Azar of Health and Human Services spoke at the meeting, which included officials from Hungary and Brazil and a Ugandan beamed in remotely.
“I am sure you are all familiar with the constant drumbeat in the halls of the United Nations and the WHO [World Health Organization] to normalize the terms ‘sexual and reproductive health’ and ‘reproductive rights,'” Azar said.
“What reproductive rights are they talking about? In this context, it is increasingly becoming clear that some U.N. agencies and countries want this to mean unfettered access to abortion, and we cannot let this threat go unanswered.”
One source familiar with the negotiations at the UN said that the Washington team — composed of many people who represented the US at last year’s CSW — has been speaking with diplomats and others in New York to promote “pro-family” stances versus LGBTQ rights. These topics are to be debated, among others, at the UN conference, which runs from March 9 to 20.
The US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, will not be participating in the conference, a State Department official told PassBlue
Connecting abortion rights to national laws, Azar had added at his Washington meeting: “If the other side’s goal of making abortion an international human right becomes a reality, it will mean all countries with laws protecting the unborn will be in violation of international human rights laws, with all the consequences that could carry.”
For Europe, Britain, most countries in Latin America (led by Mexico and Argentina) and in the Asia-Pacific region, excluding references to SRHR represents an abysmal step backward in a year commemorating gender equality milestones. The so-called Mountain caucus in the negotiations (including Norway, Canada, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Australia and Switzerland), has also been advocating for SRHR references.
Other contested issues in the declaration include references to women, peace and security, the role of human-rights defenders, violence against women and the disproportionate effect of climate change on females.
The slicing and dicing of women’s rights happening in the closed meetings at the UN have also meant, in the eyes of women’s rights advocates, a crucial lost opportunity.
“Amidst the forceful current backlash against women’s rights on the occasion of Beijing+25, it is more important than ever that the CSW strongly reaffirm that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights,” said Yasmine Ergas, a lecturer who specializes in gender at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
“Sexual and reproductive rights cannot be glossed over if the commitment to the full, effective and accelerated implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is to be attained.”
For weeks, diplomats from all UN member nations have been haggling over every line in the four-page zero draft. The final version is to be done by the opening day of the CSW, a goal that has been repeatedly emphasized by Armenia, the head facilitator of the negotiations. Some delegates have told PassBlue that Armenia’s inexperience in this role and determination to keep the negotiations controversy-free have stymied progressive countries’ aspirations.
In an ideal world, the document, titled “Political declaration on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women,” was supposed to appraise the gains and the barriers that remain for women to realize full empowerment. But in the real world, where men still dominate, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres points out, women’s rights remain up for grabs.
In the US, for starters, they are used as political tools to secure votes and to diminish women’s status in society. (The only area where women appear to dominate is housework.)
Women have made strides since 1995 across many sectors: from increasing their participation in politics to demanding equal pay and legal recourse for sexual harassment and abuse to enrolling in schools in record numbers. But the gaps just keep expanding.
Countries have “different understandings” and “sensitivities” related to gender equality, as a negotiator said, trying to explain the problem away. On abortion, she added, national legislation takes precedence.
For a country like Nicaragua, where the Catholic Church influences national policy decisions, the government’s priorities include education, work leave, social security, development and the “family.” For Liberia, access to health services for women and girls is tantamount. For Costa Rica, emphasizing the means to ensure the rights of women and girls, including those with disabilities, is all-important. For Fiji, whose delegate flew all the way from the Pacific to participate in the negotiations, its aim is to protect the rights of women and girls already enshrined in international law.
The gaps are startling, as women continue to plead from the sidelines. Unpaid laborers yearn for legitimacy. The poorest people in the world are females. Females young and old cope with subtle and direct attacks in the digital arena. Only a handful have been leaders of countries in the last 25 years. These and other glaring deficits are what progressive countries have strived to highlight in the political declaration.
Producing an all-encompassing text on women’s equality, however, was never going to be simple. The CSW bureau responsible for the negotiations is led by the Armenians, with co-chairs from Algeria and Australia and support from Iraq and Trinidad and Tobago, chosen by fellow UN member nations. The Armenians aimed for a short declaration to avoid the confrontations that occurred at last year’s Commission on the Status of Women session, on similar topics.
The rise of national backlash against women’s rights — and the pushback from advocates for women — has made avoiding controversy related to the CSW impossible. And in a new twist, questions are being raised by media on how the coronavirus will be handled at the conference, with an estimated 12,000 participants expected to descend on the UN in New York. So far, the UN said it was “on top of” potential problems, but that it is up to national and city authorities to devise a prevention plan.
[Update: March 2: UN member states decided to scale back CSW64 to a one-day meeting on March 9 to adopt the political declaration and to hold a longer session possibly in the summer, at a date to be determined.]
The resistance to moving women’s rights ahead has coalesced around the same countries as at last year’s CSW: the US, Russia, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Brazil and many African countries. Joining this group, to some extent, are Australia (reportedly in its minimal support of sexual reproductive and health rights) and China, which sides with Russia in undoing international human-rights norms generally.
Africa has been the surprising “spoiler,” said one diplomat, with Algeria coaxing other Africans into its orbit of minimizing rights, leaving some Africans willing to approve the zero draft for the sake of simplicity.
A bare-bones text may be the intent of certain countries. Azar of Health and Human Services called the “pro-life, pro-family, pro-sovereignty coalition” he gathered at Washington’s side in January a “force to be reckoned with” in planting its stakes at the UN.
“My team will be ready to work with your countries to ensure a focus on national sovereignty and a positive vision for women’s health, rather than controversial policies which will never enjoy consensus,” he said.
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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.