A wave of relief and hope is sweeping across the United Nations, and the world, desperately awaiting the inauguration of Joe Biden and the beginning of the restoration of normalcy. Hopefully, we will quickly see the rebuilding of our country’s leadership and much-needed progress in the UN, as well as in other international forums and through bilateral diplomacy.
The three pillars of the UN are human rights, peace and security and development. The Trump administration has greatly undermined the work of the UN on all these fronts. Its bald articulation of an “America First” doctrine is antithetical to the principles on which the UN was founded as well as the principles that the United States of America has traditionally championed around the world.
The negotiations that took place over Security Council Resolution 2467 on women, peace and security, adopted in 2019, remain a painful illustration — one of many — of just how far the US has fallen under the direction of the Trump administration. Resolution 2467 sadly marked the 10th anniversary of Resolution 1888, adopted by the Security Council in 2009 as part of a major step forward in addressing the use of rape as a weapon of war. That resolution created the post of UN special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, as well as women protection advisers for UN peacekeeping missions and a roving team of experts that could be deployed to help strengthen the path to justice for victims of sexual violence. It was an initiative of the US, introduced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who presided over the Security Council session that adopted it.
While the last 10 years have witnessed much more attention to the issue of sexual violence in conflict, the use of rape as a weapon of war continues to destroy the lives of girls and women across the world. The 10th anniversary of Resolution 1888 would have been a great opportunity to look back together at the progress that has been made and the great challenges that remain and to move ahead with new ideas and renewed commitment.
Germany chaired this anniversary session, in April 2019, proposing a resolution that would have done so, giving the UN and the world a moment of consensus on global efforts to end the scourge of sexual violence in war. But instead of joining this consensus, the US attacked the resolution and threatened to veto it unless, among other demands, all references to “sexual and reproductive health” were removed from the text. In addressing the concerns of the girls and women brutally raped in conflict, the provision of sexual and reproductive health services (including abortion for those who became pregnant as a result of rape), were deemed by the US as unacceptable.
As negotiations unfolded in the midst of the Council session marking the 10th anniversary of Resolution 1888, one stated goal of which was to focus on the needs of survivors, the destructive role played by the US could not have more starkly contrasted with the leadership role of the US in 2009. In a break with protocol, a number of countries, traditional allies of the US (which aligned with China and Russia in its efforts to weaken the resolution), openly and explicitly blasted the US.
France’s UN ambassador, François Delattre, said at the Council meeting, “How essential it is, for France and in the name of victims, to ensure that these victims can have access to sexual and reproductive health,” and the South African UN ambassador, Jerry Matthews Matjila, even noted the hypocrisy of adopting a survivor-centered approach while denying them access to the health services they so vitally need in these crises.
There is a long way to go to restore American leadership and credibility in the UN on virtually all fronts, including the progress of women and gender equality. Historically, beginning with Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the Human Rights Commission that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the US has played a large guiding role in the UN and, more specifically, in advancing human rights.
Under the Trump administration, the US has not only abandoned this role — in leaving the Human Rights Council, which greatly benefited from its leadership in promoting human rights, in threatening to veto resolutions that traditionally would have been championed by the US, such as Resolution 2467, and in so many other ways great and small — but it also joined the reactionary forces in the world that have prevented progress. It is a shameful alliance that does not reflect the will and sentiments of the American people.
Human rights, peace and security and sustainable development are the foundation for progress in the US and around the world. The Trump administration has shifted the balance of power, emboldening dictators and undermining those who are fighting — often with their lives — for fundamental human rights. This regression can and will be reversed so that the UN can continue to make gains, with help from rather than despite the US, on its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the latest UN effort to turn the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from an aspirational vision into a reality.
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Jessica Neuwirth is the Rita E. Hauser Director of the Human Rights Program at Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, Hunter College, City University of New York. As senior legal officer at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 2003, she led the drafting team for the judgment in the Media Trial.