Facing a world unsettled and even shocked by what has happened to the United States in recent years and not sure what to expect of Americans now, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke today in clear, reassuring terms to a United Nations audience, tuned in globally. But she warned that democracy everywhere was in peril and that strengthening it “depends fundamentally on the empowerment of women.”
Addressing a mostly virtual annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women, the UN’s key advocate and protector of women’s rights since 1947, Harris said in pre-recorded comments: “This year, in considering the status of women, especially as it pertains to the participation of women in decision making, we must also consider the status of democracy.”
Her remarks swept away remnants of the Trump administration’s changing definitions of human rights that reflected the conservative philosophy of Michael Pompeo, the former secretary of state. He questioned the relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the US to redefine the country’s domestic and foreign policies.
Harris, the first woman to rise to the vice presidency — the highest political position for a woman in American history — presented a broad view of rights and freedoms held by the administration of President Joe Biden. Harris and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, represent the US as heads of delegation to the UN conference, which in non-pandemic times attracts thousands of women in person worldwide to New York City.
Last year, it was suddenly canceled because of Covid-19’s eruption, so this year the mood, albeit virtual, felt somewhat optimistic as vaccines are being rolled out, as the world slowly recovers and as the US has stopped attempts to roll back women’s rights. Yet many women’s lives, as many countries’ speakers reiterated and reports uncover, have been left in tatters in the last year.
Thomas-Greenfield will speak at the closing session, March 26. The main theme of the meeting this year is women’s “decision-making in public life.” The US entourage includes a diverse group of nongovernmental “advisers” as well as State Department officials.
“At its best, democracy protects human rights, promotes human dignity and upholds the rule of law,” Harris said, delivering the national statement and making her debut at the UN. “It is a means to establish peace and share prosperity. It should ensure every citizen, regardless of gender, has an equal voice, and free and fair elections that will respect the will of people.
“At the same time,” Harris continued, “democracy requires constant vigilance, constant improvement. It is a work in progress. And today we know that democracy is increasingly under great strain. For 15 consecutive years we have seen a troubling decline in freedom around the globe.
“In fact, experts believe that this past year was the worst on record for the global deterioration of democracy and freedom. So, even as we confront a global health crisis and an economic crisis, it is critical that we continue to defend democracy.”
The sense that democracy needs support throughout the world, Harris — who is a lawyer and former US senator — linked that cause to the early decision of the administration to strengthen US engagement with the UN, returning to the World Health Organization and aiming to win election again to the Human Rights Council, from which the previous administration abruptly withdrew in 2018.
“We are also rejoining the Human Rights Council,” Harris said, “because we know the status of democracy depends on our collective commitment to those values articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The US will also be “revitalizing our partnership with UN Women, to help empower women worldwide.” (The Trump administration ignored the UN agency; its executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, is in her last year of her term.)
Turning to the US itself, Harris, who was born in California to a mother who was a prominent Indian-American scientist and whose father was a leading economist from Jamaica — said she was proud to report that “while the United States still has work to do, we, too, are making progress — and that women strengthen our democracy every day.”
“In every presidential election for the last 56 years, in the United States, more women have voted than men,” she said. “More women than ever before serve in the United States Congress. More women than ever before are their family’s breadwinner, and just last week the President nominated two women to take the helm of two of our 11 combatant commands.”
She added: “Women in the United States lead our local, state and national governments, make major decisions regarding our nation’s security, and drive major growth in our economy. But, friends, we cannot take this progress for granted.”
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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.