Human-rights advocates around the world are assessing how much lasting damage could still be done to universal human rights after the four-year assault from the Trump administration. Although the Trump years ended with the swearing-in of President Joe Biden in January, civil society organizations and governments understand that an American turnaround could be slow and fragile. That is as other crises, mostly domestic, preoccupy the Biden administration — including controlling the Covid-19 pandemic.
Women’s rights, the treatment of LGBT people and a diversity of gender issues were targeted directly by Trump for ideological or political reasons. There were also unforgettable public displays of contempt, symbolized by a rejection of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, punitive sanctions against the International Criminal Court and Trump’s presidential pardons of two American military officers convicted in the murders of civilians in Afghanistan.
In light of these moves, a space opened for like-minded authoritarian regimes to happily fill with their own agendas, some similar to Trump’s. The gender-rights community is focusing closely, for example, on Russia’s global campaign against rights that Moscow doesn’t like.
Indeed, profound lessons have been learned about the unpredictability of the United States, human-rights advocates say, as they await the Biden administration’s debut arguments in a Security Council debate on conflict-related sexual violence on April 14.
At issue is not only violence — rape and other forms of sexual assault — but also a revival of attempts by Russia, China and their allies to downgrade human rights, reproductive and otherwise, and to push those topics out of the Council’s purview into economic and social branches of the UN, where they can fall into an abyss.
Grant Shubin is a human-rights lawyer who is the legal director of the Global Justice Center, a civil society organization based in New York. He is dubious about American leadership in the long term.
“Throughout the Trump years,” he said in an interview with PassBlue, “it was proven that the international human rights movement and the international human rights system do not rely on the United States to keep functioning.”
In government terms, he added, “The US is just not a functioning model,” marked as it is by making the enjoyment of people’s human rights “conditioned on the whipsaw nature of American foreign policy and of American politics.”
The Security Council event on April 14 is linked to the release of Secretary-General António Guterres’s latest report — a bitter one — specifically on conflict-related sexual violence. In September 2017, Guterres announced a political initiative seeking pledges from governments that they would take on the sex-abuse scandals in UN peacekeeping and accept the responsibility to punish perpetrators.
Adherence was at best token from the start. Around the UN, some governments are known to sign up for anything that helps their images. The wobbly progress on the Sustainable Development Goals is an example of the fraught results of putting government politicians in charge of important projects — basically turning a UN role over to government officials when they demand sovereignty. Moreover, armed, undisciplined militias and other nonstate actors committing sexual abuse remain far beyond the UN’s control, including for peacekeepers, whose job is to protect civilians.
This is what can happen when countries ignore their international obligations stopping sexual abuse in UN peacekeeping and conflict zones:
“Despite the robust framework put in place by the Security Council over the past decade, the level of compliance by parties to conflict remains appallingly low,” Guterres wrote in his 2020 report. “As noted in the gap assessment included in my previous report (S/2020/487), over 70 percent of the listed parties are persistent perpetrators, having appeared in the lists included in the annexes to my annual reports for five or more years without taking remedial or corrective action.”
Guterres added: “For parties that have assumed commitments in the form of joint and/or unilateral communiqués or frameworks of cooperation, the level of implementation of these measures remains minimal. It is therefore critical to enhance coherence between the practice of listing and the designation of parties for the imposition of targeted sanctions, in order to leverage behavioural change through political influence.”
The report lists some governments and many nonstate actors that are “credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of rape or other forms of sexual violence in situations of armed conflict on the agenda of the Security Council.” On the list are the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria — and Boko Haram as a regional movement “of concern.”
Men and boys as well as transgender women are now recognized as victims of sexual abuse — often unimaginable in brutality — which can leave survivors severely damaged physically and mentally. A July 2020 Human Rights Watch report on the Syrian conflict documented such atrocities.
Vietnam, as Security Council rotating president for April and Russia’s most loyal ally among the current elected Council members, prepared a concept note sent to Guterres on April 5 by Dang Dinh Quy, the Vietnamese ambassador. It outlined his approach to the April 14 debate on conflict-related sexual violence. The document, a copy of which was obtained by PassBlue, is primarily focused on after-the-fact aid for victims — survivors of abuse. There was much palliative advice, vaguely described.
Among questions the concept note suggested for Council discussion are: “How can States and the international community improve advocacy and raise awareness for victims to access care, rehabilitation, reintegration and reparation? How can we raise awareness and change social attitude of stigma and discrimination towards victims of sexual violence in conflict?”
Concern about women’s economic “empowerment” seems to be more important than restoring reproductive health and rights after sexual abuse. This falls short of the concrete steps already employed by UN agencies and nongovernmental groups, including emergency contraception or specialized medical and psychological attention after rape.
It is unlikely that a Council resolution or even a watered-down consensus-approved presidential statement will emerge from the session this week, according to Security Council Report, an independent organization that tracks that UN body.
In October 2020, Russia, as president of the Security Council that month, put to a vote an ill-fated resolution on issues of women, peace and security that critics said pointedly avoided the reality that sexual abuse in conflicts happens repeatedly enough to clearly fall under Council responsibility. That assertion is disputed by Russia, China and some other governments.
On the surface, the resolution was commemorating the 20th anniversary of Resolution 1325, which called for more women’s participation, presence and power in all aspects of peacekeeping and peace-building. The Russian move in October, made while the Putin-friendly Trump administration was in its waning days, was tactical, according to Shubin of the Global Justice Center, testing support for Russia’s policy of sidelining human rights.
“Russia knew that it’s difficult for states to oppose a resolution on women, peace and security because it just doesn’t look very good,” Shubin said. “But the contents of that resolution were very much an attempt to push these issues out of the Council, to frame them more as issues relating to economic and social development — to intentionally categorize them as something that is different than international peace and security. The tactical play in October was to use the women, peace and security agenda to push that forward.”
If it was a test, the result was a setback for the Russians. In the 15-member Security Council, only four nations voted with Russia: China, Indonesia, South Africa and Vietnam. The other 10 members — Belgium, Britain, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Niger, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia and the US — abstained, killing the resolution because it failed to reach the nine votes (and no vetoes) needed for passage.
“There was a cross-regional grouping of states that abstained, which was enormous and a vote very much in favor of where that international community thinks these issues belong,” Shubin said. “But nevertheless, this broader push on reframing human rights — and specifically on attacks against women and gender equality, is still very much present and very much alive — and you don’t see that only in the Security Council but in the Human Rights Council as well.”
In March this year, when the annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women was struggling to agree on an outcome document supporting “women and girls’ full, equal, effective and meaningful participation” as a perquisite to democratic governance, it ran into opposition to certain language on rights, according to comments made by a European Union diplomat who briefed the media.
In a formal European Union statement at the close of the session, on March 26, Gunter Sautter, the UN deputy permanent representative of Germany, said, “The EU would have preferred to see more ambitious language in these agreed conclusions.
“The systematic attempts by some delegations to derail the process and question international commitments and obligations on gender equality show that the pushback against women’s rights continues. We must all remain vigilant . . . .”
Another European diplomat, speaking informally, told PassBlue at the time where the blame lay.
“Russia played an exceptionally disruptive role in the negotiations,” this diplomat said about the outcome document. “While the rest of the membership was ready to find common ground, they did not hesitate to obstruct the process alone and to prevent us from reaching agreements. Today’s low common denominator result demonstrates that a pushback against women’s rights continues at the UN and that Russia is doing all it can to undermine progress on this issue.”
The debate on conflict-related sexual violence on Wednesday could be next.
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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.