The UN Just Watered-Down Women’s Rights Worldwide—and the U.S. Insisted on It

The latest battle over words at the United Nations drew global attention to the Trump administration’s attempts to wrestle full control over women’s bodies and minds—in the U.S. and across the world.

Amal Clooney told the UN Security Council that now is its “Nuremberg moment” to push for prosecuting cases of sexual violence in conflict. (Evan Schneider for the UN)

After four weeks of tumultuous negotiations over a resolution that reinforced decades of international efforts to combat sexual violence in conflict and to introduce more legal reassurances and services for victims, the 15-member United Nations Security Council approved a text whose wording had been rigorously fought over between the United States and many of its fellow Council members.

Many Council members had hoped that the Germans, who were leading the negotiations, would not cave in to U.S. pressures to weaken commitments to women in conflict. Some members even threatened to walk away from the text if the U.S. got its way, while others wanted the Germans to call the bluff of the U.S. and put the resolution to a vote with the forbidden wording in.

Ultimately, some capitulation was necessary, it turned out, to save the resolution.

The text aimed to be all-encompassing—building on a chain of previous resolutions to enhance the legal recognition of victims’ needs, such as justice and reparations. But what the resolution lacked, and what caused tremendous consternation among many UN member states in and outside the Council and women’s rights advocates, were the words “sexual and reproductive health.” Such language is a fixture in some related UN resolutions, such as No. 2106, but the Trump administration—circling back to Vice President Pence, an evangelical Christian—contends that it connotes abortion.

Those words vanished during the tail-end of negotiations led by a German diplomat, Andreas Glossner, amidst threats of a veto by the U.S. (The resolution, however, affirms earlier resolutions, including 2106.) The success by the U.S. in banishing such language symbolizes how the Trump administration is fast making inroads to eliminate women’s rights word by word—including references to abortion or any other language that implies a termination of pregnancy.

Resolution 2467, devoid of the SRH language, was approved at lunchtime on April 23, although no one could have said confidently minutes before the vote how the U.S. would go. (It voted yes, with 12 others; Russia and China abstained.)

The vote seemed deliberately delayed at the morning debate by the Germans, who lead the rotating Council presidency this month and whose foreign minister, Heiko Mass, had flown in from Berlin to preside over the meeting. The parade of Council members’ speeches was preceded by guest speakers, who relayed the graphic stories of women raped in wars in intimate, clinical and legal detail.

Among the speakers were Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 2018. Dr. Mukwege runs the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for rural women; Murad is a survivor of sexual slavery by ISIS. Amal Clooney, the British-Lebanese human rights lawyer who represents Yazidi clients and other victims of rape in conflicts, also spoke, and told the Council that the debate is the Council’s “Nuremberg moment” to take actions to prosecute ISIS for its atrocities against Yazidis.

Those three speakers sat near the U.S. acting ambassador to the UN, Jonathan Cohen, at the Council horseshoe table, as if to remind him of what he might be voting against in the resolution: people who had suffered immeasurably by rape and other sexual abuse in wars. (A fourth speaker, Inas Miloud, heads the Tamazight Women’s Movement and spoke about the situation of women in Libya.)

Yet it was the Council’s 15 elected and permanent members—Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. in the latter camp—that mattered the most. The speech by the U.S. ambassador sounded sincere and even sympathetic at times—“we put survivors at the heart of our work”—but reverted to stony language when he suggested that the UN should invest more in “early warning indicators” to prevent sexual violence in conflict, as if referring to a weather report.

Over the weeks of negotiations, including through the recent Easter and Passover holidays, the threat of a veto by the U.S. hung over diplomats’ heads like a guillotine. The U.S. made it clear early on what it would not accept: a proposal to create a formal mechanism in the Council for tracking sexual violence in conflict, saying it would “require dozens of reports and negotiations, creating significant new work for council members”—aligning itself with China and Russia on the matter.

In addition, the U.S. refused to accept references to the International Criminal Court and a reference to “comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and safe termination of pregnancy”—or the more extensive “comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care such as access to emergency contraception, safe termination of pregnancy and HIV prevention and treatment.”

Several delegates linked the court’s deletion to John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, who declared last year that the ICC “is already dead to us,” a sentiment echoed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. One ambassador described the huge logistical problems in negotiating with the U.S. mission to the UN as two-pronged: running an obstacle course in a disorganized State Department and facing a near death knell in Bolton’s office.

The voices who spoke up in Council for the missing language on sexual and reproductive health came mostly from Europe and Africa. At least three countries had toyed with abstaining on the vote. Among Africans, South Africa voiced objections the most loudly, as did Belgium, Britain and France.

The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti in the  Caribbean and is Roman Catholic, that stood up the tallest for the right of women and girls to have access to sexual reproductive health services. José Singer Weisinger, the country’s special envoy in the Council, called such access “non-negotiable,” declaring that to refuse it is “tantamount to degrading cruel and inhuman treatment and greater suffering.”

China and Russia, meanwhile, proposed their own resolution on sexual violence in conflict—focusing mostly on preventing such atrocities and prosecuting terrorists. It never got to a vote, some diplomats said, because it would have failed miserably. Yet the Russian ambassador present also said that his country was committed to combating this “odious crime” of excluding SRH, and that it read “with interest” the recommendations in the UN secretary-general’s recent report on the topic. He added, as if to swat away the lifelong debilitating effects of rape, that “this is just one crime in war: there are others.”

In a world where “it is still largely cost-free to rape women,” as Pramila Patten, the UN’s envoy on sexual violence in conflict, told the chamber, the new resolution is written to end such lawlessness. But what resonated the most in the April 23 debate was the refusal of the U.S., the most potent democracy in the world, to allow three certain words into a resolution to stop women, girls, men and boys from being raped in conflict.

“Watering down” the resolution, as an African diplomat put it, “will certainly not be good for survivors of sexual violence who are most in need of it.”

This post originally appeared at PassBlue. Republished with permission.


Dulcie Leimbach is the founder of PassBlue—for which she edits and writes, primarily about the United Nations and peacekeeping. Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption, publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA and an editorial consultant to various UN agencies; she was also an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years.