U.S. Opposition to “Abortion” and “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” at U.N. High-Level Meeting  

On September 23, 2019, the U.N. General Assembly held a High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage that aimed to accelerate progress toward universal health coverage for everyone around the world, which would include access to health care services, medicines and vaccines in accordance with the U.N.’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, under which all countries have committed to try to achieve universal health coverage by 2030.[1]

At this High-Level Meeting, Alex Azar, the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, read a joint statement on behalf of the following 19 countries representing more than 1.3 billion people: the United States of America plus Africa (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan), Eastern Europe/North Asia (Belarus, Russia), Europe (Hungary, Poland), Latin America (Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti) and  Middle East (Bahrain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen).

The U.S. Joint Statement[2]

“We believe that health of women, men, children and adolescents supports and improves the overall health of our families and communities, and that the family is the foundational institution of society and thus should be supported and strengthened.”

“We commend the United Nations and the Member States on the significant work done on the Universal Health Coverage Political Declaration,[3] and for the high priority placed on expanding access to health care.”

“We therefore urge Member States to join us in focusing on the important work of expanding health and opportunities for all people, and especially those in situations of risk and/or vulnerability.”

“To make the most meaningful progress without delay or dissension, we respectfully call upon Member States to join us in concentrating on topics that unite rather than divide on the critical issues surrounding access to health care.”

We do not support references to ambiguous terms and expressions, such as sexual and reproductive health and rights in U.N. documents, because they can undermine the critical role of the family and promote practices, like abortion, in circumstances that do not enjoy international consensus and which can be misinterpreted by U.N. agencies.” (Emphasis added.)

Such terms do not adequately take into account the key role of the family in health and education, nor the sovereign right of nations to implement health policies according to their national context. There is no international right to an abortion and these terms should not be used to promote pro-abortion policies and measures.” (Emphasis added.)

Further, we only support sex education that appreciates the protective role of the family in this education and does not condone harmful sexual risks for young people.”  (Emphasis added.)

“We therefore request that the U.N., including U.N. agencies, focus on concrete efforts that enjoy broad consensus among member states. To that end, only documents that have been adopted by all Member States should be cited in U.N. resolutions.” (Emphasis added.)

“To this end, we also understand the important role the Sustainable Development Goals play in assisting countries realize their own path to universal health coverage, in accordance with national policies and legislation.”

“We strongly support the highest attainable health outcomes for women, men, children, and adolescents holistically and throughout their lives.”

We support equal access to health care, which includes, but is not limited to reproductive concerns, maternal health, voluntary and informed family planning, HIV, elimination of violence against women and girls, and empowerment to reach the highest standard of health.” (Emphasis added.)

“We support programs to improve the health, life, dignity, and well-being of women, men, children, and families, and we will continue to be their stalwart defender.”

“Let us focus on concrete issues and challenges to accelerate access to health for all.”

“To this end, international solidarity has a key role to play, in order to the build broad consensus by member states.”

Preceding U.S. Letter Urging Support of the Joint Statement[4]

Prior to this High-Level Meeting, Secretary Azar and U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo reportedly sent a letter to at least some of the other U.N. members that were to attend this High-Level Meeting encouraging them to sign this joint statement opposing “harmful UN policies, especially at the World Health Organization, that promote sexual and reproductive health and rights” and “ensuring that every sovereign state has the ability to determine the best way to protect the unborn and defend the family as the foundational unity of society vital to children thriving and leading healthy lives.”

This letter reportedly also said, “We remain gravely concerned that aggressive efforts to reinterpret international instruments to create a new international right to abortion and to promote international policies that weaken the family have advanced through some United Nations forums.” Evidence of this [effort] is found in references throughout many multilateral global health policy documents to interpret ‘comprehensive sexuality education’ and ‘sexual and reproductive health’ and ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ to diminish the role of parents in the most sensitive and personal family-oriented issues. The latter has been asserted to mean promotion of abortion, including pressuring countries to abandon religious principles and cultural norms enshrined in law that protect unborn life.”

Other U.S. Challenges to U.N. Documents

This U.S. letter and the Joint Statement are consistent with prior efforts by the Trump Administration to delete and remove language from various U.N. agreements. Here are examples of this effort: (a) this April intense lobbying by U.S. officials resulted in the removal of references to sexual and reproductive health from a UN security council resolution on combatting rape in conflict; and (b) the U.S.previously attempted to water down language and remove the word “gender” from UN documents.

On September 24 Secretary Azar remained at the U.N. to attend President Trump’s address to the General Assembly and to meet with other governments representatives. He also was interviewed on Tony Perkins’ “Washington Watch” radio program  [5]

Opposition to U.S. Joint Statement[6]

The Netherlands’ Minister of Foreign Trade, Sigrid Kaag, spoke out in a competing joint statement issued on behalf of 58 countries. Although it did not mention the U.S. Joint Statement or use the word “abortion,” her joint statement clearly opposed the U.S. position. Her main points were the following: (1) “We strongly believe that SRHR [Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights] is an integral part of Universal Health Coverage and the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals]. (2) “Investing in SRHR has proven to be affordable, cost-effective, and cost saving.” (3) “Gender-related barriers to accessing UHC [Universal Health Care] must be addressed, including by direct involvement of women, adolescents and marginalized groups in policy and program design.” (4) “Investing in comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services in UHC is necessary to address the needs of women, girls, adolescents and people in the most marginalized situations who need these the most.”

Sweden’s Minister for International Development Cooperation tweeted that the action was “unbelievable news” and that “women’s rights must be protected at all times.” Another objector was Françoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, who said that “sexual and reproductive rights are human rights, and are enshrined in UN agreements for almost 25 years now” and that “the Trump administration’s position is extreme and its repeated attempts to strip women, girls, and gender- diverse people of their rights at the United Nations have failed.”

Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, said the Pompeo-Azar letter “shows how they are trying to erode international consensus and roll back the clock for women and girls. It’s not just abortion that they care about, they care about women’s ability to exercise autonomy over their bodies and about denying them critical access to the services they need.” That Pompeo and Azur both signed the letter suggests an escalation of the US strategy to undermine policy statements, she added.

Keifer Buckingham, senior policy adviser for international public health at the Open Society Foundations, said that rather than an escalation, “it could be them just putting out in public what they have been doing in private.” She said the US was effectively sending a message of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”, which could have funding implications.

Other civil society and women’s rights groups expressed alarm at the efforts and accused the U.S. of aligning with countries like Saudi Arabia and Sudan with poor human rights records and, also, of putting unfair pressure on poor countries that depend on U.S. aid.

Support for U.S. Joint Statement[7]

On the other side of this controversy were anti-abortion groups that praised the statement as a sign of the administration’s “strong pro-life leadership on the world stage.” For example, the group Susan B. Anthony (SBA ) List issued a statement, saying, “From day one, President Trump has worked to restore respect for life as a foundational American value, not only in our domestic policies, but in our international relations as well.”

Conclusion

This speech by Secretary Azar, the preceding letter and the U.S. lobbying for other nations’ support against abortion and reproductive health can be seen as confirmation of fears that the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights that was announced this June was designed to put a gloss of respectability on efforts to attack women’s rights and to appeal to the Administration’s base of very conservative religious supporters.[8]

As noted in other posts, this U.S. Commission emphasizes the July 4, 1776, U.S. Declaration of Independence’s statement “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But the Commission ignores that phrase’s indications that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are “among” certain unalienable rights; i.e., there are other such rights. Moreover, the Commission ignores the very next sentence of that Declaration: “That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, this Declaration recognizes that these recited rights need to be “secured” by subsequent legislation that will have details not specified in this Declaration. (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, the U.S.-promoted Joint Statement’s requiring all 193 U.N. members to adopt a U.N. document or treaty as a precondition for them to be used in other U.N. documents would give every one of those members a veto right on the subsequent use of those documents or treaties. Is there any such document or treaty that has such unanimous approval? (That is exceedingly unlikely.) It also is  antithetical to the provisions of such treaties requiring a certain number of ratifications in order for the treaties to go into effect for the parties to the treaties. In short, this provision of the Joint Statement would totally prevent progress on these and many other issues.[9]

In short, the U.S. positions expressed in the U.N. speech by Secretary Azar were most unfortunate.

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[1] HHS Dep’t, Secretary Azar Represents the United States During UNGA High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Care Coverage (Sept. 23, 2019); U.N. Gen. Ass’bly, uhc 2030.

[2] U.S. HHS Dep’t, [Secretary Azar], Remarks on Universal Health Coverage (Sept. 23, 2019); Howard, U.S. wants the U.N. to oppose terms such as “reproductive health and rights” in policies, CNN (Sept. 23, 2019).

[3] The Political Declaration stated that the High-Level Meeting will have “a dedicated focus for the first time on universal health coverage . . . and [a strong recommitment] to achieve universal health coverage by 2030” with 83 numbered paragraphs of specific actions towards that goal. (U.N. Gen. Ass’bly, Political Declaration on the High-level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage (Sept. 10, 2019).)

[4] Cha, U.S. joins 19 nations, including Saudi Arabia and Russia: ‘There is no international right to an abortion, Wash. Post (Sept. 24, 2019); Ford, Leaked letter suggests US is rallying UN members to oppose abortion, Guardian (Sept. 23, 2019).

[5] HHS Dep’t, Secretary Azar Attends Presidential Address at UNGA, Furthers U.S. Partnerships on Health through Bilateral Meetings (Sept. 24, 2019).

[6] Netherlands Ministry Foreign Affairs, Joint Statement on SRHR in UHC (Sept. 23, 2019).

[7] SBA List, Pro-Life Groups Praise Trump Admin’s Defense of Life at the UN (Sept. 24, 2019).

[8] See posts to dwkcommentaries about the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

[9]  See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (TREATIES).

 

 

 

 

Cameroon Elected As  Member of U.N. Human Rights Council

As has been discussed in many posts, for the last several years the government of Cameroon has been engaged in armed conflict with the minority of Cameroonians whose principal European language is English (the Anglophones). In the course of that conflict, the government allegedly has committed many human rights violations.[1]

This record and the objections against these acts were voiced by many other governments during Cameroon’s recent Universal Periodic Review by the U.N. Human Rights Council, which is the body within the U.N. system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. These Council members are elected by the majority of members of the U.N. General Assembly through direct and secret ballot. The General Assembly [purportedly] takes into account the candidate States’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments in this regard. (Emphasis added.)

Despite Cameroon’s dismal human rights record, on October 12, 2018, the U.N. General Assembly elected Cameroon to be a member of the Council for a three-year term beginning January 1, 2019.[2]

Amnesty International  Human Rights Watch and other rights groups objected to the election of Cameroon and certain other countries. “Elevating states with records of gross human rights violations and abuses is a tremendous setback,” said Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director, Daniel Balson. “It puts them on the world stage, and moreover, it empowers them to fundamentally undermine notions of human rights that are accepted internationally.[3]

In this context, Human Rights Watch raised “serious concerns about human rights in . . . Cameroon, . . . . [where] government security forces and armed separatists have committed grave abuses against residents of the country’s Anglophone region. The region has been rocked by protests and violent clashes rooted in longstanding political grievances of the Anglophone minority. While the government has taken some positive steps in recent months, including signing the Safe Schools Declaration, violence and abuses in the Anglophone region continue.”

The Council elections of Cameroon and four other African states (Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Somalia and Togo) are partially attributable to the Council’s allocation of 13 of the 47 seats to African states; and to three of the African members having terms ending on December 31, 2018 and being ineligible for re-election after having served two consecutive terms (Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Kenya). The other African members are Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia.[4]

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[1] See Cameroonian President Biya Wins Re-Election by a Landslide, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 26, 2018); Continued Violence in Cameroon, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 4, 2018). See also posts listed in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CAMEROON.

[2] U.N., General Assembly Elects 18 Member States to Human rights Council, Allowing Vote by 3 Member States in Article 19 Exemption over Financial Dues (Oct. 12, 2018).

[3] Assoc. Press, US, Rights Groups Say UN Rights Council Vote Lets Abusers In, N.Y. Times (Oct. 12, 2018); Human Rights Watch, UN: Philippines, Eritrea Don’t Belong on Rights Council (Oct. 11, 2018).

[4] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Membership of the Human Rights Council; U.N., General Assembly Elects 18 Member States to Human Rights Council, Allowing Vote by 3 Member States in Article 19 Exemption over Financial Dues (Oct. 12, 2018).

 

Appointment of New U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights

On August 8 U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced his nomination of  Michelle Bachelet to be the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. On August 10 the nomination was approved by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly. [1]

Ms. Bachelet was most recently President of Chile between 2014 and 2018, having served previously from 2006 to 2010, the year in which she was appointed the first Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN‑Women).  Ms. Bachelet also held ministerial portfolios in the Government of Chile, serving as Minister for Defence (2002‑2004) and Minister for Health (2000‑2002). She was imprisoned and  tortured under the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Initial Reactions to the Appointment

The current High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, whose term ends August 31, said, “I am truly delighted by the appointment of Michelle Bachelet as the next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has all the attributes – courage, perseverance, passion, and a deep commitment to human rights – to make her a successful High Commissioner. The UN Human Rights Office looks forward to welcoming her and working under her leadership for the promotion and protection of all human rights, for everyone, everywhere.”[2]

The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, immediately commented on this selection. She said it was incumbent on Ms. Bachelet “to speak out against” what the U.S. regarded as the U.N. Human Rights Council’s failures “to adequately address major human rights crises in Iran, North Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere, or stop its chronic, disproportionate obsession with Israel.” The Ambassador also noted what she called “the Council’s  consistent failure to address extreme human rights abuses in the Western Hemisphere, in Venezuela and Cuba in particular.”[3]

The Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (OCDH), which is based in Madrid, Spain, called this appointment a”grave error.” This was based on its opinion that she had shown a “weak commitment to fundamental rights” during her two terms as President of  Chile.[4]

At the General Assembly, however, Cuba congratulated Bachelet on her appointment and said  Cuba “trusts in her proven experience and knowledge to perform an excellent performance in her position, away from double standards, politicization and selectivity.” Cuba also regretted the U.S. lukewarm acceptance of the appointment coupled with criticism of Cuba and then the Cuba representative launched Cuba’s litany of complaints about the U..S. A similar statement was issued by Venezuela.[5]

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[1] U.N., Secretary-General Nominates Michelle Bachelet of Chile as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Aug. 8, 2018); U.N., Former Chilean President Bachelet put forward by UN chief as next High Commissioner for Human Rights (Aug. 8, 2018); Reuters, U.N. General Assembly Approves Chile’s Bachelet as Rights Chief, N.Y. Times (Aug. 10, 2018).

[2] U.N. Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid warmly welcomes appointment of new UN Human Rights Chief (Aug. 10, 2018).

[3] U.S. Mission to U.N., Statement by Ambassador Haley on the Nomination of Michelle Bachelet to be UN Commissioner for Human Rights (Aug. 8, 2018).

[4] The OCDH considers the designation of Bachelet as head of human rights at the UN a “grave error,” Diario de Cuba (Aug. 9, 2018).

[5] Cuba and Venezuela congratulate Bachelet for her appointment to the UN, Cubadebate (Aug. 10, 2018).

 

Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by U.N. Human Rights Council: Background

This year Cameroon’s human rights record is the subject of its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. This post reviews basic information about the Council and its UPR process. Future posts will look at the pre-hearing papers for Cameroon’s current UPR and then its UPR hearing and then finally the results of the UPR.

The  Human Rights Council[1]

The Council since 2006 has been an important arm of the United Nations in recognizing and helping to enforce international human rights norms in the world.

The Council is made up of 47 U.N. Member States, which are elected by the majority of members of the U.N. General Assembly through direct and secret ballot. The General Assembly takes into account the candidate States’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments in this regard.

The Council’s Members serve for a period of three years and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms. The seats are allocated on the following geographical basis:

  • African States: 13 seats
  • Asia-Pacific States: 13 seats
  • Latin American and Caribbean States: 8 seats
  • Western European and other States: 7 seats
  • Eastern European States: 6 seats

The current African members are Angola, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Togo and Tunisia.

The UPR Process[2]

One of the ways the Council seeks to encourage universal compliance with international human rights standards  is its UPR of individual U.N. member states. The UPR is universal in that all 193 U.N. members and all human rights norms are reviewed and it is periodic because it done every four years. Such reviews are to be “based on objective and reliable information, of the fulfillment by each State of its human rights obligations and commitments in a manner which ensures universality of coverage and equal treatment with respect to all States.” This is to be done with “a cooperative mechanism, based on an interactive dialogue, with the full involvement of the country concerned.”

The UPR process involves (a) the state’s submission of a report to the Council; (b) submission of written questions and recommendations to the state from other states and stakeholders (human rights NGO’s, etc.); (c) the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights’ summary of U.N. information about the country; (d) questions submitted to the country in advance by the Working Group; (e) the hearing by the Council, (f) the preparation of a draft report on the state by a Council working group, (g) the state’s comments on that report, (h) another hearing before the Council and (i) the Council’s adoption of the final report on the outcome of the UPR.

Council’s UPR Working Group for Cameroon’s UPR[3]

The UPRs are conducted by the Council’s 47 members acting as an UPR Working Group. In addition, any other U.N. Member State can take part in the review.

Each State’s review is assisted by a groups of three States, known as a “troika,” who serve as rapporteurs. The selection of the troikas for each State is done through a drawing of lots following elections for the Council membership in the General Assembly. For Cameroon’s third UPR the Troika members are United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Iraq and South Africa.

The UPR Hearing

The May 16 hearing lasted three and a half hours, during which the state under review was given 70 minutes to present its report, as well as answer questions made by other states and present concluding remarks. The remaining 140 minutes were allocated to states participating in the review to ask questions, make comments and recommendations to the state under review.

The second stage of the process will take place during the Council’s 39th period of sessions in September 2018, at which time the final report will be presented by the Troika.

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[1] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Membership of Council; U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Current Membership.

[2] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Basic Facts about the UPR

[3]  U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Cameroon’s human rights record to be reviewed by Universal Periodic Review (May 11, 2018).