The rights of women, girls, and LGBTQA+ people around the world are once again coming into question, based on countries’ like the U.S.’s reluctance to commit to championing those rights in the United Nations.
On May 27, 2019, the Women’s UN Report Network (WUNRN) drafted an open letter to United Nations representatives, urging the protection of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) session scheduled for later this year.
CEDAW is an international treaty ratified in 1981, under which the members of the UN pledge to protect and reaffirm the rights of women and girls worldwide. The Convention is monitored by a Committee of 23 women’s rights experts from around the world, which meets frequently to assess the state of female rights and create recommendations, plans, and calls to action for the world’s leaders.
The fourth quarter session this year is at risk, due to budget constraints that making it difficult for the Committee to enact their policies, let alone meet in person to monitor the Convention’s progress. The funding shortfall is largely attributed to delays in UN members — including the United States — paying their annual dues, resulting in a financial deficit that has led to significant budgetary cutbacks in the UN.
One of the programs at risk is CEDAW, particularly the session planned for the fourth quarter of 2019. In response, CEDAW members have drafted an open letter urging delinquent nations to pay their dues, and imploring the Secretary General to prioritize funding for treaty bodies like the Committee.
The open letter is addressed to “Permanent Representatives to the United Nations in Geneva and New York;” Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General; and included on the distribution list are Michelle Bachelet and Hilary Gbedemah, the United National High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Chair of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.
“We are deeply concerned by the likely postponement of the [CEDAW] session scheduled for the final quarter of 2019,” reads the letter. “This comes as a heavy blow in the wake of ongoing pushback against human rights, including tremendous opposition to women’s human rights, on a global scale. Ethno-nationalism and religious extremism are increasingly emboldened by sensationalist media pushing xenophobic narratives, with women and girls rendered particularly vulnerable. The very existence of LGBTIQ people is in many places considered a threat to the fabric of society, while threats to their safety and well-being are excused.”
The letter cites a recent UN Security Council resolution as a major factor in its concern. The resolution, which addresses the issue of sexual violence against women, does not include a specific mention of women’s right to bodily autonomy — particularly, the right to abortion — even in cases when women are survivors of conflict-based sexual violence.
The threat to CEDAW comes at a delicate time, when the current U.S. administration has taken a public stance against many human rights issues for women and the LGBT community.
During a UN women’s conference focused on empowering women and girls, the U.S.’s delegation included a supporter of abstinence-only sex education, a former activist promoting limits on bathroom access for transgender students, and campaigner who acted as a liaison between the Trump campaign and evangelical Christians.
“Their efforts to undermine global commitments to gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights should lay to rest any notion that the Trump Administration cares about women or their human rights,” said Shannon Kowalski, the director of advocacy and policy for the International Women’s Health Coalition. “Instead they are trying to use the Commission to strip women and girls of their ability to exercise control over their lives.”
During the conference, U.S. delegates took a stance that suggested the nation may no longer support the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, seeming to “undermine the perception that there is decades-long international agreement behind the Beijing declaration, though it was reached by consensus.”
Similarly, the U.S. proposed striking the phrase “sexual reproductive health and rights” from a section addressing human rights (given that this language implicitly condones abortion), and “repeatedly asked that references to the word ‘climate’ be replaced by the words ‘extreme weather.'”
The stance the U.S. has taken on these issues is concerning, to say the least, especially when the United States is one of the nations that has failed to pay its dues, contributing to the budget deficit that puts treaty-monitoring committees like CEDAW at risk. The lack of support for CEDAW could have deep impacts on gender equality movements worldwide.