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U.S. Pushes Back Against U.N. Anti-Violence Resolutions

Wary of creeping international law, U.S. diplomats fight a rearguard action to limit the scope of two U.N. resolutions on women and children.

The General Assembly hall at U.N.'s New York headquarters on May 12, 2006. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
The General Assembly hall at U.N.'s New York headquarters on May 12, 2006. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

The Donald Trump administration is trying to limit the scope of United Nations anti-violence resolutions that aim to bolster protections for women and children.

The fight is playing out in closed-door U.N. negotiations, with a legalistic U.S. approach meant to defend states’ rights under the U.S. Constitution, including the right of parents and schools to physically discipline children.

But other U.N. delegates and critics say that the American stance could set back international efforts to secure legal protections from violence for women and children around the world. For instance, Russia largely decriminalized acts of domestic violence earlier this year.

American conservatives have long been suspicious of what they see as U.N. threats to U.S. sovereignty, and especially U.N. efforts to broaden the rights of children. They view those efforts as a threat to parental control over their offspring and to the practice of corporal punishment, which is still legal in public schools in more than 20 states in the United States, particularly in the South. The United States is the only country in the world that is not party to the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The point of the first resolution under consideration at the U.N., said one of several delegates who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the negotiations, is to “press the principle that it is never okay to use violence against children.”

The nub of the matter: the condemnation of “all forms of violence.” The United States proposed replacing that with the phrase “unlawful violence,” according to a copy of a confidential negotiating text reviewed by FP.

During a closed-door meeting on Nov. 3, the U.S. delegate noted that some mild forms of violence against children — including corporal punishment — are legal in the United States and many other countries, according to several diplomatic sources.

U.S. government lawyers say “they need to use the term ‘unlawful’ in order to safeguard States’ rights,” the delegate added. But the U.S. proposal raised concerns among several delegations that Washington wants to preserve legal wiggle room to justify some acts of violence.

“We had a pretty absurd discussion on the Convention for the Rights of the Child,” said one European ambassador. “They want to speak of unlawful forms of violence against children, implying there are lawful forms of violence against children.”

The U.S. diplomatic push comes amid conservative fears of legal liberal overreach.

“There seems to be an expanding definition of what violence means that is pretty concerning,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Brett Schaefer. He noted reports that controversial speech can sometimes be considered violence on college campuses. “This language opens the door to an expansive definition of violence and could come into conflict with the way we understand it,” he said.

Still, since General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, “I’m not sure how much efforts should be put into this,” he said.

On Monday, the European Union, which is leading the negotiations over children’s rights, plans to formally present its anti-violence resolution without including Washington’s amendment. That would leave the the United States two main options. It could back down, allowing the resolution to be adopted, and then state U.S. reservations. Or it could force the General Assembly to put the measure to a vote, a strategy that would likely highlight Washington’s isolation.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations declined to comment while the talks are underway and did not respond to a request to identify the U.S. negotiators.

During that Friday meeting, the U.S. delegate also noted that other offensive activities, such as pornography, have legal, constitutional protections in the United States.

“The room was taken aback,” said one European diplomat.

The chairperson responded that child pornography is illegal in the United States, and asked the official to seek clarification on his government’s position. But in an effort to address U.S. concerns, the European Union agreed to amend the language to make it clear it was only condemning child pornography. The United States has not raised any concerns about pornography during subsequent negotiations.

The negotiations are playing out against the backdrop of a growing international movement to end corporal punishment. Currently, 53 nations have laws prohibiting the use of corporal punishment against children.

A majority of U.S. states have outlawed corporal punishment in schools, including the use of a wooden paddle. But several states, particularly in the Midwest and South, preserved the practice, with 15 states still explicitly permitting it as of 2016. A 2009 study by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch of the practice’s application showed that it was primarily used to discipline children with disabilities.

The U.S. position hasn’t won any support, even from among the nearly three dozen countries that allow some form of whipping, flogging, or caning of minors. Delegates from countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Singapore say the U.S. proposal is not necessary.

U.S. pushback hasn’t been limited to violence against children.

A draft resolution obtained by FP shows that the Trump administration also sought to remove language granting detained children the legal right to “maintain contact with their family through correspondence and visits from the moment they are arrested.” The U.S. prefers weaker language indicating detained children should be “permitted” to maintain such contact with their families. A Nov. 9 draft of the resolution indicated that the U.S. had failed to win support for this amendment either.

And in a separate U.N. resolution promoting a more central role for women in development, the United States also pressed earlier this month for an amendment prohibiting only “unlawful violence” toward women.

In a closed-door meeting last week, a U.S. negotiator noted that a comprehensive ban all forms of violence might pose a risk to generally acceptable activities, like hockey or boxing, according to a second European ambassador and one other source.

Critics shot back.

“The Trump administration has gone beyond disparaging multilateralism to take unprecedented positions that are completely out of line with global consensus and that deliberately hurt women,” said Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, which has been closely tracking the negotiations.

“By taking such an extreme position, the U.S. would turn into a leading voice for perpetuating abuse and denying justice to millions of women and girls in countries where some of the most common forms of violence are still legal,” she said.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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