At the U.N., America Turns Back the Clock on Women’s Rights

Internal documents show how the U.S. works to stymie progress on women’s health, cultural issues, and climate change.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, U.S. President Donald Trump, and others wait for a meeting to begin at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 18, 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, U.S. President Donald Trump, and others wait for a meeting to begin at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 18, 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration is lining up with less liberal nations such as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia at a major United Nations conference on women this month to roll back international consensus on climate change and migration, while seeking to prevent the expansion of rights for girls, women, and LGBT people.

The U.S. strategy—detailed in a confidential 96-page draft text under negotiations by delegates to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) obtained by Foreign Policy—underscores the degree to which President Donald Trump’s administration is moving further away from traditional democratic allies on social and cultural matters. Instead, Washington is increasingly aligning itself with Persian Gulf countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq; Malaysia; and some conservative African nations on a range of issues including questions surrounding protections for LGBT individuals and women’s health issues.

“The U.S. continually wants to call out bad actors and human rights violators but then pals up with them at the U.N.,” said Tarah Demant, the director of the Gender, Sexuality and Identity Program at Amnesty International. “There’s an irony there.”

A U.S. official declined to respond to questions about its negotiating position but insisted that the Trump administration “is against discrimination of any kind” and is “unwavering in its support for women’s empowerment.”

“As the world’s largest bilateral donor to global health programs,” the official added, “the United States remains committed to helping women and children thrive, particularly in countries where the need is greatest.”

The U.N. women’s conference, focused on empowering women and girls through social protection programs and promoting access to public services, runs from March 11 to March 22. Negotiations on the final outcome document are expected to resume on Thursday.

The U.S. delegation, which includes anti-abortion conservatives in line with the Trump administration’s broad policy stances, is seeking to weaken international support for the Beijing Declaration, a landmark 1995 agreement that stands as an internationally recognized progressive blueprint for women’s rights. The declaration has been endorsed by successive Democratic and Republican administrations. Former President George W. Bush’s administration held a decidedly dimmer view of the document and fought aggressively to counter any suggestion that the nonbinding declaration conferred legal rights, including the right to abortion.

Supporters say the administration is taking a decidedly anti-abortion stance on these issues while still promoting economic empowerment of women worldwide. Critics say the administration is spurning traditional allies in the West to side with countries known for human rights abuses to undercut women’s and gender rights.

“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.”

The U.S. delegation to CSW this year includes Valerie Huber, a former educator who promoted abstinence-only sex education who is now a Trump appointee and senior advisor in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Bethany Kozma, a former campaigner for limits on school bathroom access for transgender students, who serves as a senior advisor for women’s empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development; and Pam Pryor, who acted as a key liaison between Trump’s presidential campaign and evangelical Christians.

The U.S. delegation has proposed that government negotiators strike language from a final outcome document that “reaffirms” support the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. In its place, the United States proposed the gathering simply “takes note of” the landmark agreement—a rhetorical shift that to diplomats signals the United States wants to roll back its support. Washington has also suggested that any reference to the 1995 Beijing conference mention an accompanying report that includes numerous protests or reservations registered by other member states. The U.S. push, according to observers, aims to undermine the perception that there is decades-long international agreement behind the Beijing declaration, though it was reached by consensus.

For civil society advocates and smaller U.N. member countries, these changes to U.N. documents are more than just words on paper. “A lot of other countries look to these agreements as a framework. They are using these agreements and outcomes to advance national laws and policies,” said one source familiar with internal CSW negotiations, who declined to speak on record.

The U.S. delegation is also seeking to chip away efforts by other states to elevate international issues anathema to the Trump administration, including language on climate change and collective bargaining as well as sexual and reproductive health, in the final outcome documents.

For instance, the United States proposed that references to “sexual reproductive health and rights” be removed from a section addressing human rights. Social conservative advocates who follow these international negotiations have long viewed such language as implicitly condoning abortion.

The State Department also drew criticism from rights groups for cutting analysis on women’s reproductive and health rights from its annual global human rights report, which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released on Wednesday.

That sweeping report, which details human rights records of all countries globally, does not include country-by-country information on maternal mortality rates and women’s access to reproductive health care—in a break from past reports under the Obama administration. It does include information on forced or coerced abortion and involuntary sterilization.

Michael Kozak, a senior official in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told reporters on Wednesday that the reason the U.S. representatives did not include any reference to reproductive rights is that advocates have said that the phrase indicates a right to abortion. He said that neither Democratic nor Republican administrations have ever supported a right to abortion at the U.N.

“The upshot here is the United States did not seek and did not obtain international consensus that there is a human right to abortion,” he told reporters this week at a State Department briefing. “The position has always been it’s up to each sovereign state to make a policy decision on whether to allow or prohibit abortion or have restrictions.”

In one section of the U.N. draft document promoting gender equality, the United States recommend adding an amendment making clear that it was referring only to women and girls. In another, the United States joined forces with Bahrain, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia to remove language underscoring the need for stronger “gender-responsive” human rights protections and investments in social services.

“CSW has been a place over the past two years where we’ve seen the U.S. be on the wrong side of rights,” Amanda Klasing, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, told FP in a phone interview.

The Trump administration has taken up the fight by evangelical Christians and other social conservatives pushing back against shifting views in the United States, where public acceptance of a more flexible understanding of gender is growing.

Emilie Kao, the director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, defended the administration’s approach to the issues at CSW as in line with American social conservative policies. One issue she said she will raise in her advocacy work on the sidelines of CSW this week is bathroom policies that increasingly accommodate transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, which conservative activists say pose a risk to women. “Men can gain access to a single-sex facilities where women have an expectation of privacy and safety,” she said. These facilities, she said, can be exploited by sexual predators. But recent academic studies have found there is no link between bathroom safety and trans-inclusive bathrooms in the wake of a national debate on this issue.

The U.S. negotiating strategy went far beyond the matters of gender and sex, addressing the environment, migration, collective bargaining, and rights to women’s health, job security, and social security. The U.S. delegation repeatedly asked that references to the word “climate” be replaced by the words “extreme weather.”

The U.S. delegation also advocated eliminating a provision indicating that discrimination constrains the ability of migrant women to gain access to public services and protection in their destination country.

The Trump administration has been criticized by some lawmakers and former diplomats for not doing enough to champion women’s issues worldwide.

Administration officials dismiss these criticisms, citing the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump’s new Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative. The effort aims to help boost economic security for 50 million women worldwide by 2025 with initial funding of $50 million through USAID.

The State Department’s ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues post has sat empty for over two years, though that soon may change. On March 8, International Women’s Day, Trump announced his intent to nominate Kelley Eckels Currie, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, to the post.

A group of 31 Democratic House members, led by California Rep. Barbara Lee, sent a letter to Pompeo on March 8 urging him to “address the full spectrum” of women and girl’s human rights at the U.N. women’s conference. “We have been extremely concerned by this Administration’s efforts to use United Nations negotiations spaces over the past years to undermine existing commitments,” they wrote.

A Democratic congressional aide said on Thursday they have not yet heard back from the State Department.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer