U.S. Quietly Waters Down Another Communique on Gender Equality

This time it’s a G-7 joint statement ahead of a meeting of national leaders in August.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
G7 leaders pose for a photo during the G7 summit in Sicily on May 26, 2017.
G7 leaders pose for a photo during the G7 summit in Sicily on May 26, 2017. Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration pushed the G-7 nations to water down a declaration on gender equality last week as part of its broad effort to stamp out references to sexual and reproductive health in international institutions, according to people involved in the process and drafts reviewed by Foreign Policy.

It is only the latest iteration of the administration’s hard-line stance against any language that might suggest approval of abortion in the official documents of international institutions that include the United States. The heavy-handed diplomatic strategy has put Washington at odds with European allies and drawn criticism from women’s advocacy groups for undercutting wider efforts to improve global gender equality.

The Group of 7, representing seven of the most advanced economies in the world, issued a communique on women’s equality this month that was pared down in some sections from initial drafts circulated in advance among diplomats and experts.

U.S. officials raised red lines on what should be axed from the communique, including a seemingly innocuous section praising the G-7’s Gender Equality Advisory Council, an independent group of experts and diplomats working on gender equality, and language on reproductive health.

The measures follow a pattern that has played out at the United Nations, where the Trump administration last month went as far as threatening to veto a U.N. measure to prevent sexual violence over language on sexual and reproductive health (though last-minute diplomatic wrangling averted the veto).

U.S. officials under President Donald Trump have argued that the phrase “sexual and reproductive health” refers specifically to abortion. Experts and advocacy groups disagree and point to the phrase being used consistently in international institutions and treaties for decades.

The G-7—which includes the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan—has traditionally avoided contentious debates on gender-related health issues as part of the group’s broader discussions on political and economic priorities. Recent G-7 summits, normally carefully choreographed and diplomatic affairs, became anything but under Trump. At the 2018 G-7 summit in Canada, Trump refused to sign the joint statement and derided Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “Very dishonest & weak” in scathing tweets after the summit over disagreements on trade.

The dispute over the latest communique on gender equality played out in diplomatic back channels and at lower levels during a meeting of G-7 gender equality ministers in France on May 9 and 10.

In a draft of the G-7 communique reviewed by Foreign Policy, a U.S. government official highlighted a section praising the Gender Equality Advisory Council “in supporting the G-7 to consider the needs and perspectives of women and girls in its work.” A U.S. official added a note in the margins of the document on this language: “Redline: This Council pushed policies that are counter to U.S. foreign policy, particularly in regards to abortion. This sentence as written would be difficult for us to sign onto.” Despite the pushback, that section made it into the final draft.

The Gender Equality Advisory Council includes diplomats, civil society leaders, and other high-profile figures, including U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Nobel Prize winner Denis Mukwege, and the actress Emma Watson.

Another section of the draft included language on how gender stereotypes affect women and how improved access to health “is critical to women’s empowerment.” The U.S. official highlighted one section that read: “… including their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on all matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health.” On the margins, the U.S. official wrote: “Redline: Abortion is not a human right—delete phrase.”

The phrase was deleted from the final draft.

The U.S. efforts to alter the G-7 document could have important practical impacts, according to Beirne Roose-Snyder, the director of public policy at the Center for Health and Gender Equity, a Washington-based advocacy group. She said internationally agreed-upon language on sexual and reproductive health “helps countries and NGOs establish policies and programs that advance gender equality” and decide how to tackle issues such as sexual violence, child marriage, and HIV prevention. By blocking the language, the United States is derailing those efforts, she argued.

The push put the United States at odds with Germany, Canada, and France at the G-7 meeting, according to one person involved in the negotiations. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some delegates were “not surprised, but annoyed” at the U.S. negotiating positions. The person added: “Other countries that normally stand up for gender equality and health said, ‘Okay, this time we will take this language out.’ That’s really disappointing.”

Both France and Canada have adopted what they call feminist foreign policies, and France has prioritized addressing gender inequality as part of its rotating term as president of the G-7.

As the Trump administration has pushed back against sexual and reproductive health, it has rolled out initiatives to increase women’s economic empowerment globally. In February, Trump’s daughter and White House advisor Ivanka Trump rolled out a $50 million fund on economic development for women.

Roose-Snyder said the Trump administration “has attempted to separate economic empowerment from reproductive rights and justice, but there is no way to champion gender equality without bodily autonomy,” including access to contraceptives and abortion services.

The State Department referred Foreign Policy to the National Security Council for comment on the story. The National Security Council did not respond to request for comment.

The G-7 gender equality ministers meeting focused on three priorities, according to the French government’s website: combating gender-based violence; promoting women’s economic empowerment, particularly in Africa; and improving girls’ access to education.

The final communique “marks the clear aim of making gender equality a major global cause,” Marlène Schiappa, France’s minister for gender equality, said during the meeting. “No country in the world has achieved gender equality between men and women, and no one can achieve it alone,” she said.

The next G-7 summit, which is expected to include the leaders of all seven countries, will be held in Biarritz, France, in August. G-7 member diplomats have organized meetings on a raft of issues, including gender equality, the environment, labor, science, and finance, in the months leading up to the summit to inform the leaders’ agenda.

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