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Six Years Later, No Action on Helms

Today the White House is holding the first “United State of Women Summit“,  focused on celebrating what the US has achieved on gender equality and what more there is to do. One item not on the agenda is the Helms Amendment, a decades-old amendment that prevents any US foreign aid from going to any organization that performs abortions, even those helping women who have been raped in war.

For the past six years, governments and international bodies around the world have recognized that this US policy must be changed to be in compliance with international law. Despite this advocacy and repeated calls from NGO’s, heads of state and the UN, the Obama Administration has remained silent on this issue.

Timeline of GJC August 12th Campaign, named for the Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions:

April 2010: GJC builds support from governments, civil society, and within the UN System for a shadow report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council for the first Universal Periodic Review of the US, focusing on how the US’s anti-abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid violates the Geneva Conventions and International Humanitarian Law (IHL). This shadow report was included in a summary compiled by the OHCHR for the Human Rights Council.

November 2010: Norway cites GJC and becomes the first country to recommend the US’s removal of its anti-abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid. GJC advocated to the US that they accept Norway’s recommendation and that Obama creates an executive order removing the anti-abortion ban.

January 2011: GJC drafts an executive order on the need to remove anti-abortion prohibitions in order to comply with the Geneva Conventions, namely, Article 3.

February 2011: GJC begins a letter writing project representing over 3,500 groups globally to write letters to President Obama in support of an executive order addressing anti-abortion humanitarian aid prohibitions.

March 2011: The New York Bar Association, representing over 22,000 lawyers, wrote the first advocacy letter to President Obama asking him to lift anti-abortion aid prohibitions. Following the New York Bar Association, numerous human rights and legal organizations, such as Amnesty International, the World Organization Against Torture, FIDH, the Paris Bar Association, the Norwegian Bar Association, wrote additional letters.

August 12, 2011: GJC’s August 12th Campaign officially begins.

September 2011: The New York Times Editorial Board publishes the first of four editorials in support of the August 12th Campaign.

March 2012: The European Parliament adopts a resolution on equality between women and men, calling for access to abortion services for those raped in armed conflict. The resolution urges EU humanitarian aid to separate itself from US humanitarian aid in order to provide abortion services.

March 2012: The Vice-Presidents of the European Parliament, Alexander Alvaro and Edward McMillan-Scott, write to President Obama urging the US to lift its anti-abortion restrictions.

August 2012: The Socialist International Women’s Congress, led by the Labor party women from Norway, adopt a resolution acknowledging rape as a weapon of war and calling for international aid organizations to provide abortions to women who have been raped in conflict.

January 2013: The UK cites GJC’s advocacy when announcing a historic change to its abortion policy: acknowledging that women and girls raped in armed conflict have absolute legal rights to abortions as mandated by the Geneva Conventions. Lord Anthony Lester of the UK describes the routine denial of abortions to women and girls raped in war as “barbaric.”

March 2013: For the first time in history, the UN Secretary-General recommends that aid to girls and women raped in armed conflict must include abortion services for an unwanted pregnancy resulting from rape.

March 2013: Members of the European Parliament send a letter to President Obama, requesting that the President lift abortion restrictions placed on US aid to war rape victims, as it violates the Geneva Conventions.

April 2013: Professor Louise Doswald-Beck, leading expert on international humanitarian law and former head of the ICRC legal division, called on President Obama to end US abortion restrictions in a letter to him in support of the August 12th Campaign.

April 2013: The Netherlands affirms that abortion can be a necessary medical procedure under international human rights law, which therefore must be provided regardless of national law.

June 2013: The European Parliament adopts a second resolution urging humanitarian aid to be independent from US restrictions to ensure access to safe abortions.

June 2013: The UN Security Council unanimously passes Resolution 2106, which calls for UN bodies and donor countries to provide non-discriminatory health services, including sexual and reproductive health.

August 2013: The UN, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland, deliver a joint statement in support of safe abortion access for girls and women victim of war rape under international law and urge the international community to end impunity for sexual crimes in war.

September 2013: For the first time, the UN Secretary-General links the provision of abortion services to rights under international humanitarian law in his annual report on women.

October 2013: The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2122 supporting abortion services for girls and women raped in armed conflict for the first time. Despite avoiding using the term “abortion,” its language makes clear that Member States and the UN must ensure that all options, including abortion, are given to women impregnated by war rape.

April 25, 2014: Gérard Araud, the Ambassador of France to the United Nations, took a strong stance for the rights of women and girls raped in war to have access to safe abortion services during a Security Council Debate.

June 2014: The UN Secretary-General publishes a Guidance Note on “Reparations for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence,” stating that reparations programs can include safe abortion services and mandated that legislation is needed to provide women and girls impregnated by war rape with a choice of safe and legal abortions.

June 2014: The UK becomes the first country to recognize and implement policy stating that the Geneva Conventions mandates that medical care should be provided to women raped in war, and that abortions must be included in such care regardless of anti-abortion national law.

August 12, 2014: Marking the 65th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, the GJC sends an open letter to President Obama reiterating that executive action should be taken to lift abortion restrictions on war rape victims.

September 23, 2014: The UN Secretary-General in his 2014 Report on women, peace, and security made clear that Security Council 2122 mandates that war rape survivors must be provided with access to safe abortions “in a gender responsive and non-discriminatory manner and in accordance with international humanitarian law.” The specific language of this report was included due to GJC’s recommendations to UN Women.

January 30, 2015: Abortion was referenced as part of the right to non-discriminatory treatment under international humanitarian law in an open debate on the protection of civilians in the Security Council.

June 2015: The European Parliament adopts a resolution calling for access to abortion for women and girls victim of war rape. The language of the resolution references the Helms Amendment, the United States’ decades-old policy barring US funds going towards humanitarian aid groups that offers abortion services.

July 2015: An international coalition of human rights, legal, medical, and religious groups sign a letter to President Obama urging him to issue an executive order lifting the ban and affirming the rights of female war rape victims to comprehensive medical care, including abortion, under the Geneva Conventions.

August 2015:  81 House Democrats write a letter to Obama urging him to tell agencies that the Helms Amendment permits abortion services in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is endangered. The GJC writes a letter urging the Congress to reassess the limitations of the Helms amendment and to ensure abortion access to impregnated victims of war rape, even where local sovereign law does not permit it, in accordance with common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

September 2015: In its response to France’s recommendation at the Universal Periodic Review of the US by the UN Human Rights Council, the US indicated that they support “addressing the needs of women who have been victims of sexual violence in conflict situations,” opening the door for possible executive action on the Helms Amendment.

February 2016: The European Union adopts its 2016 Budget with the first ever anti-Helms Amendment requiring all humanitarian entities funded by the EU to provide assistance in accordance with IHL without discrimination. Additionally, the budget maintains that EU funds “not be subject to restrictions imposed by other partner donors.”

June 2016: The White House has still taken no action on this issue.