European Parliament Pushes to Separate Aid to War Rape Victims from US Restrictions

European Parliament adopts second resolution urging humanitarian aid to be independent from US restrictions and ensure sexual violence survivors’ access to safe abortion.

The European Parliament adopted a resolution on June 13, 2013, on the post-2015 UN Millennium Development Goals in which it specifically urged that the provision of EU humanitarian aid that contributes to the MDGs should be effectively excluded from the restrictions on humanitarian aid imposed by the USA and other donors on abortion. The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – which range from halving extreme poverty rates to promoting gender equality and promoting women’s empowerment, are agreed to by all countries and leading development institutions. However the implementation of these goals, in particular the reduction of maternal mortality is being jeopardized by the US who, despite unsafe abortion being a lead cause for maternal mortality, does not allow the use of humanitarian aid for abortion services in conflict zones.

The EP Resolution’s refers to the US “no-abortion” prohibition on humanitarian aid (section 31) and states:

31. Urges that the provision of EU humanitarian aid that contributes to the attainment of the MDGs and should effectively be excluded from the restrictions on humanitarian aid imposed by the USA or other donors, in particular by ensuring access to abortion for women and girls who are victims of rape in armed conflicts.

The US “no abortion” prohibition compromises all EU country level and European Commission funding, both for the medical treatment of victims of armed conflict and for ensuring enforcement of humanitarian law. EU countries donate to help victims of armed conflict through various ways, including through the UN, to groups like UNFPA or, to directly to groups working on the ground in conflict area. All these funds are commingled with US funds on the ground and thus compromised.

Click here to view the full resolution. 

Lessons from Beatriz: El Salvador & the Denial of Life-Saving Abortions Worldwide

“I don’t want to die,” Beatriz said.[1]

Beatriz is a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman who was recently denied the right to an abortion during her high-risk and potentially fatal pregnancy. Her court case has captured international attention, bringing to light the staunch anti-abortion policies of El Salvador and in other areas of Latin America, and around the world, even in life-threatening circumstances.

Beatriz suffers from lupus and other medical complications which worsened during her first pregnancy. Her doctors at the National Maternity Hospital claimed that with the progression of the 26-week pregnancy, Beatriz’s risk of hemorrhaging, kidney failure and maternal death would increase exponentially. Additionally, the fetus had a birth defect called anencephaly, in which a baby develops without parts of its brain and faces very little chance of survival. As a result, Beatriz sought an abortion for the sake of her health and the well-being of her young child at home that she must care for. The Government of El Salvador denied her an abortion despite her, her doctors’, and the international community’s entreaties. On May 29, El Salvador’s Supreme Court upheld the Government’s decision to deny her an abortion, based upon its reading of the country’s abortion ban, which was an “absolute impediment to authorize the practice of abortion.” The court claimed that “the rights of the mother cannot be privileged over those” of the fetus.[2]

After the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) promptly responded and demanded that the government “immediately adopt the necessary measures to protect the life, personal integrity and health” of Beatriz.[3] In addition, the IACHR held that “the Salvadoran State is obligated to ‘guarantee that the treating medical team has the … protection to fully exercise its function according to the decisions that, based on medical science, said medical team should adopt.’”[4] Such protection of medical personnel—granting them the freedom to make decisions based solely upon medical ethics rather than political considerations—guarantees better outcomes for female patients facing dangerous pregnancies, as it permits medical personnel to prioritize the patient’s welfare above all else. This mandate is also found under international humanitarian law, to protect doctors who provide life-saving abortions in humanitarian settings from prosecution under local criminal abortion laws.

On May 30, El Salvador’s Ministry of Health overrode the Supreme Court’s decision. María Isabel Rodríguez, the Salvadoran Minister of Health, announced that Beatriz would be allowed to end her pregnancy “at the first sign of danger” through an induced birth.[3] As a result, on June 3, Beatriz underwent a Cesarean section. Her daughter was born without a brain, and died five hours later.[5]While the decision of the Ministry of Health should be applauded for having saved the life of one woman, it does not do the necessary work of challenging El Salvador’s strict ban on abortion. The law must be changed so that other Salvadoran girls and women with dangerous pregnancies are not forced into the same suffering, uncertainty, and risk of death as Beatriz faced.

While many countries in Latin America, like Uruguay, Mexico City, Colombia, Brazil and Argentina have relaxed their highly conservative abortion laws, other nations including Chile and Nicaragua continue to maintain misogynistic and repressive restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.[6]Beatriz is one example of thousands of women across Latin America – and the world – who are denied access to safe abortions, even in cases of high risk pregnancies or pregnancies resulting from rape.

Shockingly, the United States, too, perpetuates this inhuman policy, by denying access to safe abortions for girls and women raped in war. This violates the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law (IHL).

Here’s how this US policy violates the Geneva Conventions: The 1973 Helms Amendment places a blanket abortion ban on all US humanitarian aid, even for girls and women who are brutally raped as a weapon of war, and those who face potentially fatal health risks.

The Global Justice Center sent a petition, and has organized a letter-writing campaign, to President Obama and continues to take action to ensure girls and women are guaranteed the nondiscriminatory medical care that is their absolute right under IHL. Bans on abortion maintain a society in which women and girls possess rights to health and life that are less than those of men and boys. It is clear that, as one of Beatriz’s lawyers, Victor Hugo Mata, said: “Justice here does not respect the rights of women.”[2] Action must be taken to change these oppressive policies in El Salvador, the United States and around the world.

[1]Zabludovsky, Karla. “A Salvadoran at Risk Tests Abortion Law.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 May 2013. Web. 04 June 2013. available athttp://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/29/world/americas/pregnant-sick-and-pressing-salvadoran-abortion-law.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&ref=americas

[2]Palumbo, Gene and Karla Zabludovsky. “Salvadoran Court Denies Abortion to Ailing Woman.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 May 2013. Web. 04 June 2013. available at  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/30/world/americas/salvadoran-court-denies-abortion-to-ailing-woman.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

[3]Zabludovsky, Karla. “WORLD BRIEFING | THE AMERICAS; El Salvador: Doctors Can Induce Birth to Save Woman, Official Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 May 2013. Web. 04 June 2013. available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/31/world/americas/el-salvador-doctors-can-induce-birth-to-save-woman-official-says.html?src=recg

[4]Center for Justice and International Law, “Inter-American Court of Human Rights orders the Salvadoran State to interrupt the pregnancy of ‘Beatriz,’” May 30, 2013, available athttp://cejil.org/en/comunicados/inter-american-court-human-rights-orders-salvadoran-state-perform-a-therapeutic-abortion.

[5]Al Jazeera, “El Salvador abortion row baby dies,”June 4, 2013,http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2013/06/20136494818222545.html.

[6]Groll, Elias. “El Salvador’s ‘Beatriz’ and the Politics of Abortion in Latin America.”Web log post.Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, 31 May 2013. Web. 2 June 2013. available athttp://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/05/31/el_salvador_beatriz_politics_abortion_latin_america

Legal Victory in Kenya Can Serve as Model to Fight Impunity in Burma

Girls and women in Kenya recently made history when the High Court of Kenya delivered a favorable outcome to a constitutional challenge in which 160 girls between the ages of 3 and 17 sued the Kenyan government for failing to protect them from being raped.

The girls brought the action under Section 22(1) of the Kenyan constitution, which provides that “Every person has the right to institute court proceedings claiming that a right or fundamental freedom in the Bill of Rights has been denied, violated or infringed, or is threatened.” The Kenyan criminal code contains laws that protect against rape, however they are not enforced and as a result rape has been on the rise. The petitioners accused the police of “neglect, omission, refusal and/or failure…to conduct prompt, effective, proper and professional investigations” into sexual violence complaints.

The High Court agreed with the petitioners, saying that the police had “unlawfully, inexcusably and unjustifiably” failed to respond to reports of sexual abuse in Kenya. It said police inaction and lack of enforcement has created a “climate of impunity” that shows perpetrators they can commit crimes of sexual violence and not be punished. The Court found that the petitioners’ fundamental rights and freedoms had been violated, not only under the Kenyan Constitution but also according to international law. The Court found police inaction to violate fundamental rights that are protected by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Court also considered international cases that demonstrate a consensus that states may be held accountable for failing to properly respond to sexual violence because they have a duty “to protect all citizens from violence and ensure their security of person.”

Two days after the victory, several people contacted Fiona Sampson, the Toronto attorney who worked on the case. They wanted to use the case as a model in other countries for fighting impunity in the context of sexual violence, a problem that is hardly limited to Kenya.

For the women in Burma, for example, the problem of impunity in the face of widespread sexual violence is dire. The prevalence of abuse, documented by Burmese women’s groups, UN special rapporteurs, and even the Security Council, is extensive. These violations are not anecdotal incidences of crime. Rather, the Burmese military uses rape as a weapon of war against the civilian population.

Although this problem has been reported at length, the Burmese government refuses to take any action to punish such acts. In fact, the current 2008 Constitution provides complete impunity for sexual violence perpetrated by the military by including an amnesty provision that precludes the prosecution of military perpetrators of crimes. What’s more, current law requires that any amendment to the Constitution be supported by more than 75% of parliament. Because 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, all nonmilitary members plus at least one military member must support any proposed amendment. It is therefore unlikely that the amnesty provision will be overturned any time soon.Because of this, the International Center for Transitional Justice has said that Burma presents “one of the most difficult challenges in the world in relation to making progress toward combating impunity”.

As a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Burma has an affirmative duty to ensure women are protected from sexual violence, which includes not affording immunity to its perpetrators. Like Kenya, Burma is bound under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and should be guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in developing policies and practices that protect Burmese citizens from sexual violence. Burma is violating these international obligations when it relies on its 2008 Constitution to justify inaction.

The international community should look to the recent case in Kenya as a model and call for Burma to put an end to impunity if it wants to establish viable democracy in the country. Given the Burmese military’s reliance on aid, international pressure could be highly effective. While the government continues to fail to act to combat impunity, the international community must demand a change in the constitution so that girls and women in Burma, just as in Kenya, receive the protections their government owes them.

The Gender Gap and Women's Political Power in Myanmar/Burma

The rights of women under international law, including the right to occupy positions of political power, have advanced more in the last 20 years than ever before. True political participation requires a significant number of women in all areas of governance: ceasefire and peace treaty negotiations, constitution drafting committees, political parties, executive branch appointments, and elected positions.

In Burma, the long history of militarization has reinforced and perpetuated the gender gap in power. Women are not admitted into active military service, effectively excluding them (as well as ethnic minorities) from political participation since top offices are reserved for the military. Therefore, they have also been ineligible for the employment, education, business, joint venture and travel opportunities created by military status.

Pursuant to the 2008 Constitution, the Defense Services (Tatmadaw) remain an integral and permanent part of the machinery that governs Burma and is constitutionally guaranteed complete power and autonomy. The continued military dominance guaranteed by the Constitution is the main obstacle for women in Burma hindering them from ever gaining real political power.

This timeline illustrates the absence of women’s voices from formal governing structures throughout Burmese history. It should provide an impetus for this formerly silent majority, the feminist majority, to make their voices heard and to take their turn at governing the country.

Download PDF

Letter to President Obama: United States Restrictions on Abortion Access Violates International Humanitarian Law

Louise Doswald-Beck, the former Head of the International Committee of the Red Cross' Legal Division (ICRC), former Director of the University Centre for International Humanitarian Law (CUDIH) and former Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists wrote to President Obama on how the US abortion prohibition attached to humanitarian aid violates the rights of women and girls raped in armed conflict under IHL, and is a form of torture.

Download PDF

CSW 57: Commission on the Status of Women

This month is International Women’s Month! We are joining several groups tomorrow, March 7, at 12pmET to discuss abortion coverage restrictions and the consequences that it has on women. Follow #hydehurts and #helmshurts on twitter and join us in being a voice for many women around the world who are unable to speak out!

The Commission on the Status of Women is being held at the UN during these next two weeks, and GJC will be in attendance as a consultative member of the NGO working group on women, peace, and security. Janet Benshoof, GJC president, will be speaking on two panels to highlight the importance of ending violence against women in conflict.

The Global Justice Center is working diligently to advocate for gender inequality in conflict and post conflict situations. Our August 12th Campaign is challenging the routine denial of medical rights to war rape victims as a violation of the right to non-discriminatory medical care under the Geneva Conventions. Thousands of girls and women raped in armed conflict are routinely denied their rightful access to safe abortions, and we must put a stop to this. Furthermore, girls and women are raped daily to accomplish military objectives, including genocide. Rape is more effective and cost effective than any other unlawful weapon used in armed conflict today, yet it is routinely overlooked by the international community. GJC’s Rape as a Weapon of War project is working to ensure that states using this method of warfare are held accountable for their actions.

Stephanie Johanssen, legal counsel for European and UN affairs at GJC, has been working tirelessly on behalf of GJC as a member of the working group on women, peace, and security to monitor implementation of Security Council resolutions on the role and rights of women in conflict situations. GJC uses its consultative status with the United Nations to be a leading voice urging UN bodies to fulfill their obligations to act against fundamental law violations. The UN is the epicenter of global efforts to end impunity for perpetrators of war crimes, and gives GJC the ideal access point to strengthen the impact of our legal arguments.

Please support us in making a difference in the lives of thousands of women worldwide!

CSW 57: The Gap between Image and Reality

The 57th session of the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW) is over and the agreed conclusions have been adopted. Some delegations made reservations but did not block the adoption of the final draft. Every year, the CSW session also serves as a forum for UN member states to do a bit of PR for themselves. Words like “committed,” “dedicated,” “acknowledge,” and “affirm” are heard often and most countries have an interest to show the world how they are leaders when it comes to furthering women’s rights. However, all too often, these statements stand in stark contrast with a country’s foreign policy. The United States is one example.

In explaining the US position on the Agreed Conclusions of this year’s CSW, U.S. Deputy Representative to ECOSOC Terri Robl, said in a statement on March 15: “Reproductive rights and the full implementation of these international agreements are essential to the prevention, mitigation and elimination of violence against women and girls. The United States reaffirms our continuing commitment to protect and promote reproductive rights.” If the United States is committed to protect and protect women’s reproductive rights why not lament the Agreed Conclusion’s weak reference concerning the right to safe abortion access which was limited to national laws?

Because reality looks very different:

USAID administrative policy, formally adopted in 2008, contains no exception for abortions for rape or to save the life of the rape victim, and is, at least on paper, more restrictive than federal statutory requirements (including the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, which first placed abortion restrictions on foreign aid in 1973).

As the largest provider of humanitarian aid in the world and by funding most major humanitarian actors, the US is able to dominate the field of humanitarian aid with its no abortion policy and is responsible in large part for the global failure to provide the option of abortion to victims of war rape. Many have joined with the Global Justice Center to challenge this inhumane US policy as a violation of the rights of girls and women to non-discriminatory medical care under the Geneva Conventions.

CSW may be over, but the time is now for the US to live up to its rhetoric.

European Women Lawyers' Association

August 12, 2011

Letter sent to President Obama by the European Women Lawyers' Association as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

Download PDF

Global Justice Center's Letter to President Obama

August 12, 2011

Letter sent to President Obama by the Global Justice Center as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

The letter was also signed by: Alliance for Justice; American Jewish World Service; Association for Women's Rights in Development; Center for Health and Gender Equity; Center for Women's Global Leadership; Center for Women Policy Studies; Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights; Engender, South Africa; Feminist Majority Foundation; Femmes Africa Solidarite; Gender Action; Global Network of Women Peacebuilders; International Federation of Women Lawyers; FIDA, Kenya; FIDA, Nigeria; Legal Momentum; National Organization for Women Foundation; Partners in Health; Physicians for Human Rights; Unione Degli Atei E Degli Agnostici; Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, U.S. Section; and V-Day.

Download PDF

EngenderHealth's Letter to President Obama

August 18, 2011

Letter sent to President Obama by EngenderHealth as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

Download PDF

Network for Africa Letter to President Obama

June 13, 2012

Letter sent to President Obama by Network for Africa as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

Download PDF

UK Queen's Counsel Letter to President Obama

February 1, 2012

Letter sent to President Obama by a group of UK Queen's Counsel as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.

Download PDF

GJC Rises for V-Day's One Billion Rising Campaign to End Gender Violence

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - February 14, 2013

[NEW YORK, NY]– Today, the Global Justice Center rises. We support V-Day and its One Billion Rising campaign to end violence against girls and women. One in three women will be subjected gender-based violence in their lifetime, including sexualized violence. That’s one billion women.

United Kingdom Pledges to Ensure Abortion Access for Women Raped in War

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - January 10, 2013 

[NEW YORK, NY] - The United Kingdom (UK) announced a historic change in their policy on abortions for women raped in armed conflict, a move that should have enormous global impact on health care given women in war zones. UK government spokesperson, Baroness Northover, speaking in the House of Lords on January 9, 2013, acknowledged that girls and women raped in armed conflict have absolute legal rights to comprehensive medical care, including abortions when medically necessary, under common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.