Why a U.S. Exit from the UNHRC is Counterproductive

by Marie Wilken

On Tuesday, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for the first time. The UNHRC adopts resolutions and orders investigations into governments’ violations of human rights. Though the United States began a new three-year term in January, there are rumors it is assessing the possibility of pulling out of the council. During her appearance and in an op-ed in The Washington Post, Haley asserted that the council gives too much negative attention to Israel and that many of its 47 members are serious human rights violators. A politically-motivated exit from the council, however, is a counterproductive strategy, not a solution to the United States’ objections.

The UNHRC is undeniably flawed. As with most political bodies, politics often sway decisions, and some voices are given more weight than others. Also as with other political bodies, loopholes distort well-intentioned rules of operation. For example, countries are elected to the UNHRC through a regional voting bloc system, but because backroom negotiations often result in a noncompetitive number of candidate countries, many human rights-violating countries are elected to the council. In her op-ed, Haley does suggest worthwhile changes – one of which is addressing this issue by making the voting for membership more competitive and inviting true consideration of countries’ human rights records.

If the United States wishes to see these changes, it should use its seat to continue to advocate for them. Disengaging from the council entirely would be counterproductive to its goals. A January Council on Foreign Relations report found that U.S. involvement in the UNHRC has “improved the body’s performance in several ways.” These even include the Trump administration’s objections to the UNHRC; the report found that U.S. involvement in the council can combat anti-Israel bias and encourage accountability for countries that violate human rights. It also found that the United States could create further positive change through “catalytic leadership” – not by withdrawing. Many fear that a U.S. withdrawal could allow for even more human rights violations. A U.S. departure would not end the discourse on Israel. If anything, it could encourage it.

Furthermore, consideration of withdrawing from the UNHRC follows a trend of the United States retreating from international cooperation such as the Paris climate accord and President Donald Trump’s criticism of the U.N. and NATO. This goes further back than Trump’s administration, though: the United States has a tendency to not sign onto international agreements or resolutions that have global consensus. (For example, only seven of the 194 U.N. countries have not ratified the U.N. Convention to Reduce All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the United States is one of them.)

This creates contradictions in U.S. policies regarding human rights and international intervention and cooperation. International cooperation toward ideals as morally unambiguous as women’s rights or human rights is criticized as too much of an international intervention and a threat to sovereignty for the United States. However, the United States has no problem intervening in other countries using more extreme means such as military intervention. And what has the United States often used to justify this intervention? Human rights. This hypocrisy is heightened by the Trump administration’s disregard for human rights in other arenas, such as its immigration policies, friendliness with Russia, and the ban on Muslims.

If the United States’ goal truly is to strengthen the UNHRC, its strategy should not be to delegitimize it. A senator unhappy with Congress’s political agenda, mode of operation, or composition would not resign in protest. Why? Because it’s better to be an active force working for change than to quit. Institutions like the UNHRC, though flawed, have merit. Change from within is more powerful than a denunciation and resignation. Exiting the council would place politics above the mission of human rights. To improve the council and signal U.S. devotion to human rights, the United States should heighten, not end, its involvement in the UNHRC.

Photo credit: United States Mission Geneva Flickr (CC-BY-ND-2.0)

Women’s Rights and Right Wing Politics

In recent years, right-wing populism has been spreading across Europe and the United States. The US, France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands have seen a surge in public support for right-wing parties. Ranging from fascist groups like Golden Dawn in Greece to parties attempting to soften their image to gain more followers like the Front National in France, rightist ideologies have squeezed their way into mainstream politics. What does this represent for women’s rights and reproductive rights? A challenge.

Typically, right-wing parties are politically conservative, support traditional women’s roles and family structures. Most do not speak out for gay rights or women’s rights and do not favor a progressive feminist agenda, which includes equal pay and supporting family planning organizations. Furthermore, right-wing leaders have also spoken out against access to abortion and reproductive rights. Sound familiar?

When it comes to human rights and women’s rights, the US, Canada and many European countries are leading the conversation and promoting activism. With the Trump Administration and prominent right-wing groups gaining more power and influence in Europe, this conversation may become severely limited. Many family planning organizations and health clinics rely on federal funding to remain open and provide health services. Organizations that also provide women with abortions are often targeted and threatened with the withdrawal of funding. Such actions and restrictions do not result in a decreased number of abortions, but result in harming women who need abortions and can only get them outside of a doctor’s office, often in a non-sterile environment with limited access to proper medical tools.

Two of the leading right-wing parties in Europe, both of which are led by women, are the Front National and Alternative for Germany. Both leaders, Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry, during their campaigns and interviews have spoken out against access to abortion and gay rights. They have also promoted the return to traditional family values, where a nuclear family is the ideal. The Front National in France does not support abortion or progressive women’s rights. Alternative for Germany promotes similar ideas, as well as a strong anti-immigrant sentiment.  Similar ideas have found support in President Trump’s administration and across the United States. What is it exactly that these political party and leaders support? While Trump’s administration and President Trump himself claim to be great supporters of women and say they are supporters of paid maternity leave and maternity benefits, people argue that his claims are not reflected in the laws he passes and the bills he signs. Furthermore, Trump introduced the expanded Global Gag Rule that will cut funding to foreign family planning organizations that rely on US money. This includes many organizations in developing countries, where such organizations are the sole source of birth control and safe abortions.

Although social activism is bright and promising, with many joining women’s rights and human rights movements across the globe, it is important to make sure that these political shifts and the resulting sentiments do not become normalized in our societies. Whether it is through more organized protest, the work of human and women’s rights organizations or liberals running for office, unity and perseverance are more important than ever. 

Donald Trump picture courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Marine Le Pen picture courtesy of Antoine Bayet

Frauke Petry picture courtesy of Harald Bischoff

"That's Illegal" Episode 1: The Laws of War

Listen to GJC's legal experts explain the purpose of international laws of war and how they apply to the recent U.S. bombing and actions in Syria and Afghanistan. Find us on iTunes and Soundcloud.

Global Justice Center at the Women's Strike

Global Justice Center at the Planned Parenthood Protest

President Trump Expands Gag Rule Far Beyond Reagan or Bush

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE— January 24 2017

[NEW YORK] –  Yesterday, Donald Trump re-instated the Global Gag Rule, as every Republican president since Ronald Reagan has done since taking office. Unlike his predecessors, Trump far expanded the reach of the Gag Rule.

GJC Statement on the Anniversary of Roe vs. Wade

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE— January 22 2017

[NEW YORK] –  Today marks the 44th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade, two days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, and one day after millions of women all over the world marched in support of women’s rights. Any moment now Mr. Trump is expected to reinstate the Global Gag Rule, which bars US foreign aid from going to any foreign organization that performs or provides information about abortions as a method of family planning.

Global Justice Center at the NYC Women's March

GJC Statement on the Inauguration of Donald Trump

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE— January 20 2016

[NEW YORK] – Today, as Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, it is important to remember that no one—and no country—is above the law. Over the course of his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump has expressed his attitude on a range of issues, from abortion to immigration to torture, that are antithetical to the notion of human rights. Many of his proposed policies, if enacted, would put him or the US in violation of international law.

Growing International Consensus that US Must Lift Abortion Ban

by Liz Olson

Denying women raped in war zones access to abortions is a violation of their fundamental human rights ­­-- yet the US continues to do so in the face of growing international criticism. Under the Geneva Conventions, women raped in war zones fall under the category of the “wounded and sick,” meaning that they are entitled to all necessary medical care to treat their condition. Failing to provide abortion access to these women not only violates their rights under International Humanitarian Law, it subjects them to further trauma, as they are again stripped of control over their bodies.  These women, forced to carry the children of their rapists, face additional pain, suffering, and stigma.

The Helms Amendment, enacted in 1973, prohibits US humanitarian assistance funds from being used to pay for abortions “as a method of family planning.” Since then, the law has been incorrectly interpreted as a blanket ban on abortion services, even in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment.  By denying women and girls raped in war zones access to this necessary medical procedure, the US is violating the “principle of adverse distinction” under the Geneva Conventions, which stipulates that IHL cannot be implemented in ways that are less favorable for women than for men. Men and women wounded in war must be provided with all necessary forms of medical care. For women raped in was zones, this includes access to abortion services.

Access to abortion service has been increasingly recognized by the international community as a right under humanitarian law, and the US ban has come under growing criticism. The United Nations, United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and the European Union have all come out in strong support of providing safe abortion access to women raped in conflict zones, and it is time for the US to follow suit.

Remembering ISIS' Crimes of Genocide Against Yazidis on the Anniversary of the Sinjar Massacre

by Jessica Zaccagnino

With the rise of non-state terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State, the strategic face of war has changed. This shift has subsequently altered the experience of civilians in armed conflict. In this changing landscape, women and girls face distinct horrors in comparison to men.

Groups such as ISIS have been perpetuating genocide against minorities in controlled territories, notably against the Yazidis. These violent extremists target women and men differently when committing crimes of genocide. In addition to systematic murder, ISIS subjects women to sexual slavery, forced marriages, rape, forced impregnation, and other gender-specific crimes of genocide. Despite the distinct tactics that are being used to commit genocide, the gender reality of genocide is often overlooked when enforcing the Genocide Convention. Global Justice Center’s Genocide Project fights against the gender-gap in responding to crimes of genocide perpetrated by extremist groups, like ISIS, and seeks to ensure that the laws of war work for, and not against, women.

On the morning of August 3rd, 2014, ISIS forces entered the Sinjar region in Northern Iraq, only months after declaring itself a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. The region has a high population of Yazidi people, an ethno-religious Kurdish minority that has been heavily targeted by the ISIS insurgency. In Sinjar alone, 5,000 men were killed, thousands of women were systematically raped and sold into sexual slavery, and over 150,000 Yazidis were displaced. When ISIS took Sinjar, men and boys over the age of ten were separated from women and children, and most, as evidence of mass graves suggests, were killed. In the process of fleeing, an estimated 50,000 Yazidis were trapped in the Sinjar Mountains, with ISIS forces surrounding them. Although a majority of those trapped were able to eventually escape the mountainous region, the Sinjar Massacre left thousands dead, and thousands more enslaved. Yazidi women “have been systemically captured, killed, separated from their families, forcibly transferred and displaced, sold and gifted (and resold and re-gifted), raped, tortured, held in slavery and sexual slavery, forcibly married and forcibly converted.” These women have been targeted by ISIS solely on the basis of their gender and ethnicity, and such acts make clear ISIS’ genocidal intent to destroy the group in whole.

Despite the air drops of food, water, and supplies, the Yazidis trapped in the mountain siege survived in grim conditions—circumstances intended by ISIS to destroy the group. In addition to air drops, President Obama invoked the need to “prevent a potential act of genocide” as a justification for launching air strikes to rescue those trapped in the Sinjar Mountains. Just this year, Secretary of State John Kerry officially declared that ISIS is committing genocide. It is vital for the United States to recognize the unique aspects of genocide that specifically target gender within the persecution of Yazidis when taking action against ISIS. Although the United States has taken a big step in declaring ISIS’ genocide, the United States must move beyond words. In fact, the United States is required by the Genocide Convention to take action against genocide. Yet, as the two-year anniversary of Sinjar approaches on August 3rd, the United States has still not taken any necessary further steps to combat ISIS’ genocidal crimes.