At the UN, Progress Amid Peril for Women and Girls

As the body where the global community’s commitment to the human rights is normally affirmed, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly is often a hopeful, and even idealistic space. However, this year, the aggressive posture of the US undermined the negotiation raising serious doubts about the ongoing health of multilateralism at the UN. Not surprisingly, these new developments were especially evident in negotiations on women’s rights, and especially their sexual and reproductive rights.

The Third Committee, which includes all 193 UN Member States, focuses on agreements regarding  human rights and humanitarian affairs, ended its 2017 session in November following weeks of intense and, at times, contentious negotiations. The GA adopted more than 60 resolutions from the Third Committee on issues ranging from counter-terrorism to girls’ rights to combating racism.

New commitments to the human rights of women and girls

Despite the new dynamics, countries did make new commitments to women’s and girls’ human rights. For the first time ever, Member States negotiated specific commitments on fulfilling the human rights of women and girls with disabilities, building on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the important work of the Special Rapporteur devoted to documenting and advocating on this issue. In this resolution, countries pledged to:

  • Protect the reproductive rights of women and girls with disabilities by ending forced and coercive practices, such as forced sterilization and forced abortion;
  • Promote the right of women and girls with disabilities to have control over their own sexuality and make decisions free of coercion, discrimination and violence;
  • Provide them with comprehensive sexuality education in accessible formats; and
  • Promote the participation and leadership of women and girls with disabilities through support for their organizations and networks.

Even long-standing resolutions on girls’ human rights and on rural women and girls broke new ground this year. For example, in the biennial resolution on the girl child, Member States committed to changing cultural taboos about menstruation that stigmatize girls and women and impede their education. Meanwhile, the resolution on rural women and girls contains commitments on child marriage and femicide for the first time in its nearly 30-year history. This seemingly simple decision resonates around the world because every year, some 15 million girls around the world are married, while thousands of women are murdered for being women.

Threats to the international human rights system

These advances took place against a backdrop of increased divisiveness and disengagement that challenges decades of consensus and rocks the foundation of the international human rights system.

The United States led the charge. Its disdain for diplomatic norms opened the door for other countries to prioritize conservative ideology and challenge the norms they disliked. In the final weeks of negotiations, it became obvious that the US intended to call for votes to undo commitments to address climate change or make trade fairer, even when it had previously supported them. In negotiations on women and development and children’s rights, the US adopted an extreme position of wanting to denounce only “unlawful” domestic violence. Perhaps most shockingly, the US initially refused to engage in negotiations on the biennial resolution on combating the glorification of Nazism, and then brought in over 20 amendments at the last moment, in an attempt to undermine the resolution.

The US’s concern about this resolution and its potential impact on freedom of speech had been expressed by previous US Administrations. However, the Trump Administration’s brazen disregard for diplomatic norms allowed countries that have little regard for human rights to disrupt the Third Committee process.

In the final days of the Third Committee, for example, St. Lucia, and then Egypt on behalf of certain African Group countries, challenged previous carefully balanced agreements on comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). In resolutions on youth programs, girls, women and girls with disabilities, and the rights of children, these countries sought to limit the rights of children to information and education as allowed by their parents and legal guardians. Parents undoubtedly have an important role to play in their children’s education. Nonetheless, the experience of women’s rights advocates shows us that when it comes to sexuality, health, and gender equality, parents and families can be sources of misinformation, control, and abuse.

Ultimately, three out of four of the attempts to weaken existing commitments ensuring access to CSE passed, with just over 40 countries acting out of group solidarity rather than national policy positions, best practices or commitments to past agreements.

Previously this type of behavior—bringing last-minute changes to established agreements—would not take place. The norms respecting prior agreements and the negotiation process itself would have prevented any country from breaking consensus so late in the process. However, the US’s new extreme positions on women’s rights and sexual and reproductive rights and their constant breaking of diplomatic norms enables anti-rights countries, such as Egypt, to attack the substance and the system simultaneously. A frightening augur of what may come for women’s and girls’ human rights.

Photo: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

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