In March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced two significant escalations in the Trump administration’s attacks on sexual and reproductive rights globally: a new expansion to the already-devastating Global Gag Rule and the unprecedented use of the Siljander Amendment to attack funding for a multilateral organization, the Organization of American States.
While the latest expansion to the Global Gag Rule has been well publicized, the use of the Siljander Amendment—an obscure legislative provision that prohibits the use of US funds for abortion-related lobbying—to cut more than $200,000 in US funding to the Organization of American States (OAS) has received less attention. Nonetheless, the use of this provision sets a dangerous precedent by attempting to force global human rights bodies to bow to US political pressure.
The decision to cut funding for OAS comes after a group of nine anti-abortion US senators wrote to Secretary Pompeo, expressing concerns about statements on abortion by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM)—the OAS organs responsible for upholding human rights and women’s rights in the region. The senators accused IACHR and CIM of lobbying for the legalization of abortion, in what they called a “direct contravention of US law.”
The Siljander Amendment is incredibly problematic. While the amendment prohibits the use of US funds to lobby for, or against, abortion, it fails to include a definition of lobbying and contains no enforcement mechanism or standards for determining what constitutes a violation. Its language is dangerously vague, and deliberately leaves lobbying up to interpretation, making it a weapon in the hands of ultraconservative policymakers. The administration’s decision to use the Siljander Amendment to cut funding to OAS is a misapplication of the policy and further politicizes international human rights bodies.
IACHR and CIM are autonomous OAS entities that do critical work to protect and promote human rights in the hemisphere. The IACHR is comprised of independent experts that interpret regional human rights instruments and hold governments accountable to their human rights commitments, while CIM ensures the recognition of women’s rights in the region by supporting governments’ compliance with international and regional human rights standards. They recognize that the right to abortion is necessary to uphold women’s human rights broadly, and make recommendations to bring states into line with regional obligations and help promote human rights.
In their letter to Secretary Pompeo, the nine US senators specifically cited concerns about IACHR’s public stance on the decriminalization of abortion in Chile, El Salvador, and Argentina. In Chile, IACHR issued a press release in support of a Chilean law that would allow women to access abortion services in cases of rape, where the mother’s life is in danger, or in cases of fetal abnormalities incompatible with life outside the womb. IACHR noted at the time, that the law is “an essential step to respect and protect the human rights of women, girls, and female adolescents in Chile”—a statement wholly in line with its purview to uphold regional human rights standards. Likewise, in March 2018, IACHR called on El Salvador to end the total criminalization of abortion, noting that the policy led to the wrongful imprisonment of women who had suffered miscarriages and other obstetric emergencies.
In addition to attacking statements made by IACHR, the US senators claimed that CIM pressured governments to legalize abortion by appealing to their responsibilities under the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women. For instance, CIM has recommended that governments develop protocols on how women can access abortion services if they desire to terminate a pregnancy caused by rape. Despite the senators’ objections, the rights of all people to be able to realize the highest attainable standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health, and exercise agency over their sexual and reproductive lives have been included in international human rights treaties for decades. It is well within CIM’s mandate to make statements in support of laws and protocols that can uphold women’s fundamental right to bodily autonomy.
IACHR and CIM are critical spaces for human rights experts and members of civil society to hold their governments accountable. In May 2018, IACHR held a public hearing on the bill to decriminalize abortion in Argentina. The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) supported the participation of our grantee partner Centro de Estudios del Estado y Sociedad (CEDES) in the hearing, which allowed CEDES and its partners to testify on the damaging effects of Argentina’s current, highly restrictive abortion law.
These public hearings, statements, and outreach activities are necessary aspects of IACHR’s and CIM’s work to uphold human rights in the region, and do not constitute lobbying. It is critical that these—and all expert human rights spaces—maintain their independence. By invoking the Siljander Amendment against the OAS, the Trump administration is misusing a legislative provision in an attempt to exert influence over human rights bodies, specifically to pressure the OAS into falling in line with the conservative, regressive ideologies espoused by the White House.
Taking action against OAS sets an extremely dangerous precedent and threatens the ability of the multilateral bodies to protect, promote, and uphold human rights in an objective manner. If the application of the Siljander Amendment is successful in this circumstance, there’s no reason to believe that the Trump administration won’t apply the provision to other human rights bodies.
Photo: State Department