US co-host virtual signing ceremony of the Geneva Consensus Declaration in latest pushback on women’s rights

by Anna Mattedi, Universal Rights Group Gender equality, SRHR, Thematic human rights issues

On Thursday 22 October 2020, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar, co-hosted a virtual signing ceremony of the Geneva Consensus Declaration on ‘Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family’. During the ceremony, a coalition of 30 States, repeatedly denied women’s right to an abortion in the guise of protecting national sovereignty and promoting the dignity of human life and the right to life of the unborn. 

The group, mostly consisting of authoritarian or illiberal governments, including Brazil, Hungary, Uganda, Egypt, Belarus, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Bahrein and Libya, united behind the slogan “Together we are strong” to call on States to promote women’s rights, without access to abortion. As reported by the Guardian, most of the signatories are among the 20 worst countries to be a woman according to the Women, Peace and Security Index. The Trump Administration started a largely unsuccessful bid to earn support for the Geneva Consensus among UN member States more than a year and a half ago, when the initiative was launched with the support of 25 like-minded States, but it has made little progress since. 

In this context, it is essential to clarify that the non-consensual Geneva Consensus Declaration has limited effect in international law, and it does not have a direct impact on US domestic policies. Instead, it is a political declaration that represents a joint effort to re-orientate the conversation, domestically and within UN fora, around sexual and reproductive health and rights in a more conservative direction that emphasises traditional family values. The event is the latest in a series of attempts to, in the words of High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, ‘pushback on women’s equality’, stressing the need for a ‘pushback to the pushback’. Indeed, in recent years, there has been a relitigation of previously agreed upon language on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. In the Human Rights Council, for example, resolutions addressing such societal issues have been subjected to increasing numbers of hostile amendments. The latest trend in the Council, however, has seen these amendments defeated, with States opposed to progressive language such as ‘women’s right to bodily autonomy’ joining consensus while disassociating themselves from such terms. 

This was the sense of Alex Azar’s comments as he introduced the declaration as a historic achievement in developing a new path to improve women and children’s lives across the globe and in defending national sovereignty. According to him, there is a need to counter a growing trend, in which some rich nations and UN agencies wrongly assume abortion as a universal human right. This assumption translates into pressuring countries to institute progressive abortion laws or in risking to lose global funding or standing in the international community. For this reason, he stated that “no longer can UN agencies reinterpret and misinterpret agreed-upon language without accountability. Member States set the policy for the UN to pursue, not the other way around. Without apology, we affirm that governments have the sovereign right to make their own laws to protect innocent life and write their regulations on abortion.” 

Mike Pompeo, introduced as the key leader of these efforts and speaking on behalf of the participating countries, took the floor by saying that “under President Trump’s leadership, the US has defended the dignity of human life everywhere and always. He has done it like no other president in history. We’ve mounted an unprecedented defence of the unborn abroad’. He then went on to quote Trump’s 2019 speech to the General Assembly, in which he asserted: ‘We, in America, believe that every child  – born and unborn – is a sacred gift of God.’ Given this firm pro-life stance on the part of the Government, Mr. Pompeo stressed that during our administration, U.S. taxpayer dollars will never go to foreign nongovernmental organizations that perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning. 

Indeed, in 2017, President Trump reactivated the Mexico City Policy, which prevents organisations outside national borders from receiving funds if they are involved in actions related to promoting disruption of pregnancy. Various pro-choice trade associations, including If / When / How, underline how reintroducing such a restrictive legislation leads to the uncontrolled increase in clandestine abortions. Domestically, US policy has followed suit, with at least eight States approving measures to limit pregnancy loss in 2019. In most cases these States have introduced so-called “heartbeat” laws, which could prohibit abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy. All bans have been temporarily blocked by the courts but the likely soon-to-be confirmed conservative majority of the Supreme Court has raised fears amongst advocates that these could soon be passed into law. 

In comparison, the overwhelming majority of the countries of the European Union – notwithstanding Hungary and Poland who are signatories of the Declaration – continue to distance themselves from such declarations by re-affirming the EU pro-choice policy. In most European countries, abortion is permitted at the request of the pregnant woman without restrictions other than those imposed by the stage of pregnancy and, at times, by requisite parental authorisation in the case of minors. However, running counter to this trend, Poland has recently developed a stricter abortion policy, further limiting the number of cases in which abortion is allowed. In fact, abortion will be forbidden even in case of malformation of the foetus, and pregnancy interruptions will be possible only in case of rape, incest or risk to the woman’s life. 

Since women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights do not have a univocal definition under international law, countries have their own interpretations of the issue. However, international human rights law does set minimal standards. As recently recalled by the Human Rights Committee, in its General Comment no. 36 on article 6 of the ICCPR on the right to life: ‘although States parties may adopt measures designed to regulate voluntary terminations of pregnancy, such measures must not result in violation of the right to life of a pregnant woman or girl, or her other rights under the Covenant. Thus, restrictions on the ability of women or girls to seek abortion must not, inter alia, jeopardize their lives, subject them to physical or mental pain or suffering which violates article 7, discriminate against them or arbitrarily interfere with their privacy.’ This builds on its 2005 decision in K.L v. Peru where it found Ireland’s abortion ban to be a violation of the prohibition against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (article 7 ICCPR); a violation of the right to privacy (article 17 ICCPR); and a violation of the right to equal protection of the law without discrimination (article 26 ICCPR).

Other committees, including the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, have also drawn attention to the effect that denial of abortion can have on maternal mortality and morbidity and on the enjoyment of various rights of women and girls. Besides, it has long been demonstrated that restricting access to abortions does not stop abortions; it just makes them less safe. People-centred approaches and the autonomy of every woman should therefore be considered essential to ensure successful health outcomes. As active participants in the health system, the perspectives of women in local communities are a key influence on how services and interventions are delivered to respond to their priorities, concerns and rights.

It is interesting to note that just as with its other recent US attacks on universal rights, such as the report of the Commission on Inalienable Rights, this initiative was driven not by career civil servants but by political appointees of the Trump administration. It is an unfortunate reality that the United States of America is bringing this conservative political agenda to the international arena, where it may outlive the Government. 

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