US Torpedoes APAC Women’s Rights at UN Review in Bangkok

American objections to women’s reproductive rights apparently extend all 14,130 km from Washington to Bangkok, where last week US officials sought to torpedo an obscure United Nations review to determine regional priorities related to women’s rights on abortion.

After an all-night debate, the negotiated text at the 25-year-old Asia Pacific review of the Beijing Platform for Action moved forward with only the US voting no against 37 ayes.

“The United States believes in legal protections for the unborn,” said US representative Eric Groff in a prepared statement at the adoption of the report. “As President Trump has stated, Americans will never tire of defending innocent life. [...] There is no international right to abortion. We do not accept references to sexual reproductive health [...] and reproductive rights, safe termination of pregnancy, or other language that suggests or explicitly states access to legal abortion is necessarily included in the more general terms health services or health care services.”

“It is so troubling that a woman’s right to make decisions over her own body, and the fulfillment of sexual and reproductive health and rights, are still being called into question,” said says Alexandra Johns, Asia Pacific Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (APA).

The results of the “Asia Pacific Ministerial Declaration on Advancing Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: Beijing @25” determine regional policy direction for the next five years and graduate to the global level to the Commission on the Status of Women in March 2020. Long into the night, member states attempted to achieve consensus, but the US refused to agree to terms.

By forcing a vote without consensus, the US weakens the force of the document, and has done so in no small part because the document deals with “sexual and reproductive Health and reproductive rights”, claiming it is used to promote abortion, Johns said.

Other member states including Australia, Pakistan, and China all supported consensus on the motion, with the Philippines, a nation that suffers greatly from a lack of comprehensive sexual education, making a particularly impassioned plea, according to participants.

“It is disappointing to see weak results from the Asia Pacific Beijing @25 review and the undermining of sexual and reproductive rights in the region, especially when it is so clear now that that sexual and reproductive health and rights are integral not only to the fulfillment of women’s human rights, but to achieving sustainable development,“ Johns said.

The Fourth World Conference on Women ended in 1995 with the Beijing Platform for Action. After a quarter of a century, the document’s language was all-too progressive for the planet’s current remaining superpower.

“Women’s rights must not be traded away in political bargaining for the compromises. [Governments] must realize that this is the moment to take stock of the current realities for women and girls and work together with women’s rights activists, feminists and defenders to ensure that our future is brighter,” said Nalini Singh, a representative of the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement.

The hard line on anything pertaining to reproductive health has been well noted in previous United Nations spats with the administration in Washington of US President Donald Trump. Earlier this year the United States threatened to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution on sexual violence because it mentioned women’s reproductive health services, according to Human Rights Watch.

Similarly, in March of this year, the UN Commission on Women saw the US attempt to have the word “gender” removed from negotiated documents and leaked emails from Mari Stull, then a Trump administration political appointee to the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs uncovered state department attempts to slash funding for initiatives providing reproductive health services to impoverished women.

Most famously, the US - not just the Trump administration - has been destructive to progressive causes in the form of the “global gag rule,” a Reagan-era policy that forbids international groups that receive US funding from providing abortions or educating people about the procedure. Trump reinstated the policy.

Pertaining to the Beijing Platform for Action, the US had the option to make reservations on language that they do not agree with in the text but still agree to the document and thus form a consensus. Other states - some egregious human rights violators - took exception to human rights language but still agreed to the consensus. The US purpose was to weaken both the bill and the multilateral decision making of the body, which the Trump administration has attacked throughout its tenure.

The geography of the situation is somewhat troubling to some member states, as the US as a member state of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group is considered by some to be dubious. As noted, particularly in Patrick Winn’s recent Hello, Shadowlands, lack of access to family planning can be disastrous in places like the Philippines, which finds itself hemmed in by both poverty and the Vatican. As far afield as Nepal the global gag rule has had unfortunate effects on family planning for low income areas in Asia.

“While most governments fought for a strong outcome for the region, it is so disappointing to see this latest move to undermine sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender equality in Asia Pacific,” Johns said.