In the Run-Up to the UN’s Global Summit on Women’s Rights, the US Retreats

by Laura E. Kirkpatrick. This article originally appeared on PassBlue.

More than 10,000 people will soon converge on the United Nations for its annual Commission on the Status of Women conference, providing a unique forum to gauge progress and to press for the rights of women and marginalized populations around the world.

Founded at a forward-thinking moment in 1946, the commission’s yearly meetings offer a chance for attendees to think both globally and locally while networking, exchanging ideas and rallying for women’s rights — still a contentious issue 73 years later.

The conference, which runs March 11–22, is taking place against a backdrop of gender-related and political turmoil in the United States, the most powerful member of the UN by far. Despite a record number of women in US Congress (131) this year, the US is still reeling from revelations spurred by the #MeToo movement.

As women’s rights advocates are fighting for social, economic and political traction, President Trump continues to say and tweet harsh, demeaning remarks about women while his administration strives to undo such basic rights as women’s access to birth control.

Each year the commission, better known as CSW, addresses specific issues and barriers in the lives of women. This year it will focus on “social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality,” such as how to alleviate poverty, increase access to needs like transportation and persuade data crunchers to include statistics on women.

The conference is “the single largest gathering dedicated to women’s rights,” in the words of Rachel Jacobson, a program officer at the International Women’s Health Coalition, an advocacy group in Washington and New York.

Experts who attend and follow the CSW closely are predicting that the US will continue, as it has in the last two years, to undermine common international goals, like those around health care, reproductive rights and climate change and to disrupt the commission’s agenda.

To get a sense of American politicians’ and officials’ attitudes toward CSW’s mission, PassBlue contacted at least two-dozen local, state and federal leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Marco Rubio (R-FL). New members of Congress were also contacted, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). None of the people responded.

Melissa DeRosa, the chairperson of New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s Council on Women and Girls (and his secretary), and New York State Assemblyperson Crystal Peoples-Stokes, another Democrat, were also contacted but didn’t respond.

New York State famously served as host of the first women’s rights convention in the country, in Seneca Falls in 1848.

Women’s rights are currently supported in the US by the national action plan on women, peace and security as well as by local commissions and associations. For example, the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women is part of the Erie County Executives office. Massachusetts has the Commission on the Status of Women. Cities throughout California have CSW associations.

In the US Senate, women’s rights fall under a Foreign Relations Committee panel that sounds like a catchall: the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women’s Issues. The sole woman on the Foreign Relations committee, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), is not a ranking member. She also did not respond to PassBlue’s request for comment.

The Senate has other committees with overlapping jurisdiction on women’s issues, as does the House of Representatives.

The UN conference also assesses progress of the LGBTIQ community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer or questioning) and other marginalized populations.

Jessica Stern, the executive director of OutRight Action International, a UN-accredited organization that supports LGBTIQ rights, argues that issues of sexuality and gender have never been more important. Homosexuality, she noted, is criminalized in 70 countries. Yet CSW has never used the language of “sexual orientation” in documents, she said at a media briefing, unlike the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, she said.

Attacks on transgender people are anticipated at this year’s conference “more than any time in past,” Stern said, because of backlash against transgender people demanding their rights. She predicts that the US delegation will also ramp up attacks on sexual and reproductive health rights, as it has in the last two UN conferences under the Trump administration.

In 2017, the State Department abruptly removed all references to reproductive rights in its annual human-rights report. (A bill introduced in Congress on March 7 would require the State Department to include reproductive rights in its country human-rights report.)

That year, the US delegation to the CSW included representatives from two conservative organizations, C-FAM, a Roman Catholic entity, and the Heritage Foundation, an openly anti-UN group. The delegates held up ratification of the final outcome document, or formal declaration of the conference, over language around family planning and reproductive justice.

One of the 2018 US delegates, Bethany Kozma, a senior adviser in the office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment for the US Agency for International Development (Usaid), drew attention for what many people considered regressive views on transgender people, especially children.

Kozma also called the US a “pro-life” country during the UN conference. Other US delegates rejected the notion of climate change and promoted abstinence as a tool for family planning.

A UN official told BuzzFeed that the US stances last year were “further to the right than those expressed by most other countries present, including Russia and the representative for the Arab states.”

When the Pew Research Center surveyed adults in the US in 2018 on abortion, 58 percent of those responding said it should be legal. Climate change is considered a global threat in most countries, according to the research group, and among Americans ranks it as a top threat to national security, along with nonstate terrorist threats and cyberthreats.

Negotiations over this year’s CSW final outcome document — which helps countries formulate their own gender policies — are underway, though just days before the conference begins, the US has yet to publicly name its delegation.

The acting US ambassador to the UN, Jonathan Cohen, told PassBlue weeks ago that he would lead it, but he didn’t say who would be attending or discuss the focus. The US mission press office said earlier this week that it had nothing to share at the moment but “look forward to engaging at the 63rd Session.” In a follow-up message, the office said it would release information on March 8.

[Update on March 8: Kelley Currie, formerly the deputy ambassador to the US mission to the UN, was nominated by President Trump to be the ambassador at large for global women’s issues in the State Department and will lead the US delegation at the CSW. Update on March 12: Currie will no longer be serving as the head of the delegation, rather Ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet, US representative to the United Nations for UN Management and Reform will.]

Last year, the US delegation was led by Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the UN, but she never showed up for the CSW events. (She resigned as ambassador on Dec. 31, 2018.) Last year, the State Department had provided a shred more information in the lead-up to the conference than this year.

Several factors could explain why there is so little awareness among US politicians to this year’s CSW — and this may not be a new phenomenon. The US government recently ended a five-week partial shutdown, which reduced staff numbers at federal agencies. Key leadership positions in the State Department and the US mission to the UN remain vacant — including the top posts of UN ambassador and deputy ambassador.

Under Trump, no one has been leading the State Department’s Office for Global Women’s Issues, which was created under President Obama and directed by Melanne Verveer, the first US ambassador at large for global women’s issues.

Asked about the UN conference, Verveer said recently in an email: “The meeting provides an important opportunity for governments to speak to their commitments and raise important issues to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality. Governments should take seriously not only this New York meeting, but also the implementation of gender equality policies and initiatives at home.

“Unfortunately, CSW is used by some as a way to push back on progress and on UN agreements already achieved.”

Houry Geudelekian, the gender program coordinator for the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, NY, a coalition of nonprofits that encourages members to advocate locally, sees mayors as a countervailing force, partly because in their cities they help implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or Cedaw, an international treaty that the US government has actually not ratified.

In the words of one state-level organizer who asked not to be named, “We can be dispirited in terms of federal discourse, or we take action on local level and be proud of it.”

In contrast to the US silence about the UN conference, Canada is going into the conference at full throttle. It has an openly feminist foreign policy, thanks to the minister of foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland, and despite the turmoil now wracking the Trudeau government. Maryam Monsef, minister for women and gender equality, will lead a large delegation to the event, having worked closely with the Canadian Department of Global Affairs to fund the participation of representatives from 12 civic groups.

Like the US, Canada has participated in CSW since its start, decades ago.

“No government can do this work alone,” wrote Valérie Haché, a spokesperson for the Department of Women and Gender Equity, “and civil society organizations play a crucial role in advancing gender equality. Funding leaders from civil society organizations to join Canada demonstrates a united front on an international stage and a willingness to create partnerships towards a common goal.”

This article was updated on March 8, 2019.

Correction: The Erie County Commission on the Status of Women is run out of the county executive’s office. This article was updated to reflect that.

Originally published at on March 7, 2019. It was updated on March 8, 11 & 12 as more news emerged.

Independent Coverage the United Nations. A project of The New School’s Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, supported by the Carnegie Corporation.

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