The US removed ‘sexual health’ language from a UN anti-rape resolution, the latest example of America’s shifting global priorities

The United Nations Security Council meets at U.N. headquarters, April 23, 2019 in New York City. Member nations of the Security Council are considering a resolution concerning sexual violence in conflict, which would classify rape as a weapon of war.

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The United Nations Security Council meets at U.N. headquarters, April 23, 2019 in New York City. Member nations of the Security Council are considering a resolution concerning sexual violence in conflict, which would classify rape as a weapon of war.
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Drew Angerer/Getty Images

  • The United Nations Security Council removed language on sexual and reproductive health from a resolution about rape as a weapon of war, after the United States threatened to veto it.
  • While the final resolution still signals progress in combating sexual violence, many in the Security Council expressed their alarm over the removal of such language.
  • The US’ efforts to diminish language related to sexual health, which some in the administration link to abortion, align with broad-sweeping efforts by the administration to thwart words and actions related to sexual and reproductive health and gender rights.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

The United States successfully used the threat of a veto in the United Nations Security Council in April to stymie language related to sexual and reproductive health in a resolution specifically targeting rape as a weapon of war. The resolution signals the US’s general shift on using terms like ‘sexual and reproductive health’ and ‘gender,’ as an emboldened White House continues to clamp down on related language and programs across the board.

As INSIDER previously reported, the US was reportedly threatening to veto the resolution for mentioning sexual and reproductive health, which some in the Trump administration link to abortions. After that language was removed, the resolution was passed in a 13-0 vote, with Russia and China abstaining.

According to a UN-based source who was present during the Security Council negotiations and spoke to INSIDER on the condition of anonymity, when faced with the possibility of the US veto, those in the council had three possible options: they could keep the language, but have the US veto the resolution; take out the contested language and degrade it to pass a watered-down resolution, with that weak language then becoming the new standard going forward; or, take out the explicit references to sexual and reproductive health services, but make clear that strong language on sexual and reproductive health from past UN resolutions still stands.

They opted for that third option, according to the source, with the resolution’s preamble reaffirming previously agreed language on the issue. For instance, a resolution passed in 2013 describes “the need for access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health care, including regarding pregnancies resulting from rape, without discrimination,” while a 2009 resolution includes language on “access to basic services, in particular health services, including sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.”

The UN source described the lengths that the US was willing to go to veto a resolution aimed at providing sexual and reproductive health services to rape survivors as ideological and unprecedented. The veto would have been a blow to the resolution, which was also supported by Nobel Peace Laureates Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege, and human rights attorney Amal Clooney.

In addition to dropping the sexual health references, the final version also removed language about a monitoring body to report on sexual violence in conflict zones, according to CNN and The Guardian, which had both reviewed the draft resolution.

Lebanese-British human-rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, makes a speech during the United Nations Security Council meeting on sexual violence at United Nations Headquarters on April 23, 2019 in New York, United States.

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Lebanese-British human-rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, makes a speech during the United Nations Security Council meeting on sexual violence at United Nations Headquarters on April 23, 2019 in New York, United States.
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Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Many in the Security Council expressed their alarm over the removal of sexual and reproductive health language: UK minister Tariq Ahmad said he “regrets” that language for survivors of sexual violence, including the “acute need for those services to include comprehensive reproductive and sexual healthcare, including safe termination of pregnancies” was not supported by the council, while French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre described the council’s inability to acknowledge that women and girls suffer sexual violence in conflict as “intolerable and incomprehensible.”

“It is unthinkable and bizarre to see the US lining up with Russia and China to block efforts to strengthen the UN’s ability to effectively address rape in conflict and to provide sexual violence survivors with sexual and reproductive health services,” Jessica Neuwirth, a former special advisor on sexual violence to the UN High Commission for Human Rights, said in a statement.

The resolution still signals progress in combating sexual violence, according to UN sources who spoke to INSIDER. Pramila Patten, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, emphasized how the final resolution affirms a survivor-centered approach to dealing with sexual violence and, for the first time, also acknowledges the situation of mothers who bear children from rape.

According to various experts, however, the US’s concrete efforts to diminish language related to sexual and reproductive health remains a cause of alarm. And, it isn’t just centered in the Security Council: they describe a broad-sweeping effort by the US to diminish language and actions centered on sexual and reproductive health and gender rights – with global repercussions.

“I think those who oppose women’s sexual reproductive health and rights are getting a lot savvier, and they have a lot more access than they did before. So, they’re able to influence a lot of these global processes that have impact on the ground,” Gayatri Patel, Director of Gender Advocacy at the humanitarian organization CARE, told INSIDER. “And so we are seeing it everywhere and anywhere and it’s become a full on battle; it’s not just little issues here and there, it’s really kind of a war.”

Thwarted efforts to limit sexual and reproductive health

There have been other attempts by the US to try and scale back UN resolutions on sexual health, in addition to last month’s Security Council negotiations.

At the UN Commission on the Status of Women negotiations held in March, for example, the US delegation unsuccessfully tried to eliminate language related to reproductive rights and gender from a landmark document drafted in 1995 and focused on gender equality. The US delegation included Valerie Huber, a major advocate of abstinence-only programming who formerly led a national abstinence education group.

And, on the final day of discussions for the UN Commission on Population and Development held last May, Kathryn Talento, a senior official in the White House Domestic Policy Council with anti-abortion views, instructed the UN mission to oppose any references to sexual and reproductive health, according to Foreign Policy. That conference ultimately ended in disagreement over the final document.

“Some in the administration apparently see the word ‘gender’ as implying support for transgender rights and for other kinds of rights and policies that they oppose,” Janet Fleischman, a senior associate with the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told INSIDER, adding: “I think it’s clear that the US, which has been the global leader in advancing so many areas related to women’s health and rights and empowerment, is no longer exercising that leadership and, to the contrary, is turning back the advances that have been made in recent years.”

A community health worker providing women in her community counseling and post natal care at her home. The women are also given counseling about reproductive health issues and family planning.

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A community health worker providing women in her community counseling and post natal care at her home. The women are also given counseling about reproductive health issues and family planning.
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Jonathan Torgovnik for The Hewlett Foundation/Reportage by Getty Images

The US has taken other actions to limit sexual and reproductive health. Most notably, President Trump reinstated, and expanded, the Mexico City Policy, first introduced under President Ronald Reagan to restrict US aid from going to international groups that perform or discuss abortions. Unlike other Republican presidents, Trump applied those restrictions not just to US family planning funds, but to all global health assistance dollars, which totals around $10 billion.

The administration also completely cut funding to the United Nations Population Fund, which supports global reproductive and maternal health programs. Prior to 2017, the US was one of the agency’s biggest donors, providing around $70 million each year.

Fleischman told INSIDER that it is critical that women and girls, particularly those who were subjected to sexual violence, have access to information and comprehensive health services so they can make their own decisions about their health. “Women and girls around the world who are participating in a range of global health programs are at risk of losing those services because of the polarized debates around abortion,” she said.

Patel added that the US’s shifting stance is about much more than simply being anti-abortion; it’s about the rise of conservative ideology that is now manifesting itself in all facets of the government and that can have significant consequences.

“For us to now be dealing with a tangible pullback of some of the concepts and language, it has implications for US foreign policy through diplomacy, it has implications for programs, it has implications for public diplomacy that the US government does in communities that are affected,” she told INSIDER. “It has a chilling effect on organizations who do a lot of this work and see a lot of value in this work, and it’s just a really pernicious cycle that will hold women back from achieving their rights and being happy and healthy people.”