Christian Soldiers on the March
In Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye's bestselling Left Behind series (think of it as a Star Wars Trilogy for the religious right--it has sold 35 million copies), one-quarter of the world's population has mysteriously disappeared, and the most God-fearing among those "left behind" form the Tribulation Force, a troupe of evangelicals who believe the End of Days is nigh and the Secretary General of the United Nations is the Antichrist.
There's no evidence that George W. Bush owns the leather-bound collector's edition, but he certainly would sympathize with the T-Force's distaste for multilateralism. To every UN meeting that has occurred since he assumed the presidency, Bush has sent pit-bull delegations seemingly bent on ravaging both the global spirit as well as hard-fought consensus built throughout the past decade on social justice and human rights, especially women's rights.
To represent this country to the world, Bush has replaced career diplomats with career ideologues: John Klink, a former chief negotiator for the Vatican, has been on nearly every US delegation to a UN meeting, joined by Jeanne Head of the National Right to Life Committee, Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America--the group founded by Tim LaHaye's wife, Beverly--and others from the "pro-family" lobby.
The Administration's international policies on sexual and reproductive health and rights, meanwhile, have been a Christian fundamentalist's dream. Within hours of the inaugural ball Bush was at his desk reviving the "global gag rule," which essentially corners humanitarian organizations worldwide into hushing up about abortion. He then stripped the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) of 12.5 percent of its budget, withheld $3 million from the World Health Organization's Human Reproduction Program and is now earmarking $33 million--almost exactly the amount he took away from the UNFPA--to augment domestic abstinence-until-marriage "sex-ed." He dispatched his emissaries to throw colossal tantrums at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children, the World Summit on Sustainable Development and, most recently, the Fifth Asian and Pacific Population Conference, bringing all three negotiations to a near-halt over objections to no-brainer public health concepts like "consistent condom use" for HIV prevention and "safe abortion" where it is legal.
Charlotte Bunch, director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership, sees this attack as part of a larger assault on internationalism in general. "Their overall goal has always been to weaken the United Nations, in particular its capacity to be a constraining force on the flow of global capital and militarism," she says. "Attacking reproductive rights is convenient because it also delivers for the right wing." And it's low risk. "The Bush Administration has been able to get away with what would be appalling to most moderate Republicans," explains Jennifer Butler, the Presbyterian Church's UN representative, who tracks the Christian right's activities at the UN. Very few people--including members of the press--pay attention to UN meetings, she observes. "Bush can throw a bone to the Christian right and score some points, and he can do that without a cost."
Bush's first major foray into UN politics was in March 2001, when--perhaps still a little high from the fund-slashing frenzy--he sent the US delegation swaggering into the UN Commission on Human Rights like "cowboys," according to Bunch. The Geneva meeting is six weeks long, and "one of the most highly orchestrated; second only to the General Assembly in attention to detail of diplomacy," she says. The delegation's behavior was so indecorous that at the end of the session, the Europeans declined to re-elect the United States to the commission for the first time ever (they were invited back after 9/11).
Two months later, Bush sent professional right-to-lifer Jeanne Head to represent our country's global health interests at the annual World Health Assembly, quietly laying off the usual crew of reps from groups like the American Medical Association and American Public Health Association.
The Administration finally attracted widespread outrage when at the UN Special Session on Children, held in New York in May 2002, the Tommy Thompson-led US delegation made a grimly ironic alliance with Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Iraq in the midst of Bush's "with us or against us" declaration of war on Islamic fundamentalists. Together, joined by the Vatican, these culture warriors fought to purge the world of comprehensive sex education for adolescents, restrict STD-prevention and contraceptive information to heterosexual married couples, and redefine "reproductive health services" to exclude legal abortion.
Most of the 3,000 activists and diplomats in attendance came to New York intending to negotiate broader definitions and commit more services to young people, who are becoming infected with HIV at the rate of five per minute, according to the UN. Instead, they had to fight tooth and nail just to hang on to language already on the books. "The United States really hijacked the whole session," says Françoise Girard of the International Women's Health Coalition. Example: During discussion of a section referring to children in postconflict situations, Washington harped on the word "services" because it might imply emergency contraception or abortion. "Nobody could understand why the United States would oppose language that was basically saying, 'When there are children who have been victims of violence and trauma in war, we need to provide them with services,'" says Zonny Woods of Action Canada for Population and Development. "But because among those victims of violence there might be girls who were victims of rape, who might be offered emergency contraception or an abortion, they were willing to throw away the whole concept of 'services.' It was just insane."
The US delegation succeeded in watering down the agreement, removing a paragraph on adolescent sexuality education and also some references to reproductive health services. And it blocked consensus on opposing capital punishment for adolescents, a detail that got lost in the media focus on the US obsession with abortion and abstinence.