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.
At the World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg last September, it was, as they say, déjà vu all over again. The United States, again in the dugout with the Holy See and a number of Islamic countries, deadlocked negotiations until the eleventh hour, opposing a litany of items, including language that would characterize female genital mutilation, forced child marriage and honor killings as human rights violations. “In the end, at 1 in the morning, they agreed to language that was almost identical to what they’d been fighting the whole time,” says June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization. “We got what we wanted. But the United States succeeded in stalling the conference and in alienating a lot of countries.”
Then came the real weapon of mass destruction, as far as women’s rights are concerned: On November 1, Bush announced that the United States was considering withdrawing its support from the landmark agreement reached by 179 countries at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. For the global women’s movement, the ICPD is considered a watershed event–the first time an official connection was made between population control and empowering women with information and contraception. With the Fifth Asian and Pacific Population Conference in Bangkok looming in December–a regional meeting for delegates to review the advances made in implementing the ICPD, not to revisit its basic principles–the United States was threatening to oppose the document unless all references to “reproductive health services” and “reproductive rights” were deleted.
But this time the Administration miscalculated. “They really overplayed their hand,” says Françoise Girard. At an especially revealing moment during the December 11-17 showdown in Bangkok, US adviser Elaine Jones, an international relations officer in the State Department, took the microphone to express her country’s–our country’s–insistence that natural family-planning methods be emphasized in the conference document, offering her own experience with the Billings method of birth control (which involves checking the viscosity of one’s own cervical mucus): “I’ve used the Billings method for ten years,” Jones announced, “and it works.” As titters spread across the room, one of the first of many responses came from, of all places, Iran. “Well, I’m an Ob-Gyn,” said the Iranian delegate. “I have to tell you that natural family-planning methods have a very high failure rate. And by the way, it says so in all the textbooks that come from United States.”
Less touchy-feely were the threats reportedly made by the United States to individual countries, specifically to the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Nepal, to withhold their piece of the USAID pie if they didn’t vote along with the US delegation. “They were trying to push some governments around pretty hard,” said one UN official on condition of anonymity.
“This is the fringe who’ve taken over US policy on sexual and reproductive health,” says Girard. “Some people asked me, ‘Do you think they’re doing this because they want to save our souls?'” One first-time attendee from the United States said, “If they didn’t have so much power I’d feel sorry for them.”
In the end, however, the US delegation lost everything. When they demanded a roll-call vote on two sections of the ICPD agreement (dealing with reproductive rights and adolescent health) which they found objectionable, the votes came in at 31 to 1 and 32 to 1, with two countries abstaining–notably, Nepal and Sri Lanka. “They thought calling a vote would intimidate the Asians,” says Girard, “when all it did was put on the record that the United States was completely isolated.” Another observer remarked that the Americans “played themselves out of the game.”
Ultimately, the Americans backed down on their threats to renounce the whole agreement, but they stunned other delegations with their “general reservation” to the document, a schizophrenic two-page addendum expressing disappointment that “the promotion of women’s full enjoyment of all human rights is not emphasized more often,” while also declaring, “Because the United States supports innocent life from conception to natural death, the United States does not support, promote, or endorse abortions, abortion-related services or the use of abortifacients.” (Girard points out that if life begins at conception, the garden-variety Pill would be illegal.) The United States also opposed the term “unsafe abortion,” a position explained by Jeanne Head during a fifteen-minute tirade at the closing ceremony: Abortion is never safe, because someone–the fetus–always dies. Thus the US delegation stated in its reservation, “The illegality of abortion cannot be construed as making it unsafe.”
Says Girard, “If there was any doubt that Bush wants to overturn Roe v. Wade, it is clear now.”
Sally Ethelston, vice president of Communications for Population Action International (PAI), remembers Cairo. “I’ll never forget the faces of country delegates the afternoon they had finished their hardest negotiations. People emerged beaming because they knew they had forged something that would take the discussion so much further. And the United States played a major role in that process. What we see now is the United States playing the role of the bully.”
“It’s like Bush is sacrificing the women of the world to pay his political dues,” says Terri Bartlett, also of PAI.
Regardless of whether Bush’s machinations are payback to the religious right or born of a core belief that the UN will bring about the fall of man, activists in the global women’s movement are not taking any more chances. Though many were expecting a 5th World Conference on Women to take place in Helsinki in 2005 (especially the Finns), the present consensus is that a ten-year follow-up to the 1995 conference in Beijing would be far too much of a risk. “Beijing is an incredible document,” says Françoise Girard. “You look at it and really say, ‘Wow.'” Still, women’s activists are quick to insist that Bush isn’t the only factor. “I wouldn’t give him all the credit,” says Zonny Woods. Conferences are a huge drain on time and resources, taking the best and brightest away from their work implementing the agreement. “If you think about it, we’ve been either having a major UN conference or preparing one for the past twelve years.”
Indeed, the 1990s were not just about globalization of capital: There was the Rio conference in 1992, then a series of negotiations on climate change, forests and biodiversity. There were conferences on habitat, population and development, women, social development, human rights; then each of those had five-year reviews; then there were the conferences on racism, aging and HIV/AIDS; then the Special Session on Children.
“We don’t need another conference in 2005,” says Charlotte Bunch. “We need to keep working on implementing the Beijing platform. It hasn’t been realized. Perhaps in 2010, or 2008, it will be a better political moment.”
On the other hand, notes Jennifer Butler, the destructive role of the Bush Administration deserves wide attention. “If we don’t tell people what’s really going on, how can we mobilize them?” The UN shapes global norms, she argues, and if the superpower breaks away, it gives every other country license to back away from its commitments. “Since Beijing, you can’t speak of any major world issue without applying some sort of gender lens,” she says. Health ministries have implemented new programs, budgets have been allocated, national policy has been revised. But if Bush is allowed to continue his attack, “we will see a rollback, a slow erosion of the world culture that has been redefined to say it’s not OK to violate women’s rights.”
And it’s not only feminists who are fearful. There’s plenty of buzz within the UN about how these conferences need to be made more, let’s say, childproof. “We have got to figure out a way to avoid this again, because this is not productive at all. Because AIDS won’t wait. Unwanted pregnancies won’t wait,” says a UN official.
Says Butler, “Maybe it’s time to sound the alarm bells.”