The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday removed references to sexual and reproductive health from a resolution on rape as a weapon of war after the U.S. threatened to veto it—a move that one human rights advocate called a “step backwards.”
The resolution—which was an update to a 2013 document—had the support of the U.N.’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, two Nobel Prize winners, and human rights lawyer Amal Clooney.
But the U.S. reportedly objected to a passage urging partners to provide survivors with “non-discriminatory and comprehensive health services, including sexual and reproductive health.” According to The Guardian, the administration viewed the language as code for abortion.
To save the overall measure, Germany removed the mention, to the dismay of activists.
“It’s disappointing that Germany gave into the veto threats,” said Stephanie Johanssen of the Women’s Refugee Commission, who called the resolution a “step backwards.”
She added, “Forcing women and girls who become pregnant as a result of rape [to carry the pregnancy] is despicable.”
Diplomats from the U.K., Belgium and South Africa all spoke out against removing the reference during the Security Council debate. Afterwards, both Nobel Peace Prize laureates who spoke at the meeting also condemned the decision to water down the resolution.
“There is simply no excuse for continuing to fail those who have already been victimized—as well as those who continue to be at risk of—devastating levels of sexual violence in conflict,” Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad said in a joint statement.
The resolution was originally proposed by Germany in order to address gaps in the 2013 document. Earlier in the negotiations, Russia and China successfully pushed for the removal of language establishing a U.N. monitoring body on sexual violence in conflict zones.
On Tuesday, the State Department sent a cable to U.S. diplomats saying it would continue to oppose the document until references to sexual and reproductive health were removed. The cable said that the U.S. “cannot accept unamended explicit, or implicit, references to ‘sexual and reproductive health’” because “we do not support or promote abortion” in global women’s health, according to Foreign Policy.
But Amanda Klasing, the co-director of the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch, said sexual and reproductive health isn’t limited to abortion. Life-saving services for survivors can include emergency contraception, STD prevention, and safe maternity care.
“By distancing itself from that aspect of what survivors need, [the U.S.] is really distancing itself from standing with survivors,” Klasing said.
The U.S. and 12 other countries voted in favor of the pared-back resolution on Tuesday. Russia and China abstained.
The dispute was not the first time the U.S. wanted to remove references to reproductive health from U.N. documents. At this year’s commission on the status of women, the American delegation—led by abstinence-only education advocate Valerie Huber—reportedly tried and failed to get references to reproductive rights cut from from the landmark Beijing platform on gender equality.
The administration has been more successful in reducing access to reproductive health care through domestic means—such as expanding the so-called Mexico City rule, which prohibits U.S. funding from going to international organizations that discuss abortion. The State Department has also eliminated analysis of women’s reproductive health and rights from its annual reports on human rights practices two years in a row.
Taken together, Klasing said, these actions have “a chilling effect on women’s human rights defenders around the world.”
“Women’s human rights defenders are facing threats, facing repression, even facing violence, [and] we are leaving these women alone and undefended,” she said. “It’s really giving their governments additional fodder to say that what they’re doing isn’t human rights work.”