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The New Cold War on Women’s Rights?

22 Jun 2015

The New Cold War on Women’s Rights?
This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

The United Nations is a crucial arena in which to set universal standards on women’s rights. But in recent meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women an increasingly coordinated misogynist backlash has been building unconventional alliances that transcend familiar geopolitical divisions and draw on the resources of religious organizations. States that have in the past been seen as defenders of women’s rights are losing ground in negotiations. There is a growing reluctance to expend political capital in defense of what has been constructed and maligned as a Western social preoccupation. Transnational feminist networks have been deprived of opportunities to revive their networks and effectiveness in the absence of the expected fifth world conference on women this year. Feminist movements in emerging economies now have a crucial role to play in demonstrating that feminism is not limited to the West, and in influencing their national foreign policy establishments to defend women’s rights in multilateral agreements.

Anne Marie Goetz is Clinical Professor at the Center for Global Affairs (CGA), School of Professional Studies, New York University

A growing backlash

Women’s rights debates at the United Nations have always been divisive. Differences between nations on these matters have in the past tended to be patterned on governance characteristics, where secular, socialist or welfarist systems took liberal positions, and countries with a state religion would oppose rights expansions. Significant normative advances were achieved in the immediate post-Cold War era of the early 1990s, with the particular triumph of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action suggesting that countries could overcome these differences in the interests of gender equality.

Emerging now is a different pattern: alliances between former socialist states and theocratic states, Christian evangelists, and an emergent bloc of developing countries for whom opposition to women’s rights has become one means of asserting national identity against what is caricatured as a totalizing Western social change agenda. These unconventional alliances are greatly strengthening a long-standing conservative backlash against transnational feminist victories. The new coalition characterizes its work as a civilizational agenda that holds the preservation of a traditional (implicitly heteronormative) family as central to social stability. By implication, the rights of women, children and LGBTI individuals are subordinated to the project of preserving family stability. Meanwhile, women’s rights groups are finding that some former secular state allies have become reluctant to risk political capital defending a rights agenda that has been condemned as alien and culturally destructive.

These skirmishes are taking place well off the radar of many groups working for social justice and even of feminist organizations. They take place in the backroom negotiations over the ‘agreed conclusions’ of the annual New York meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), and the Commission on Population and Development. Both Commissions were established by ECOSOC in 1946; both were given massive new progressive agendas after the major international conferences of the mid-1990s—the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Strikingly, in both cases there has not been a 20-year follow-on conference this year and last, mainly for fear of erosion of the achievements made two decades ago. But the erosion is happening anyway. Both Commissions have become arenas for increasingly fraught negotiations that, clause by clause, claw back established agreements on women’s rights, often in almost imperceptible ways.

The relatively low visibility of both Commissions for domestic feminist audiences has created an effective arena for this backlash to consolidate. The major rights-positive countries and coalitions have been losing ground in these forums, creating a vacuum in which an emerging group of delegates, working in concert, are gnawing away at vulnerable parts of the women’s rights agenda. What may appear to be minor textual concessions and deletions are in fact a familiar diplomatic tactic of altering precedents and hedging previous agreements so subtly that losses are not immediately noticed. But over time, in the same way that a new habit paves pathways for neurons in the brain, a significant change becomes established practice.

At the CSW, which this year conducted a 20 year review of implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, a political Declaration1 reaffirming the commitments from Beijing was adopted. The three previous Beijing reviews also adopted declarations of reaffirmation—these documents are not intended to advance the agenda substantively in the way that ‘agreed conclusions’ do. Even so, this year was different. Unlike in the past, this Declaration was not negotiated during the meeting itself. It was negotiated in the weeks before by staff of national missions to the UN, prior to the arrival in New York of the national delegations to the CSW, and issued on 9 March, the first day of the CSW. Delegations to the CSW are composed of Ministerial leads (often the gender equality ministers), and a combination of government negotiators and sometimes civil society representatives too. While any CSW resolution would normally be negotiated by mission staff, separating the negotiation process from the CSW meeting deprived the national delegations from visible engagement, made the process much less transparent, and was a sign of just how traumatic negotiations have become.2

The negotiation process meant that feminist organizations were kept at arm’s length and could not perform their usual function of lobbying (outside the room) for stronger language. In this year’s closed negotiations, rights-positive delegates struggled to hold fast to previous commitments while two regional blocs—the Caribbean Community Secretariat CARICOM and the African group—together with members of a newly formed coalition The Group of Friends of the Family, coordinated with a specific purpose: to exclude references to the individual human rights basis of the international legal framework on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

The international feminist response

For the 20th anniversary of Beijing, this was a shock to the feminist organizations that had travelled to New York, hoping for a resounding affirmation of and even advance on Beijing, given that no Fifth World Conference on Women is being held. A week before the Declaration was issued, feminist groups circulated a statement lamenting the way they had been denied their normal function of lobbying from the sidelines. They characterized the Declaration as "a bland reaffirmation of existing commitments that fails to match the level of ambition [achieved at Beijing] and in fact threatens a major step backward". The statement was signed in a 36-hour period by nearly a thousand women’s rights and feminist organizations around the world, representing an impressive and rapid mobilization.

Key points made in the statement pick up on specific negotiating losses. The statement notes the loss of a reference to feminist organizations (which had figured in the Beijing Platform for Action and is an item that is promoted strongly by Latin American countries) and women defenders of human rights. These were sacrifices to the African Group negotiating bloc, whose imprint on the final outcome was substantial.

The feminist groups’ statement also notes the lack of specificity and detail regarding the new threats to women’s rights that have emerged since 1995, including “increasing fundamentalisms, violent extremism, increased number of displaced persons, increasing inequalities within and between countries, and climate change and ocean acidification, among others”. During negotiations Uruguay had introduced some of these topics, and the African Group had consistently sought mention of inequalities (between, but not within, countries). However, from the start of the negotiations these types of issues were treated as nationally or regionally particular preoccupations, and therefore dropped.

Above all, the feminist groups’ statement laments the curious evaporation of strong assertions of the human rights of women and girls throughout the Declaration. Human rights are mentioned only three times—in the preambular section and in an obligatory nod to past agreements—but there is no affirmation of human rights as the basis of the women’s empowerment agenda in the operational paragraphs. While some countries consistently advanced human rights language—including the EU negotiating as a bloc, Norway, the Philippines, Japan, and Uruguay—others sought to limit or delete mentions of human rights. Another tactic was the Holy See’s suggested use of the word ‘fundamental’ before any mention of human rights. The Holy See also sometimes uses the term ‘universal’ human rights. It is not entirely clear what the it means by these terms. One assumption is that it is a reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; another is that the Holy See is referring to universally ratified treaties and not the sometimes more progressive region-specific treaties. Either way, the intention appears to be to exclude treaty instruments that recognize the full range of sexual and reproductive rights.

Have human rights become a bargaining chip?

Common negotiating practice is for delegations to articulate positions that represent their best case scenario from the start. Such positions usually include matters that are national priorities (and that satisfy national women’s rights constituencies) but are sometimes difficult to negotiate. There is usually an understanding that in the complex bartering of negotiations, aspects of these priority positions have to be shaved off in exchange for agreement on an outcome. The Nordic states for instance always start with a strong insistence on sexual and reproductive health and rights, aware of the opposition to the ‘sexual rights’ component. Many Latin American countries have also increasingly defended the LGBTI agenda. The EU, Australia and New Zealand usually make the connection between gender equality and conflict prevention, invoking the Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security, particularly 1325 (2000), and insisting that these are of universal relevance. Russia often seeks to contain what it sees as mission creep by ensuring that intergovernmental bodies do not over-reach their mandate. In this regard, Russia insists that the Security Council’s ‘thematic’ resolutions (of which 1325 is one) apply only to the list of countries on the Council’s agenda—a limited list of the countries in conflict over which the Council has been able to agree to take action. It has assiduously negotiated away any mention of UN Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) from CSW documents since 2008. The African Group often advances language on the primacy of national culture and tradition as a lens through which women’s rights are to be realized, treating this as a bargaining chip to be sacrificed in exchange for agreements on increased official development aid. In turn, other states, particularly large donor countries, delay agreement on development assistance components until there is agreement on human rights issues.

This year at the CSW pre-negotiations all parties were asked to drop their ‘pet positions’ at the start in order to facilitate a rapid agreement. No one had any honest expectation that advances would be made on issues of sexual rights, sexual orientation, reproductive rights, or any of the emerging challenges, and these were quickly dropped. Russia’s earlier successes in deleting mentions of UN Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) also meant that a paragraph on gender and war was dropped early. But a curious thing happened to the status of human rights. Rather than being foundational to the document, it is almost as if this was treated as a sacrificial ‘pet position’. According to one delegate, this year, agreement on the ‘development assistance paragraph’ was not made contingent on agreement on human rights components. The need for official development assistance to meet gender equality goals was asserted in one of the first operative paragraphs to be completed and pinned down. After this, further discussion on the human rights components fell flat, for the actors that are usually strong defenders of human rights—the EU, Australia, some Latin American countries—had nothing left to bargain with.

This is a disturbing development. Since when have women’s human rights become a bargaining chip rather than a foundational component of intergovernmental norm-setting bodies? The 2015 CSW Declaration may be anodyne even by UN standards, but it cannot safely be ignored. In international norm-setting, precedent is everything. And a disturbing precedent is being set in this negotiation backwater. Observers have the impression that many of the states upon which we depend to defend women’s rights are taking their foot off the pedal. Alternatively they are not prioritizing forums like the CSW or their negotiators are too inexperienced to stand up to the backlash states that come prepared to paralyze negotiations and prevent consensus outcomes and are represented by much more senior and experienced negotiators. As one negotiator from a developed country (who asked to remain anonymous) noted: “Holding the line is a bruising experience and is often not achievable”. Disappointingly, a strong feminist negotiating position is not being expressed in the CSW by the countries that have powerful women’s movements like India, Brazil, South Africa, and Nigeria. Interestingly Argentina and Chile are taking impressive feminist stands, but in a more powerful forum, the Security Council.

Instead, opponents of women’s rights are showing increasing coordination and coherence. The members of the Group of Friends of the Family, announced by Belarus in January, include Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Turkmenistan, Yemen, Zimbabwe. This curious alliance of two large and important democracies (Nigeria and Indonesia) with former socialist and Islamic and just plain autocratic/kleptocratic states has the unstated support of the Holy See. It uses terms like ‘natural’ and ‘fundamental’ to describe ‘the family’. It is "convinced that the human rights [of] women and men […] could best be promoted and protected within the family environment."3 Wider coalition building is conducted by the Holy See, which every year prior to the CSW treats representatives of African states to a retreat in south-western USA, in which conservative positions on women’s rights are rehearsed. This coalition has access to a folder containing negotiating guidelines that articulate conservative positions on women’s rights and gender equality agreements. This Resource Guide to UN Consensus Language on Family Issues is produced by Family Watch International and is so detailed that it outlines proposed negotiating text on matters ranging from abortion, abstinence, sex education, sexual orientation, women and the family and another 81 negotiation themes.

The need for a resurgent feminist transnationalism

The defenders of women’s rights have no such shared negotiating primer and no practice of retreating to a spa in Arizona to strategize on thwarting opponents. There are enough differences between them to make this an impossibility, and there is a serious aversion to confirming assumptions that women’s rights are mainly a concern of a particular set of countries. But if the result is a reluctance to take a stand on women’s rights, then political correctness has gone too far. Another dynamic that works against the defense of women’s rights is the convention of achieving consensus outcomes in these negotiations. Not coming to consensus need not be seen as an abject failure—failing to agree on an outcome document must be seen as better than agreeing to one that erodes the women’s rights agenda.

A new and peculiar international stand-off on women’s’ rights is emerging, a new Cold War fought over women’s control over their own lives and bodies. Gender equality and women’s rights are not a Western concern; feminism is not the property of Western civil society. It is crucial that the powerful feminist movements in the emerging economies and elsewhere take charge of influencing their governments’ foreign policies and positions in multilateral forums. And it is crucial that transnational feminist movements equip government representatives with the arguments and methods needed to stand up to this conservative backlash, but above all, with visible evidence that there is a global constituency of women and men, girls and boys, who stand for equality.

1 Commission on the Status of Women, Political declaration on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, E/CN.6/2015/L.1* , 9 March 2015.

2 The 2015 CSW did go on to negotiate a document, focusing on procedural matters, which are relatively easier to debate than is the substance of women’s rights: The future organization and methods of work of the Commission on the Status of Women, E/CN.6/2015/L., 18 March 2015.

3 Statement by Ambassador Valentin Rybakov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus, delivered on behalf of the Group of Friends of the Family in New York, Intergovernmental negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda, UN General Assembly, January 20 2015.

    Anne Marie Goetz has been Clinical Professor at the Center for Global Affairs (CGA), School of Professional Studies, New York University since 2014. Prior to this she was the Chief Advisor on peace, security and governance to UNIFEM (from 2005) and UN Women (from 2011). From 1991 to 2005 she was Professor of Political Science at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. She also co-founded ‘UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict’, a cross-UN coordination initiative, and was instrumental in the development of key Security Council resolutions on sexual violence (Resolution 1820), women’s participation in peacebuilding (Resolution 1889) and women’s leadership in conflict resolution (Resolution 2122). Professor Goetz is the author of eight books on the subjects of gender, politics and policy in developing countries, most recently ‘Governing Women: Women’s Political Effectiveness in Contexts of Democratization and Governance Reform’.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.