US objections lead to watered-down UN resolution against rape in war zones

Trump administration threatens to veto effort to combat sexual violence, apparently because of White House's anti-abortion stance

Amal Clooney is pictured at the United Nations Security Council during a meeting about sexual violence in conflict in New York, New York, U.S., April 23, 2019.   REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
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A last-minute US threat to veto a UN Security Council resolution on sexual violence in conflict caused it to be significantly watered down on Tuesday, rendering it close to meaningless.

The changes were necessary because President Donald Trump's administration believed long-agreed wording was tantamount to code for abortion, sources at the UN said.

The German-drafted resolution was only adopted after a reference to the need for UN agencies and donors to give timely “sexual and reproductive health” assistance to survivors of sexual violence in conflict was cut.

The resolution was a UN-backed effort to combat rape as a weapon of war, as has occurred in Iraq, Syria and other conflict zones in recent years.

But the terminology applied to survivors was opposed by the White House, which contended that it implied support for abortions.

Russia and China abstained during a vote on the council, appearing to at least partially back the US objections. The resolution eventually passed 13-0.

The late changes derailed a carefully stage-managed set piece in New York that featured Nobel laureates and led to a furious response from France's permanent representative to the UN.

“It is intolerable and incomprehensible that the Security Council is incapable of acknowledging that women and girls who suffered from sexual violence in conflict, and obviously didn’t choose to become pregnant, should have the right to terminate their pregnancy,” ambassador Francois Delattre said later.

The 15-member council voted after hearing briefings from Nobel Peace Prize winners Nadia Murad, the Iraqi Yazidi woman once held as a sex slave by ISIS, Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, who treats rape victims, Libyan rights activist Inas Miloud and international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney.

The US veto threat was the latest policy reversal that some UN diplomats say has been driven by Vice President Mike Pence, a conservative Christian who staunchly opposes abortion.

Mr Pence was not involved in directing US diplomats during the negotiations, a White House aide said.

But they said that the adopted text “ended up in a place that is closer in line with the White House’s priorities”.

Acting US ambassador to the UN Jonathan Cohen did not speak after the council vote.

The language promoting sexual and reproductive health has been long agreed to internationally, including in resolutions adopted by the council in 2009 and 2013 and several adopted annually by the UN's 193-member General Assembly.

The text adopted on Tuesday reaffirms the council’s commitment to the 2009 and 2013 resolutions.

A reference to the work of the International Criminal Court in fighting the most serious crimes against women and girls was also watered down to appease Washington, which is not a member of the ICC and recently threatened to deny US visas to its jurors.

Ms Murad and Mr Mukwege had spoken earlier of the need for justice for victims of sexual violence in conflict zones and the lack of a proper global response.

“Not a single person has been charged for sexual slavery," said Ms Murad, referring to the massacres of her Yazidi community by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. “The hopes of an entire generation have been destroyed."

She spoke of the "collective failure" of the international community.

"We give speeches at the UN but no real measures have been taken and nothing has been done."

Mrs Clooney, who represents Ms Murad and other Yazidi victims, accused the US and Russia of opposing a judicial system to hold the perpetrators of such crimes to account, as has been done for horrors committed in Bosnia, Cambodia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda.

"If we don't act now, it will be too late," she said, pointing to the thousands of ISIS militants being held. "I agree that we are facing an epidemic of sexual violence. And I believe that justice is the antidote."

The resolution had initially sought to establish a formal working group, set up a mechanism to help bring to justice those responsible and develop victims' protection by giving formal recognition to their sexual and reproductive rights.

The working group was scrapped after the US, Russia and China opposed the mechanism.

When the weakened resolution was passed one diplomat said it had been "reduced so much that it's now inadequate and there isn't much left".

Another said: "The Americans have taken negotiations hostage based on their own ideology. It's scandalous."