, ,

Re-Emerging Nationality and Gender Preferences in Trump’s Refugee Policy Rollback

The Women, Peace and Security Agenda Under the Trump Administration: Undercutting Advances with a Return to Masculine Militarism


Ambassador Nikki Haley: Walking the Tightrope on Human Rights

One of our key inquiries on the subject of human rights in the Gender Policy Report is how the face of U.S. diplomacy will be transformed by the Trump Administration. Of particular interest are key changes in U.S. institutions and personnel, which signal a shift on international protections for human rights and gender equality around the world. This inquiry leads us to the most prominent female presence in foreign policy, Nikki Haley, confirmed by the Senate on January 24, 2017, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

A Retreat from International Human Rights is not Gender-neutral

In its first 100 days, the Trump administration’s “America First” rhetoric and actions have led to an increased focus on national security and a retreat from international institutions. In particular, these early days have been marked by disengagement from or attacks on international human rights systems that play a key role in the protection of women’s rights.

For all their shortcomings—including their own historic gender biases—international human rights norms and institutions provide an advocacy space for groups whose dignity, worth, agency, or security have been systematically undermined by state policy and practice. This has been especially true for the rights of women. We have observed retreats from human rights at home, from human rights in foreign policy, and from the spaces and practices designed to uphold women’s rights globally. Here, we highlight some of the human rights effects of the fledgling administration’s actions—and inactions.


Retreat from human rights at home

Trump administration policies have eroded human rights within the United States. For instance, just days after his inauguration, President Trump authorized the US Army Corps of Engineers to grant an easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline to pass beneath Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, ignoring the sovereign rights of the Standing Rock Sioux regarding the threat to clean water for their indigenous community. Indigenous women are not backing down from this fight. They continue to lead their communities in struggles for land rights, cultural restoration, and environmental justice.

Early April saw another threat to existing human rights protections when Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of all consent decrees adopted to decrease the discriminatory practices of U.S. police departments. When U.S. District Judge James Bredar upheld the consent decree between the Baltimore PD and the Justice Department, Sessions blasted the ruling, suggesting that the decree would “reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city.” But the Baltimore consent decree had resulted from a year-long DOJ investigation that found widespread racial bias, use of excessive force, repeated patterns of unconstitutional arrests, and hostility toward women and LGBT civilians. Rescinding the consent decree would be more likely to result in “a less safe city” for people of color, including women of color.

And the Trump travel ban drew widespread condemnation as a violation of human rights. Four UN Special Rapporteurs (along with other UN bodies) found that the Jan. 27, 2017 Executive Order “breaches the country’s international human rights obligations, which protect the principles of non-refoulement and non-discrimination based on race, nationality or religion.”

The push to roll back health guarantees also runs contrary to established international human rights standards related to the right to health and the principles of equality, non-discrimination, and non-regression. We learned through a document leaked to Dana Milbink of the Washington Post that the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health sent a confidential urgent appeal to the Trump administration on the human rights implications of its various proposals to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, especially highlighting the disparate impact on people living in situations of poverty and social exclusion.


Disregard for human rights in foreign policy

An emerging foreign policy conveys a disregard for human rights standards in favor of “national security”. First, the Trump team has embraced Heads of States known for serious human rights violations while ignoring those issues, including those of Egypt, Pakistan, China, Russia, and most recently, the Philippines. In explaining his “very friendly conversation” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whom he welcomed to the White House despite UN, EU, and U.S. condemnations of his brutality toward his own people, Trump suggested that the strategic and military importance of the Philippines in relation to North Korean aggressions outweighed other considerations. Incongruously, Trump also welcomed a meeting with “smart cookie” Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s despotic leader. The strategic security interest of these moves remains questionable.

Bombing is another favored “security” tactic. An increase U.S.-led airstrikes has led to civilian casualties in Mosul, Syria, and Yemen. A January 30th airstrike in rural Yemen, for instance, killed approximately thirty, including ten women and children. The Trump administration has lowered the threshold for the CIA and the U.S. military to target identified terrorists with drone strikes, even if it means tolerating more civilian casualties.


Disengaging from international women’s human rights

Disengagement from international institutions that uphold human rights and a withdrawal from its leadership role on international women’s rights characterize the new face of U.S. human rights policy under President Trump. The Trump administration even threatened withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, before ultimately attending and promoting its particular priorities at the 34th session in Geneva in March. Another notable indication of a retreat from leadership on women’s rights (as we feared in our opening post for Gender Policy Report) came from a leaked budget suggesting that the administration plans to cut all funding for State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

While Ambassador Nikki Haley has asserted herself as the highest profile woman in the Administration—outside the Trump family circle—she apparently had too high a profile for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. He recently reined her in, asking her to vet her public remarks.

The Administration also put some problematic new faces on the U.S. delegation to the 61st Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, held in March at U.N. Headquarters in New York. Joining Ambassador Haley on the delegation were Lisa Correnti, Executive VP of C-Fam (the Center for Family & Human Rights), a group that opposes reproductive rights for women and supports the criminalization of homosexuality, and Grace Melton of the Heritage Foundation. According to Graeme Reid at Human Rights Watch, C-Fam is an “ardent supporter” of Russia’s propaganda law against LGBT persons. In fact, following the Commission, C-Fam went on to celebrate that the UN meeting was frustrated, that no final agreement was reached, and that the delegation from the Russian Federation shared their stance on sexual and LGBT rights.

On March 30, the Trump Administration cut all funding to the U.N. Population Fund for Women (UNFPA), a dramatic reduction that, according to U.N. Foundation President and CEO Kathy Calvin, “threatens the health and rights of millions of girls and women around the world, particularly those in crisis situations.” Women around the world rely on the UNFPA for reproductive health care, including contraceptives, support for the prevention of child marriage, and ending the practice of female genital mutilation.

Secretary of State Tillerson’s failure to show up for the public release of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, mandated annually by Congress, underlined his disregard for human rights. Even Republican Senator Marco Rubio was taken aback by this breach of precedent, remarking that he was “disappointed that the Secretary of State did not personally present the latest report.” When the U.S. failed to appear for its hearings before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, reviewing the situation of the Dakota Access pipeline and the administration’s immigration restrictions, that, too, was unprecedented.


These examples demonstrate the Administration’s broad trend to disengage from or actively undermine international human rights standards—with women’s rights particularly hard-hit. In just 100 days, human rights have been tossed aside in favor of the appearance of military might. And with its retreat from international institutions and human rights norms both at home and abroad, the new Administration’s actions and omissions are dramatically diminishing protections for the human rights of women and LGBTI persons in favor of big talk, big guns, and big money.


— Robyn Skrebes, Amanda Lyons (Co-director of the Human Rights Center), Karen Brown (Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Global Change) and Barb Frey (Director of the Human Rights Program) at the University of Minnesota

Photo by UN Geneva


Beyond the Wall

Since November there’s been an upsurge in local, national and international marches where protestors carry signs that read: “Build Bridges, Not Walls.” They are responding, of course, to the Trump Administration’s long-promised Border Wall.

And they are reiterating something scholars already know: even where there are border walls, creative community building, so often spear-headed by women, easily blurs boundaries.

The U.S.-Mexico border we know today was formed out of two moments, the 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the U.S. and Mexico (which designated the Rio Grande river as the official border separating Texas and from its southern neighbors) and the Gadsen Purchase, which, in 1853, established the rest of the dividing line. Not only a geographic boundary, the border became associated with a set of practices of inclusion and exclusion affecting those on both its sides.

Still, Mexicans were not immediately or irrevocably “othered” by the U.S. government.

Mexican workers provided necessary labor for U.S. manufacturers, both within the U.S. (where they worked as conquered labor, migrant labor, and as “guest workers”) and in Mexico (in maquiladora assembly plants). It took a 1970s-era recession to spur a stronger stance against Mexican immigration to the U.S., with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now known as Homeland Security) specifically citing such migrants as national security threats. Explaining economic problems as a consequence of unauthorized migration and employing the language of “invasion,” even then CIA director William Colby would claim that population growth south of the border would mean “120 million Mexicans” by the end of the century and a Border Patrol without “enough bullets to stop them.”

Similar fears are employed today, as the administration looks for ways to slash budgets so as to fund President Trump’s wall. Of course, there is already a border wall that crosses 653 miles of the 2,000-mile stretch separating Mexico and the U.S. Economists peg its cost at $7 billion, and estimate that Trump’s proposal will cost another $25 billion (excluding labor costs). No one is truly able to account for how this wall will be handled on privately owned land or in Texas, where the Rio Grande flows, but these details are cast aside. Natural obstructions haven’t stopped the Border Patrol before, after all—in the stretch of border between San Diego and Tijuana, for instance, the Surf Fence project granted $4.3 million on behalf of the Patrol to erect a barrier stretching 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean.

Goods and capital are freely allowed to cross; the border is designed to obstruct, control, and regulate the movement of people, of labor.

In heated rhetoric, U.S. citizens are told that border security is about violence, crime, economics, and the drug war. Women and children are victims (though not blameless ones) and border dwellers are simply collateral caught in sometimes-literal crossfire. Where statistics show a doubling in migrant deaths in the last 20 years, government spokespeople and media report on the “unintended consequences” of border militarization. From a human rights perspective, the wall and its construction have already violated international norms, including the rights of indigenous peoples, the right to private property, and the right to non-discrimination. This is all, it would seem, the collective cost of U.S. safety.

The reality is that 82 million people call the borderlands home. They survive, even flourish. And women are central agents, not victims, in this setting.

In my ongoing research just across the U.S. border in Maclovio Rojas, I have met women, like Hortensia Hernandez, who assume leadership roles to fight for community well-being and lead their neighbors in building their own schools, sports fields, and public services in an area where neither the U.S. nor Mexican government seems willing to help.

And in Tijuana, a majority-female workforce toils long hours for low wages in the factories of multinational corporations.

Women there have created cross-border alliances with activists in the U.S. to try to improve their working conditions. Their American counterparts show their support by, for example, protesting in front of the homes of factory owners who live in the U.S. Such transfronteriz@ organizing transforms “us versus them” divisions into a movement recognizing that we are all workers with entwined destinies.

The borderlands include both U.S. and Mexican territory, U.S. and Mexican citizens and nations of Indigenous peoples. They represent a site of resistance, conviviality, agency, and creative community building. This is a space in which transformative politics not only can but already does take place.

The health of both countries’ economies, so reliant on the cross-border construction and sale of goods, and the health and viability of borderlands communities will be immeasurably impacted whether the Trump Administration’s wall comes to fruition.

Politicians, corporate leaders, and borderlands residents must come together—like so many autos built with U.S. parts in Mexican factories—to fashion not only steel walls but also humane policies if the people and economies of both countries are to flourish.

Michelle Téllez, Assistant Professor of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona.

, ,

New President, Old Anti-Abortion Policy

Continuing Contradictions in US Global “Family Planning” Policies

On his third day in office, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that prohibits reproductive health NGOs that receive US family planning assistance from providing abortion services, information, or referrals, or participating in advocacy to liberalize abortion laws. Since its introduction by President Reagan’s administration in 1984 at the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Mexico City, this policy been reinstated by Republican presidents (George H. Bush and George W. Bush) and rescinded by Democratic presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama). In other words, it represents a way of signaling, during the earliest days of each new administration, the government’s stance on global and domestic abortion politics.

Organizations that receive US family planning assistance are required to certify in writing that they will not use their own funds to engage in abortion-related activities and services prohibited by the policy. Reproductive health advocates have dubbed President Reagan’s 1984 Mexico City Policy “the Global Gag Rule” for its silencing effect on abortion research, services, and advocacy by international NGOs.  Despite the policy’s goal to reduce abortion, evidence suggests that declines in abortion rates have stalled in developing countries.   The anti-abortion stance of the 1984 Mexico City Policy belies an earlier interest on the part of the US government in deploying abortion as a mechanism of population control in developing countries.  Until the early 1970s, the US government significantly invested in the research, development, and global distribution of not only contraception but also abortion technologies.

The current iteration of the “Global Gag Rule” in many ways represents the culmination of a long history of the US government’s involvement in the field of global population and development, in which domestic debates about women’s access to abortion and contraception have been inextricably intertwined with foreign policy related to reproductive health.

By the mid-1950s, to respond to the perceived problem of overpopulation in developing countries, population experts in the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the Population Council, and Pathfinder International were actively engaged in global family planning programming and research.  In contrast, US foreign policy remained silent on the issue of population until the mid-1960s.  In 1965, the same year that the US Supreme Court legalized contraceptive use for married couples in its Griswold v. Connecticut ruling, President Lyndon B. Johnson characterized population control as a matter of national security in his State of the Union address.  As countries decolonized in the global South, US policymakers grew increasingly concerned that the strain on resources caused by overpopulation in newly sovereign nations would render them sympathetic to socialism.  By the late 1960s, the USAID had officially incorporated family planning into development aid and was actively funneling money to organizations such as International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) that provided family planning services in developing countries.

During the early 1970s, the Office of Population of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supported the manufacture and distribution of a syringe technology now known as the Manual Vacuum Aspiration (MVA) syringe. In 1973, the same year that the US Supreme Court legalized abortion upon request for American women, Congress passed the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibited the “promotion of abortion as a form of family planning.”

Under the Helms Amendment, federal funds could not be used to procure abortion services, drugs, or devices.  It signaled the growing influence of a domestic anti-abortion movement, galvanized by Roe v. Wade, that aimed to curb the application of federal funds to abortions at home and abroad.

In response to these new restrictions, the USAID delegated the manufacture and distribution of the MVA device to NGOs such as the International Pregnancy Advisory Service (now known as Ipas).  By 1978 approximately 175,000 MVA devices had been distributed to developing countries through Ipas, IPPF and the International Research Fertility Program (IRFP) for the purpose of menstrual regulation, a euphemism for abortion [1-3].

Despite the USAID’s continuing commitment to family planning as an essential development strategy, President Reagan introduced increasingly anti-abortion policies into foreign development plans during the early 1980s. The USAID continued to donate contraceptives and support family planning training for health workers, but stopped funding biomedical research on abortion and training of medical providers in abortion techniques. Additionally, the USAID began to promote natural family planning methods such as the fertility awareness method, also known as the rhythm or calendar method.

In 1984, the US delegation to the United Nations Population and Development conference in Mexico City unveiled the Reagan administration’s population policy.  While the US had taken a strong “population control” stance since the mid-1960s, at this conference the US no longer perceived high fertility as an impediment to economic development.  Instead, US delegates identified neoliberal reform as the solution to underdevelopment. Within the health sector, this meant scaling back state investments in primary health care recommended by the Alma Ata Declaration of 1978 and increasing user fees for health services.

Although the US reaffirmed its commitment to family planning in the Mexico City Policy, it categorically precluded funding for abortion services, referral or counseling, even in countries where abortion was legal. Additionally, in contrast to previous USAID language on contraceptive use as a matter of voluntarism and informed choice among women and couples, the 1984 policy framed contraception in terms of “preserving maternal and child health” and “meeting the interests of families” [3].

In other words, this policy prioritized access to contraception for mothers as a matter of family health rather than women’s sexual and reproductive health and choice.

In 1985, under the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, the Reagan administration withdrew funding from UNFPA because of its alleged involvement in enforcing China’s One Child Policy through “coercive abortion and forced sterilization.” US funding was restored to UNFPA in 2009 under the Obama administration. Some groups interpret Trump’s Executive Order as once again defunding UNFPA.

Not surprisingly, the 1984 Mexico City Policy did not achieve its goal of reducing abortion in countries receiving US aid.  To the contrary, evidence suggests that in response to family planning service cutbacks and clinic closures among NGOs affected by the policy, undesired pregnancies and abortions increased in these countries. A 2011 study of 20 African countries shows that the odds of abortion more than doubled during periods when the policy was in effect [4]. In Ghana, abortion increased among low-income and rural women and child health outcomes declined under the policy [5].

The US is one of the most generous donors of global family planning assistance, providing up to $575 million in 40 countries [6].

The Mexico City Policy hinders the USAID’s ability to donate contraceptives and support health providers in developing countries where access to family planning is key to preventing unwanted pregnancy and reducing maternal mortality.  Additionally, it infringes on the sovereignty of national health authorities to address public health matters as they see fit [7].

In Nepal, for example, complications of unsafe abortion account for up to 50% of maternal mortality.  In 2002, the government legalized abortion to address the public health problem of unsafe abortion. When the Family Planning Association of Nepal (FPAN), the country’s largest family planning provider, refused to comply with the Mexico City Policy, it lost up to $400,000 worth of contraceptives donated by the USAID. To continue operations in its national network of clinics, FPAN had to introduce user fees and lay off health workers.  Given that FPAN provides between 25 to 30% of Nepal’s reproductive health services, including contraception, infertility diagnosis and treatment, gynecological exams, and legal abortion, the Global Gag Rule directly restricts Nepalese women’s access to reproductive health care [8].

When President George W. Bush reinstated the Mexico City Policy in 2001, he exempted various services, programs, and institutions, including post-abortion care (emergency treatment for abortion complications), hospitals, governments, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).  The 2017 policy makes no such exceptions and goes even further by extending to all organizations receiving US global health assistance, which totals approximately $9 billion in 60 countries [6].  Under President Trump, the Mexico City Policy could potentially threaten the ability of NGOs, governments, and hospitals in developing countries to treat life-threatening complications of abortion and diagnose and treat infectious disease such as HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, Zika, and Ebola.

There is no fiscal, geopolitical, or public health rationale for the “Global Gag Rule.”  The 1973 Helms Amendment already prevents the application of US tax dollars towards abortion-related services or devices abroad.

It has not contributed to declines in abortion in countries that receive US family planning assistance. In fact, while abortion rates have declined significantly in developed countries since 1990, they remain the same in much of the developing world [9].  The aim of the “Global Gag Rule” is simple: to restrict women’s reproductive autonomy.  In this sense, ironically, it echoes rather than disrupts the population control logics of the Cold War era.  The Mexico City Policy has simply shifted, and in its latest iteration, expanded the mechanisms through which women’s bodies are controlled.

—  Siri Suh, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor, Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies/Institute for Global Studies,University of Minnesota

Photo Credit: PBS News Hour


  1. Kulczycki, A., The abortion debate in the world arena. 1999: Taylor & Francis.
  2. Murphy, M., Seizing the means of reproduction: Entanglements of feminism, health, and technoscience. 2012, Durham, NC.: Duke University Press.
  3. Dixon-Mueller, R., Population policy & women’s rights: Transforming reproductive choice. 1993: Praeger Publishers.
  4. Bendavid, E., P. Avila, and G. Miller, United States aid policy and induced abortion in sub-Saharan Africa. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 2011. 89(12): p. 873-880c.
  5. Jones, K., Evaluating the Mexico City Policy: How US foreign policy affects fertility outcomes and child health in Ghana. 2011, International Food Policy Research Institute: Washington, DC.
  6. Lederer, E., Trump expands anti-abortion ban to all US global health aid, ABC News. January 24, 2017.
  7. Cohen, S.A., Abortion politics and US population aid: coping with a complex new law. International Family Planning Perspectives, 2000. 26(3): p. 137-145.
  8. PAI, Access denied: The impact of the Global Gag Rule in Nepal. 2006, Population Action International.
  9. Sedgh, G., et al., Abortion incidence between 1990 and 2014: global, regional, and subregional levels and trends. The Lancet, 2016. 388(10041): p. 258-267.