Molly Bangs, Director | April 27, 2021 Blog Post

On March 30, 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the Trump administration’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (CUR) had been disbanded. The move was a welcomed one, particularly among the human rights community, which had joined together over the past couple of years to push back against CUR’s dangerous propagation of a human rights-based hierarchy.

The announcement came on the heels of the 65th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations. CSW was the first major international forum for the Biden administration following four years of extremist multilateral attacks by U.S. government leadership on human rights, including reproductive health and protections for LGBTQ people. Now, the question is, what remnants of this anti-rights multilateralism bolstered by the U.S. remain on the world stage? To what end have the coalitions the U.S. helped form continued their mandate to attack inclusive gender equity, oftentimes under the guide of religious freedom?

Ahead of the conference, Equity Forward and Ipas presented joint input to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to inform a report by the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Our submission focused on the Trump administration’s leadership of multilateral efforts to attack inclusive gender equity as well as rights and protections for people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. These efforts included the Commission on Unalienable Rights, the U.S. State Department’s Ministerial on Religious Freedom, the U.S. Mission’s effort to curtail human rights at the United Nations and the Geneva Consensus Declaration.

Some of these institutions persist internationally, despite the Biden administration’s moves to repudiate them, and are bolstered by governments that have doubled down on the implementation of anti-rights domestic policies. These efforts are also being carried forward by hate groups, as we saw with the proliferation of anti-abortion and anti-trans side events at CSW in March—and they show no signs of stopping.

Under the Trump administration, we witnessed numerous new initiatives by U.S. federal agencies, including the Department of State and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, which pushed “gender ideology” and anti-abortion extremism into other international forums. How are these initiatives living on?

Commission on Unalienable Rights and Bolstering Attacks on Internationally Standardized Human Rights Agreements

The now-disbanded Commission on Unalienable Rights (CUR) was launched by Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May 2019, and its members largely consisted of right-wing, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ extremists. These members went on to create an artificial hierarchy of rights—reprioritizing certain human rights, such as religious freedom, at the expense of others, such as reproductive health care and LGBTQ rights. CUR’s first report, published in the summer of 2020, concerningly denies the rights of abortion and LGBTQ people, instead referring to them as “divisive social and political controversies in the United States.” The report purported to enshrine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its work yet ignored UDHR’s equal protection for the rights it lays out—including those based on sex, which legal interpretations of UDHR have extended to include freedom from discrimination on the basis of sexual and/or gender orientation and reproductive freedom. Additionally, UDHR is part of the Universal Bill of Human Rights along with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the U.S. has signed and ratified. To be clear, ICCPR explicitly extends to abortion rights.

The Commission’s report ultimately presents a concerning roadmap of how to co-opt internationally agreed upon human rights framework—and instead promote restrictive and conflicting interpretations of already recognized international human rights law provisions and standards. These interpretations have been supported and promoted by anti-gender organizations and ultra-right-wing government officials since then. For example, at the 75th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Pompeo hosted a side event touting CUR’s work. It concluded with Pompeo asking for signatories to a declaration affirming support for UDHR in its narrowest form. A similar coalition of largely authoritarian governments that supported the Geneva Consensus signed on. Among its signatories were Honduras, which recently approved legal reform violating same sex couples’ human rights as well as people’s sexual and reproductive rights. The Congress of Honduras approved the reform of its Constitution’s Article 67, establishing the prohibition and illegality of the interruption of pregnancy and creating a constitutional shield that makes it impossible to legalize the practice of abortion in Honduras in the future. The reform also bars any future modification of the Constitution’s Article 112, which holds that the celebration of marriage can only be between a man and a woman—violating the human rights of LGBTQ persons.

Ministerial on Religious Freedom and Prioritizing Certain Rights Over Others

The U.S. Department of State’s Ministerial on Religious Freedom has been yet another opportunity for this anti-LGBTQ, anti-reproductive rights multilateralism to grow. The event took place under Trump’s State Department annually, with Pompeo and Former Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback at the helm. The event convened diplomats from national delegations—but it also welcomed far-right-wing, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ organizations as sponsors of side events. In years past, these sponsors have included the designated hate group Alliance Defending Freedom. In 2020, the Ministerial was hosted by the Polish government as a virtual event in Warsaw—against the backdrop of tens of thousands of Polish women’s weeks-long strikes and protests against the country’s recent abortion ban.

Brownback, now a private citizen, recently announced that he is heading up the newly formed “International Religious Freedom Summit” this July. Lead sponsors of the event include the anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ groups Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council.

Geneva Consensus Declaration and A Coalition Rallying Around the “Natural Family”

The Geneva Consensus Declaration was announced by Pompeo and then-U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar in October 2020. The U.S. co-sponsored the international declaration alongside Brazil, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia and Uganda. The Geneva Consensus Declaration is overtly anti-abortion and purports that family is the “natural and fundamental group unit of society.” Such coded language referring to the “natural family” is frequently deployed in efforts to limit the human rights of LGBTQ people.

In a January executive order on women’s health, President Biden directed the U.S. Secretary of State and the HHS Secretary to withdraw the United States' co-sponsorship and signature from the Geneva Consensus Declaration; however, this has not yet been confirmed by the State Department and HHS. But just because the U.S. government is now taking steps to disavow the Declaration, its prior work to create such regressive measures will live on through the multilateral coalition of country-level governments the U.S. helped form. For example, following the executive order, Brazil doubled down and reaffirmed its commitment to the Geneva Consensus Declaration. This is extremely concerning: many of the co-sponsors and signatories of the Declaration have concerning human rights records, authoritarian leanings and poor women’s rights indexes. Among the co-sponsors, the Ugandan government mandates that gay sex is punishable by death. Ugandan and Brazilian civil society organizations have mobilized against their government’s signature and sponsorship of the Geneva Consensus Declaration.

Anti-SRHR, Anti-LGBTQ Efforts at the United Nations

U.S. involvement in multilateral efforts to restrict human rights related to gender, including access to abortion, other reproductive rights and gender-inclusive language, have been well documented at the United Nations. Over the course of the past four years, Trump administration officials repeatedly and aggressively pushed to remove references to gender and reproductive health and rights from U.N. resolutions and agreements. The U.S. delegation forced the removal of references to “modern contraception,” “emergency contraception” and “unsafe abortion” from Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) outcome documents; repeatedly and vocally opposed abortion; attacked gender-inclusive language to dilute the rights of nonbinary and transgender people; and undermined landmark agreements, such as the Beijing Declaration.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and the U.S. delegates to the CSW have made the Biden administration’s renewed commitments to internationally agreed upon human rights standards clear, including LGBTQ rights and access to birth control and abortion.

However, this year’s CSW also witnessed a proliferation of anti-abortion, anti-transgender advocacy on the part of U.S.-based groups C-Fam and Family Watch International, which lobbied member states including Brazil, Egypt, the Holy See, Iran, Libya, Nicaragua and Sudan to release reservations opposing SRHR and inclusive gender terminology. Notably, these are countries that were supportive of the aforementioned Trump administration U.S.-led efforts.

Anti-trans organizations advocating for gender binaries and the concept of a “natural” family solidifying “women’s roles” in society ramped up their efforts during the conference. Moreover, the International Organization for the Family spearheaded a call upon UN missions for their work to be “anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by honoring women’s unique feminine genius, including and especially her vital role in society’s natural and fundamental group unit, the family.” Concerningly, the anti-trans Women’s Human Rights Campaign (WHRC) held a parallel event that was permitted to be posted to CSW65’s civil society forum. This event featured numerous anti-trans “feminist” speakers and propagated WHRC’s exclusionary “Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights.”

Looking Forward

Attacks on SRHR and LGBTQ rights have undoubtedly persisted on localized and country-level scales, regardless of what is happening within the U.S. However, the U.S. impact on multilateral, globalized efforts—through declarations, international fora, coordination among right-wing groups or on the floor of the UN General Assembly—is undeniable. The new administration seems intent on diplomatic damage control and has begun reversing and disassociating from Trump-era policies. But will it confront, head on, the role that the U.S. government and U.S. organizations have played in exporting hate and bolstering the anti-SRHR, anti-LGBTQ coalition building?

Molly Bangs is the director at Equity Forward. She is an advocate, researcher, and writer on reproductive health, rights, and justice, as well as other human rights. Molly has a strong background in political research, policy, and journalism having previously worked as a researcher at Equity Forward, and as an alum of The Century Foundation, The Huffington Post, and the New York City Council. Her bylines appear in outlets including Truthout, VICE, and HuffPost. Molly holds a master's degree in political science from Columbia University.