Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2 No. 10 (Fall 2003): Violence Against Women: Articles: Readers Respond: Making Human Rights Work in a Globalizing World

Nov 6, 2003

Restricting Abortion Abroad

In her article “Gagging Democracy,” Marianne Mollmann is right to consider the Global Gag Rule a human rights violation. As I have observed through my experience working with the feminist group Flora Tristan in Peru, the Global Gag Rule sharply impacts our societies and democracies, affecting not just the NGOs that receive financial assistance from the United States, but entire populations.

The Global Gag Rule contaminates the essence of solidarity and international assistance because it forces the receiving countries—particularly the women within them—to pay an intolerable price in terms of autonomy, freedom, and the rights to citizenship, health, life, and development.

In Peru, it profoundly affects the development of our health and legislative systems, as it impedes the very research and advocacy that could serve to modernize them. In countries like Peru the government has not traditionally been very concerned about generating the information and knowledge necessary for advocacy. Therefore, our achievements and knowledge to date about the effects and treatment of unsafe abortion and the mechanisms and resources involved in reproductive and sexual decision-making exist largely thanks to the efforts of the women’s movement, the academic and scientific community, health organizations, and international donors, rather than the state.

While we criticize our legislature for its indifference with respect to these subjects, on those occasions when the government has listened to our recommendations, we have obtained positive results in the form of reduction of death and disease, particularly among women.

But despite these occasional victories, no one in the Third World can ignore the fact that we live in weak democracies and have to continue to fight for freedom and personal autonomy. The Global Gag Rule handicaps vital actors in these societies such as NGOs by imposing disproportionate and non-negociable rules. Lamentably, the abuse does not stop there: among other restrictions, it prohibits organizations that adhere to the rule from criticizing its content. Thus, the Global Gag Rule also undermines the most elementary right of expression and freedom of thought and thereby contributes to an atmosphere of impunity.

Susana Chavez
Flora Tristan Women’s Center, Peru

WEB ONLY: Restricting Abortion Abroad

As Marianne Mollmann clearly reveals in her essay “Gagging Democracy,” the Global Gag Rule undermines the United States’s commitment to promoting democratic values worldwide. This policy dictates double standards by imposing restrictions on organizations in countries abroad that would never be acceptable or legal within the United States. Not only does the gag rule withhold U.S. funds from organizations that discuss abortion and reproductive issues with patients, politicians, or members of the public, but it also prevents NGOs from using their own funds, on their own time, to provide lawful services or to lobby for changes in abortion laws.

Most international NGOs are therefore being forced to choose between receiving U.S. family planning assistance (their largest source of aid) to reach those most in need and protecting women around the world from unsafe abortions and taking practical, concrete steps to reduce the need for abortion. The results of this policy are more unintended pregnancies, more unsafe abortions, and more maternal deaths.

Last year, the Center for Reproductive Rights undertook fact-finding missions to Ethiopia, Kenya, Peru, and Uganda to investigate the effect of the Bush administration’s Global Gag Rule on countries with restrictive abortion laws. Unsafe abortion is a public health disaster in all of these countries, and all of them receive substantial U.S. family planning assistance. Our resulting report, Breaking the Silence: The Global Gag Rule’s Impact on Unsafe Abortion, released in October 2003, shows that the Global Gag Rule’s curb on the right of NGOs to lobby for abortion law reform or access to abortion—even in countries where the procedure is legal—has perpetuated the epidemic of unsafe abortion. The imposition of this policy violates women’s rights to health and self-determination and autonomy, which are grounded in international human rights law.

Luisa Cabal
Center for Reproductive Rights

The Resource Curse

Abu Brima and Corene Crossin’s insightful essays on conflict diamonds in the Spring 2003 issue of Human Rights Dialogue bring up, respectively, two problems at the heart of current efforts to promote pro-poor, pro-human rights globalization: the need for increased transparency and participation in minerals-based economies, and the dubious value of voluntary “regulation” mechanisms.

Like Sierra Leone, many of the world’s poorest countries depend on primary commodity exports—particularly oil, natural gas, and minerals like gold and copper—to sustain their economies. Some economists argue that globalization has in fact intensified this natural resource dependence, as poor countries have been forced to drop barriers to foreign investment in their resource sectors but rich countries have not reciprocated by reducing barriers to poor countries’ agricultural and manufactured exports. Resource dependence is problematic from a poverty-reduction standpoint as modern oil and mining operations generate little employment, thus creating few opportunities for the poor to raise their incomes. Additionally, the distribution of oil and mining-derived revenues is frequently an unaccountable and nonparticipatory process. Thus the work of Brima and the Campaign for Just Mining in Sierra Leone to promote greater transparency, accountability, and participation in diamond revenue distribution is vitally important; similar efforts should be supported in every resource-dependent poor country. The World Bank, which has played a key role in promoting natural resource investment in developing countries, should make participation and transparency requirements of its support for these sectors.

The establishment of the Kimberly Process was an important breakthrough for addressing the link between diamond revenues and conflict. Crossin is quite right, however, to point out that Kimberly is voluntary, meaning enforcement will depend largely on the good faith of the diamond industry and the countries involved. As such, the long-term effectiveness of the scheme is questionable. Unfortunately, this situation is emblematic of the anti-regulatory ethic that currently pervades globalization, in which voluntary rather than mandatory approaches are favored. Developed country governments, however, could do much to change this by, for example, adopting enforceable regulations requiring their corporations to disclose information on revenues and on the human rights and environmental impacts of their foreign operations. Kimberly is an important step, but until there are stronger mechanisms for holding corporations and other global economic actors accountable for their actions, unaccountable corporate-driven globalization will continue to pose a significant threat to human rights.

Keith Slack
Oxfam America

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