The anti-abortion Geneva Consensus Declaration, signed two weeks before the 2020 presidential elections, brings together some of the most authoritarian and anti-women regimes in the world – reflecting who President Trump counted as his international allies by the end of his four-year reign.
The declaration claims that “there is no international right to abortion, nor any international obligation on the part of states to finance or facilitate abortion”. It declares that the ‘traditional family’ – meaning a married, heterosexual couple and their biological children – is the “fundamental group unit of society”, and each country has “the sovereign right” to make their own laws on abortion.
Thirty-four of the UN’s 193 member countries signed the declaration, which was authored by the US and co-sponsored by Brazil, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia and Uganda. They include nineteen authoritarian regimes and six of the world’s least safe countries for women. A number of African countries that receive significant US financial support, including Burkina Faso, Kenya, and Zambia, are also signatories.
Joe Biden, sworn in as US president on 20 January, has not mentioned the Geneva Consensus specifically, but he has pledged to reverse the Trump administration’s “all-out assault on women’s right to choose”, including by rescinding the global gag rule that prohibits US aid money from going to organisations that offer information on abortion services.
Biden has also indicated that he seeks to rebuild relationships with the US’s traditional allies, particularly in Europe. Apart from Hungary, the only other European country to sign the Geneva Consensus is Poland. These are the European Union’s most conservative members, and both recently vetoed the EU’s COVID-19 relief packages because it was linked to member states’ commitment to following the rule of law until a compromise was brokered by Germany.
On the same day that the declaration was signed, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortions in cases of severe foetal abnormalities are illegal, removing one of the very few legal reasons for terminations – which accounted for almost all legal abortions performed in the country.
More than half the signatories are authoritarian regimes, as classified by the Economist’s Democracy Index 2019. These include Bahrain, Belarus, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, South Sudan and Sudan – among the world’s ten most unsafe countries for women according to the Women, Peace and Security Index 2019/20 – are also signatories.
“The United States is bullying other nations into following its anti-choice, anti-human rights and anti-evidence agenda”
US Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, a member of the Senate foreign relations committee, warned that the declaration “would undercut the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and strip the fundamental rights of millions, especially women”.
“The Geneva Consensus Declaration attempts to undermine bedrock human rights agreements and women’s health and reproductive rights here at home and around the world. Fortunately, same-sex marriage and abortion remain legal in the United States. Despite the White House’s efforts, LGBT rights and women’s rights will always be human rights,” Cardin said in a statement.
Outrage in Kenya
Kenya’s signing of the declaration prompted outrage from Kenyan civil society organisations (CSOs), including the Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network on HIV and Aids (KELIN), which believes it may have been illegal.
“Kenyan law protects sexual and reproductive health and rights within its legal and policy framework,” KELIN programme officer Linda Wanjiru Kroeger told openDemocracy. “Article 43(1)(a) of the Constitution provides for the right to health including reproductive healthcare, and Article 26(4) provides for access to safe and legal abortion within certain circumstances.”
“The government signing on to the Geneva Consensus undermines our Constitution as well as the mandate and ability of the UN to develop harmonised policies that advance desirable human rights documents,” Kroeger explained.
An alliance of 14 CSOs in Kenya including KELIN wrote to the foreign affairs ministry, arguing that the country’s support for the declaration is unconstitutional, but to date they have received no response.
In a joint statement, the CSOs demanded that the government withdraw its support for the declaration and reaffirm its commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights and to protecting the lives of women and girls.
The statement was published as a petition in the Daily Nation newspaper, where it was supported by 21 civil society groups.
“It is our hope that the incoming Biden-Harris administration will nip this onslaught against human rights, and particularly sexual and reproductive health and rights, in the bud once and for all,” said Kroeger.
Serra Sippel, president of the US-based Center for Health and Gender Equity, also denounced the declaration as “a vehicle for the United States to undermine national sovereignty and bully other nations into following its anti-choice, anti-human rights and anti-evidence agenda”.
Sippel urged the US Department of State and Department of Health and Human Services to “reflect the ideals of the American people – not the fringe, conservative, Christian ideologies in power”.
Meanwhile, Arizona-based “hate group” Family Watch International and its Spain-based ally, CitizenGo, are running several online petitions in support of the declaration. Curiously, two ostensibly separate petitions aimed at getting Canada and Australia to join the consensus had (at the time of writing) been signed by exactly the same number of people – 18,894.