Author:Ergas, Yasmine


In April 2019, the United States threatened to use its veto in the UN Security Council (UNSC). (1) That was not an unusual move: the Permanent Five members of the UNSC often exercise their right to block a United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR). But what was striking in this case was the content of the resolution against which the US felt both compelled and legitimated to invoke what is, in effect, the Council's "nuclear option." Did the draft Resolution introduced by Germany--a US ally--threaten U.S. national security? Did it undermine a friendly nation? In fact, Germany proposed to do neither. Rather, it sought to establish a working group within the UNSC on sexual violence in conflict, and generally strengthen the Council's monitoring of related processes. Why, then, did the US object? As importantly, why did feminist groups also voice concern about the German initiative?

While further research is needed to answer these questions, this essay views the U.S. position on Germany's draft resolution as an expression of the stance taken by the U.S. administration and other states toward what one could term the "Beijing Settlement," the general, albeit always contested, consensus rhetorically encapsulated in the slogan that "women's rights are human rights, and human rights are women's rights," which emerged from the fourth world conference on women in 1995. (2) The U.S. administration's stance is reflective of a broad backlash against gender-related rights, including both women's rights generally and all persons' rights related to sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and sexual characteristics.

The Beijing conference centered on women's rights, as does the Beijing Settlement. Women's rights pertaining to sexuality were given relatively short shrift at the conference; and connections between women's rights generally and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) rights more broadly understood were not explicitly drawn in the conference's concluding documents, despite repeated references to "gender." (i,3) But the discrimination and oppression of women is a result of the multiple ways in which gender structures and is structured by social and political organization, as are the forms of discrimination and oppression specifically experienced by LGBTIQ individuals, whether male or female or situated outside of this dichotomic scheme. Thus, the Beijing Settlement is fundamentally about gender; the backlash against it is aimed directly at policies and practices promoting gender equality. Unsurprisingly, it targets both LGBTIQ rights and women's rights, even as it sometimes plays the former against the latter. (ii) The Beijing Settlement's demise, should it occur, would entail a fundamental reordering of the geopolitics of gender.

It is unclear whether the backlash will succeed in upending the basic understandings on which the Settlement rests. Nonetheless, it has accelerated over the past decade, concomitantly with the rise of sovereigntist/nationalist movements and governments, and profoundly reshapes the context of today's global feminisms. (iii) Originally synthesized in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action after much debate and contestation among and between states and advocates, the Beijing Settlement rested inter alia on the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the work of three preceding world conferences on women. (4) The Beijing Settlement resonated with the General Assembly's Declaration on Violence against Women (1993), the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights (1993), and the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action (1994), among others. Today, it incorporates subsequent international resolutions such as those comprising the Women, Peace, and Security agenda and the mandates and reports of several special procedures, such as the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, and those of other dedicated functions within the international system, as well as the findings of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (and several other human rights treaty bodies) and echoes throughout the Sustainable Development Goals. (iv) It is also central to the constitution of UN Women, the United Nations entity for gender equality and women's empowerment established in 2010. (5)

Fundamental aspects of the Beijing Settlement are explicated in the Beijing Declaration, which asserted that "women's rights are human rights," avowed governments' commitment to the "equal rights and inherent human dignity of women and men" and to ensuring "the full implementation of the human rights of women and the girl child as an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of all human rights," explicitly recognized and reaffirmed "the right of all women to control all aspects of their health, in particular their fertility" and identified the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls as a priority action. (6) Moreover, the Declaration--and even more so, the Platform for Action--used the terminology of "gender." By way of example, the Platform's Mission Statement noted "the common goal of gender equality," and the Declaration called for gender-sensitive policies and programs. (7) Issues pertaining to the rights of women were thus framed in relation to gender as a fundamental dimension of social and political organization.

The Declaration paired affirmations of women's right to have rights with expressions of faith that women's advancement would redound to the general good and with mentions of world peace and global disarmament. (8) It also explicitly recognized that the Declaration entailed costly and difficult programmatic and financial commitments on the part of states and international organizations. In addition to requiring them to mainstream gender in their policies, (9) the Declaration noted:

"The success of the [Beijing] Platform for Action...will require a strong commitment on the part of Governments, international organizations and institutions at all levels...[and] adequate mobilization of resources at the national and international levels as well as new and additional resources to the developing countries from all available funding mechanisms...financial resources to strengthen the capacity of national, sub regional and international institutions...a commitment to the equal rights, equal responsibilities and equal opportunities and to the equal participation of women and men in all national, regional and international bodies and policy-making processes; and the establishment or strengthening of mechanisms at all levels for accountability to the world's women." (10) The Declaration was signed by governments. But it stressed international cooperation and the role and responsibilities of international organizations, and recognized the importance of civil society organizations (CSOs). "[I]n cooperation with governments" but "in full respect of their autonomy," CSOs--and, especially, "women's groups and networks"--were to ensure the "effective implementation and follow-up of the Beijing Platform." Indeed, the accords established at Beijing emerged out of two conferences: the 1995 NGO Forum on Women (reportedly attended by 31,000 women from around the globe) led into the official UN Conference (over 12,000 attendees, including 4,030 representatives of NGOs). (11,12) Women's civil society organizations formed a key part of the proceedings. Thus the Declaration and the platform on which the Beijing Settlement was based established a tripartite, informal, unequally weighted and uneasy partnership among states, international organizations, and women's rights advocates. (v) Governments maintained their dominant role, followed by international organizations, and then CSOs; but the legitimate claim of CSOs, in particular of those representing women's rights, to a voice in the realization of the goals and actions stipulated at Beijing was established. When that tripartite partnership, and the basic commitments around which it was constructed, is called into question, the Beijing Settlement is at risk.


There has always been intra-feminist dissent to the Beijing Settlement. Some feminists have long critiqued other feminists' rights agendas as a neo-colonialist product of the West, forcibly, and often failingly, imposed on the global south. (13) They have emphasized the discriminatory assimilation of all women into a unifying category of "womanhood" that ignores the role intersectional factors play in creating profoundly different, and hierarchically situated, experiences of being a woman, depicts some women as victims and others as their saviors, and minimizes emancipatory claims based on class, race and nationhood. (14) They have disagreed over the turn to criminal justice, seeing in recourse to courts a reductionist and punitive approach to complex social issues, such as those raised by the debate regarding prostitution/sex work. And they have seen in the institutionalism associated with "governance feminists," and their emphasis on achieving change through legal reform and administrative action, a technocratic tendency to cleanse policy of politics and reduce transformative movement agendas into incremental interventions fitted to, rather than disruptive of, existing modes of governance. (vi,15) Debates around these and similar issues continue to engage feminist scholars and advocates. But the most forceful opposition to the Beijing Settlement today comes from sovereigntist states and social movements, at times bolstered by--or responsive to--religiously inspired organizations, including the Holy See (whose Permanent Observer status enables it to...

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