U.S. Resists International Oversight, Reduces IACHR Funding over Reproductive Rights

Secretary Pompeo Delivers Remarks on the Release of the 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

In another effort to both curtail international human rights oversight and advance a regressive view of reproductive rights, the United States Department of State indicated in late March 2019 that it would reduce its financial support for the region’s human rights bodies, which have urged States to repeal laws that criminalize abortion without any exceptions. [Washington Post; PAI] U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that the U.S. would reduce its regular contribution to the Organization of American States (OAS), a regional intergovernmental organization with 35 Member States, in an effort to target the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM). See U.S. Department of State, Remarks to the Press (Michael R. Pompeo, 26 March 2019); Letter from Lankford et al., U.S. Senators, to Michael Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, United States Senate (Dec. 21, 2018).

The announcement follows other recent efforts by the U.S. to undermine international human rights protections or oversight, including revoking the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s visa to enter the U.S., and efforts to weaken the recommendations on women’s reproductive health and rights during the 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. [Reuters: Prosecutor; The Guardian]

Proposed Funding Cuts to the IACHR

The U.S. State Department’s decision to request less funding for the OAS follows a December 2018 letter by nine Republican Senators to Secretary Pompeo accusing the IACHR and the CIM of “aggressively lobbying in favor of abortion” and urging Pompeo to immediately reduce American financial contributions. See Letter from Lankford et al. The IACHR is an independent oversight body tasked with monitoring, promoting, and protecting human rights in OAS Member States; and, CIM is a specialized inter-governmental organization that promotes and provides guidance on women’s human rights and gender equality. Both are funded, in part, through the OAS budget. While the U.S. Congress is responsible for deciding how much money to allocate to the OAS in the federal budget, the State Department has responsibility for delivering those funds.

The Republican Senators base their argument on a piece of domestic legislation known as the Siljander Amendment from 1981 which prohibits the use of U.S. funds appropriated under the Foreign Operations and Appropriations Act from being used to lobby for or against abortion. See Letter from Lankford et al., U.S. Senators, to Michael Pompeo (Dec. 21, 2018). They cite to the IACHR’s support for the decriminalization of abortion and a declaration insisting that women have the right to choose “how they use their bodies” as evidence of its lobbying efforts to influence the legislative process in sovereign countries. See id.

In June 2017, two of these senators, Senator Mike Lee and Senator Ted Cruz, made a version of this argument in an American newspaper, where they described the IACHR as engaging in “progressive cultural imperialism” and “ideological colonialism” in its analysis of reproductive rights and the rights of LGBTI persons. [Houston Chronicle] Their editorial does not mention the Siljander Amendment or any other legal argument in support of reducing funding to the OAS.

The more recent letter focuses on the IACHR’s and CIM’s well-established analysis on reproductive rights. The IACHR has, for example, encouraged States to stop criminally prosecuting women for obtaining abortions, specifically in instances where the pregnancy was not viable or the woman’s life was at risk. [IACHR Press Release: Criminalization; IACHR Press Release: Reproductive Rights] These bodies’ analysis of access to abortion in light of international human rights standards is consistent with that of other regional and universal human rights bodies, which have urged States to decriminalize abortion in instances of rape, sexual abuse, or risk to the woman’s life or health. See, e.g., OHCHR, Information Series on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights: Abortion.

The senators’ efforts, though, proved effective. On March 26, 2019 Secretary Pompeo gave a statement in which he announced the decision to cut “the estimated U.S. share of possible OAS expenditures on…abortion-related activities” as part of the “State Department’s ongoing efforts to ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars are not used to subsidize or promote abortions.” See U.S. Department of State, Remarks to the Press (Michael R. Pompeo, 26 March 2019). That estimated share of expenditures was calculated to be in the amount of $210,000. [Washington Post: Pompeo]

As an OAS Member State, the U.S. is required to contribute to the OAS regular budget, out of which the IACHR and CIM are both funded. See, e.g., OAS, Program-Budget of the OAS (2019); OAS General Assembly, Resolution 1 (XXXIV-E/07), Methodology for Calculating the Scale of Quota Assessments to Finance the Regular Fund of the Organization, 13 Nov. 2007, OEA/Ser.P/AG/RES. 1 (XXXIV-E/07) rev. 1.

Pushback Against Funding Cuts

Numerous individuals and groups have questioned the senators’ characterization of the IACHR’s work and the purported applicability of the Siljander Amendment. In response to the December 2018 letter, a group of former IACHR commissioners and nominees put forth by the U.S. government explained that none of the IACHR’s activities meet the “lobbying” definition under federal law. See Letter from Farer et al., former IACHR members and nominees, to Michael Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State (Feb. 13, 2019). They lay out three specific reasons as to why the IACHR’s activities cannot be construed as “lobbying,” which requires a “communication to a covered executive branch official or legislative branch official that is made on behalf of a client.” See Letter from Farer et al., former IACHR members and nominees, to Michael Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State (Feb. 13, 2019). First, they argue that the IACHR does not communicate “on behalf of a client,” but rather speaks on behalf of public, as opposed to private, interests. See id. Second, federal law excludes communications made in an official capacity, and the IACHR only makes recommendations to States and adopts measures in its official capacity. See id. Finally, the letter explains that the IACHR’s activities cited by the Republican senators were public communications, publicized via press releases, and did not include any private communications or private lobbying. See id. As such, the group argues concludes that the IACHR’s activities cannot constitute lobbying under U.S. federal law. See id.

Additionally, in February of this year, four Democratic Senators sent a letter to Secretary Pompeo in response to the letter demanding the cuts, urging him to maintain funding. See Letter from Engel et al., U.S. Senators, to Michael Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, United States Senate (Feb. 26, 2019). In their letter, they urged Secretary Pompeo to respect the Congressional intent in the federal budget, and highlighted the work the IACHR does in alignment with presumed American foreign policy interests, including efforts to stabilize the situations in Nicaragua and Venezuela. See id. The IACHR’s most recent annual report summarizes the breadth of its work. See IACHR, Annual Report 2018.

A group of 50 civil society organizations, including the International Justice Resource Center, also called on the U.S. to maintain support and funding to the IACHR. [OSJI Press Release] The group of organizations stated that “cutting or eliminating U.S. funding would put the IACHR at a severe disadvantage in uplifting core values in the Americas – democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” [OSJI Press Release]

Background: U.S. & Reproductive Rights

These efforts are part of broader U.S. efforts to expand the already globally-reaching anti-abortion laws commonly referred to as the “global gag rule,” which face significant criticism among reproductive rights advocates. See Planned Parenthood, What is the Global Gag Rule? Back in January 2017, as one of President Trump’s first actions, he signed an executive order reviving and expanding what is commonly known as the Mexico City Policy, under which the U.S. denies all assistance to foreign-based organizations that perform, promote, or offer information about abortion. [Washington Post: Abortion Policy] This policy applies to the nearly $9 billion the U.S. spends in global health aid, and requires all eligible groups to agree to comply and ensure that all organizations to which they give grants are also in compliance. [Washington Post: Abortion Policy; Washington Post: Pompeo] Secretary Pompeo linked the funding cuts to the IACHR to the “Mexico City Policy,” stating that now American foreign aid “protects more unborn babies around the world than ever before.” See Remarks to the Press (Michael R. Pompeo, 26 March, 2019).

Undermining International Oversight

The U.S. government’s reduced funding to the OAS also fits within a larger pattern of resistance to international oversight and reduced international cooperation on matters related to human rights. These include the recent decision by the U.S. to revoke the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor’s visa to enter the U.S., following its ban on visas to ICC investigators looking into potential war crimes committed by U.S. armed services personnel in Afghanistan. [Reuters: Ban; Reuters: Prosecutor]

Additionally, the U.S. government has worked to weaken language and reporting on reproductive and sexual rights. [Foreign Policy] These efforts included lobbying to eliminate protections for transgender women by replacing the word “gender” with women and girls-specific language in agreements on women’s rights at the most recent Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) session. The Trump administration has also removed references to reproductive and sexual rights from the State Department’s annual reports on human rights around the world. [Foreign Policy]

The U.S. also withdrew from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and made an unprecedented decision to terminate its participation in the Human Rights Council before the end of the term it was elected to serve. [IJRC: United States; IJRC: Consequences] Its engagement at the CSW this year also included attempts to remove references to climate change from the Agreed Conclusions. [Foreign Policy]

Additional Information

For more information on the Inter-American human rights system, CIM, or the UN human rights mechanisms, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. To understand the United State’s international human rights obligations, see IJRC’s United States Factsheet. To stay up-to-date on international human rights news, visit IJRC’s News Room or subscribe to the IJRC Daily.