On September 27 more heads of state and government than ever before met in New York City to make commitments to gender equality and women’s rights at the Beijing+20 summit. One country’s leader was conspicuously absent from the 80 heads of state and government who attended the summit meeting though. That leader was President Obama. Instead of attending the event, despite being present in order to give a speech at the UN that very same day, he sent the US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. The summit only allowed for heads of state to speak so while governments from around the world were pledging their support and money to women’s empowerment and gender equality. So, the United States – a country that expresses pride at the status of women domestically and that claims to champion women’s rights internationally – was silent. Instead, their commitment was sent in an email to UN Women after the fact. The summit was just one of the events that drew a total of 150 heads of state and government to the UN that weekend. The General Assembly (GA) met to adopt the 2015 Sustainable Development goals as well as open the GA, which was a special occasion because it was the 70th anniversary of the founding of the UN.

The US’ conspicuous absence was not intended to indicate US’ lack of commitment to women’s rights and gender equality, but rather, it was an expression of the US’s lack of conviction about the sincerity of the claimed commitment of others. While many of the countries that attended like Afghanistan, Algeria, Columbia, Malaysia, and Rwanda have less than stellar women’s rights records, the particular focus of the US’s boycott (for that is what it was) was China and President Xi Jinping, the country co-hosting the summit with UN Women.

Obama, who has become much more vocal about his opinions in the late stages of his last term, said in his speech at the UN on Sunday, “One of the best indicators of whether a country will succeed is how it treats its women, and I have to say I do not have patience for the excuse of ‘well we have our own way of doing things.'” He then went on to say, “We understand that there is a long tradition in every society of discriminating against women. But that’s not an excuse.”

These statements seemed to be a direct dig at (among others) Xi Jinping who had stated earlier in the week, during the bilateral agreement between the two states, “We must recognize that countries have different historical processes and realities, and we need to respect people of all countries in the right to choose their own development path independently,” with regard to human rights.

Obama’s comments coupled with the particularly visible campaign of the US mission to the UN, ‘Free The 20‘, would make it appear that the US has made women’s rights a major international priority. The ‘Free the 20’ campaign highlights the fact that women human rights defender are imprisoned in some context simply for their feminist convictions. The campaign involved the prominent displaying of photographs of 20 women prisoners of conscience in the front window of the impressive facade of the US mission to the UN, an unavoidable display for to all that enter the UN just across the street. As part of this campaign the US had pushed UN Women to co-host an event, centering on the 20 women activists, but UN Women apparently resisted.[1] The US also unsuccessfully lobbied for a significant representation of women human rights activists to be included among the speakers at the Sunday Beijing plus 20 summit. Three of the activists on the list of twenty highlighted by the US mission to the UN are from China.

The singling out of China in particular is curious, particularly as this happened during an important state visit by Xi Jinping just prior to the GA meeting, in which he and Obama held a bilateral discussion on climate change. Why did  Obama choose to take a stand in this way and not make it more of a priority during the bilateral talks?  If Obama was so offended by China’s treatment of women human rights defenders, why not raise the issue directly and privately with the Chinese leader before the Beijing plus 20 meeting? Could it be that Obama was trying to avoid confrontation with China on the issue by not raising it privately, yet also wanted to send a signal to the women’s movement that he does indeed care? Or could it simply be that the US’s stand on the women human rights defenders was not deemed significant enough for the bilateral exchanges and was instead relegated to what is seen, an insignificant backwater, where multilateral forums provide space for posturing but not for accountability. This made the UN Women – China meeting a place to play out minor skirmishes but not the real stuff of international politics. Unfortunately, Obama’s absence at the women’s rights summit appears to be more of an empty gesture than a sign that the US is going to take a hard stand on women’s rights and gender equality issues in its foreign policy. Instead of giving Obama a pat on the back for taking a principled stand, feminists should insist on consistency in the US’s position on women’s’ rights and ask that abuses of feminists and other women rights defenders be protested by the US wherever they occur – and that the protest is made at every possible opportunity.

[1] Westcott, Lucy, “World leaders Address Women’s Rights Empowerment at UN, but Key Countries Absent”.  Newsweek. Newsweek.com, 27 September 2015. http://www.newsweek.com/world-leaders-talk-women-rights-united-nations-377221

Photo Credit: Scottmeltzer


Cassandra Mueller is currently a Masters candidate at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. She is writing her thesis on Transitional Justice. Cassie earned her B.A. in Political Science from Kent State University.  

Written by Cassandra Mueller

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