Global Policy Forum

Bush Extends Jihad Against UNFPA


By Jim Lobe

Inter Press Service
July 16, 2004

In what critics are calling its latest slap at women and multilateralism, the administration of U.S. President George W Bush announced Friday that the 34 million dollars Congress had earmarked for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) will be used for other purposes.

The decision, which marks the third year in a row the administration has withheld congressionally appropriated funding to UNFPA, was not unexpected, particularly given the administration's efforts to fire up its Christian-right-wing base in advance of November's presidential election.

But at the same time, it belies recent attempts by Bush himself to reassure U.S. allies abroad that his administration may be somewhat less inclined to go it alone on the international stage in light of the setbacks its unilateralism has suffered in Iraq. ''I was really surprised at the egregious nature of the (UNFPA) announcement today'', said former Senator Tim Wirth, director of the United Nations Foundation (UNF). ''This marks another blow to U.S. credibility in the international community. The administration has once again embarrassed the United States,'' he told journalists.

The announcement came in the form of a tersely worded statement released by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, which said the department had determined that UNFPA's programmes in China violated a 20-year-old law, the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which forbids U.S. aid to any agency that ''supports or participates in the management of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilisation''.

While State Department officials have never found any evidence that UNFPA provides any direct support for coercive practices, the administration has argued since 2002 that any agency support to China may indirectly support such practices by freeing up resources that can be used by the dwindling number of Chinese counties that enforce them. Out of its 300-million-dollar annual budget, UNFPA spends only 3.5 million dollars in China, most of it for a pilot project that is explicitly designed to promote voluntary family-planning practices, a project that a recent British delegation recently characterised as a ''force for good'' in persuading county authorities to give up coercive practices.

But the State Department concluded that ''no key changes (in UNFPA's programmes in China) have taken place'', and that the ban on all U.S. aid to China would remain in force. The head of UNFPA's Washington office, Sarah Craven, said the decision was ''deeply regrettable'', particularly because it was based on assumptions about UNFPA's work that were ''absolutely false and baseless''. The 34 million dollars Congress approved, she noted, represented about 10 percent of the agency's budget. ''That money could have prevented up to two million unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 induced abortions and maternal deaths, and 77,000 infant and child deaths annually'', she told journalists in a tele-conference, adding that UNFPA provides resources and expertise in family-planning and reproductive health in 141 developing countries.

With the announcement, the Bush administration will have cancelled a total of 93 million dollars appropriated by Congress for UNFPA since 2002, the first time that an administration had interpreted Kemp-Kasten so broadly. Previously, Congress had required UNFPA to hold the U.S. contribution in a separate account to ensure that none of the money went to China. It also required that the amount of money UNFPA spent in the country be subtracted from the U.S. contribution.

But anti-abortion forces, which are especially strong in the Republican-led House of Representatives, succeeded in 2002 to change the law to give the president discretion to withhold congressionally appropriated money for UNFPA -- an option that Bush exercised in both 2002 and 2003.

Pro-UNFPA lawmakers succeeded this year in requiring the State Department to file a report on UNFPA's activities in China before the president could act, but the report, which is supposed to be filed with Congress but has not yet been made public, reportedly asserts there were no substantial changes in the past year that would affect the application of Kemp-Kasten. ''This is simply pandering to the right-wing mullahs of this country'', said New York Representative Carolyn Maloney, a veteran champion of UNFPA who earlier this year proposed that Bush earmark all UNFPA funds for its programmes to help women with obstetric fistula, a particularly debilitating condition caused by untreated obstructed labour that affects million of women in poor countries.

''The world's neediest women and children are again paying the price for the president's re-election campaign to play to his far-right base,'' Maloney told the tele-conference. ''(The administration) talk(s) about wanting to work in a multilateral way, (but) this go-it-alone attitude has really weakened the United States in the international community'', she said, noting the administration in June threatened to cut its contributions to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) if they continued carrying out joint programmes with UNFPA. ''It's just outrageous''.

Since the 2002 U.S. cut-off, UNFPA's European donors have increased their contributions. Just last week, Britain announced a sharp hike in its aid to the agency, as well as to UNAIDS and other reproductive-health programmes in poor countries. ''It's a travesty that the administration didn't follow in the steps of their British allies'', said Amy Coen, president of Population Action International (PAI), who noted that Bush's hostility toward both family-planning and reproductive-health programmes was also on display this week at the 15th UNAIDS conference in Bangkok, where the U.S. delegation was strongly assailed for its unilateral approach to fighting AIDS and its programmatic emphasis on abstention and fidelity in preventing the spread of the epidemic.

''There are very close parallels between UNFPA and the AIDS agenda'', said Wirth, noting that the latest U.S. regulations require Washington's aid recipients to stress the ''lack of effectiveness of condom use''. ''There is no evidence (for that conclusion)'', said Wirth. ''This is being made up for political reasons''.

Lois Abraham, co-founder of 34 million Friends of UNFPA, a grassroots group that has raised almost two million dollars in private contributions from more than 100,000 U.S. citizens since 2003, compared the administration's process in reaching its decision on UNFPA to that which brought it to war in Iraq. ''I see a very strong parallel here between accepting information that is wrong because it supports what you want to do and ignoring information that is credible and right'', she told journalists, noting that several church groups had recently gone to China and determined that UNFPA programmes there are preventing abortions from taking place.

The State Department did not say how it would spend the money it is denying to UNFPA, although in the past it has said it would be used for bilateral population and child-survival programmes. At an unrelated campaign event Friday, Bush said his administration had just found 25 million dollars more in the State Department budget to devote to U.S. efforts to fight human trafficking, but it could not be confirmed if that money is to be taken from the UNFPA earmark.

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