#103 The G|O Briefing, June 30, 2022

US Supreme Court’s decision spillover effect on Geneva – Should Biden call Putin?

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer, a report and an op-ed.

We look at why International Geneva has reacted so swiftly and so strongly to the US Supreme Court’s historic decision last week to overturn Roe v. Wade. The fear here today, writes Jamil Chade, is that the members and supporters of the ‘Geneva Consensus Declaration’ (GCD) will redouble their efforts at the UN to undermine women’s rights. The GCD calls on states to promote women’s rights and health—but without permitting them access to abortion.

The main supporters of the GCD are Brazil, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, and Uganda. Other signatories include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan, Libya, Guatemala, and Colombia.

With the Ukraine Recovery Conference (URC2022) to be held in Lugano on July 4 and 5, frequent G|O contributor Daniel Warner has a thought-provoking Op-Ed on the ethics of speaking with human rights violators. Five months into the conflict and with no end in sight at this point, he argues that not only should Joe Biden reach out to Vladimir Putin, but that by traveling soon to Riyad to meet with Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, the American president is guilty of double standards.

It’s all below. As always, thank you for reading us.



By Jamil Chade

The June 24 ruling by the US Supreme Court overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion across the United States sent shock waves through Geneva, opening a new and uncertain chapter in the highly polarized debate on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The decision was unanimously celebrated by members of governments, ambassadors, and allies of the Geneva Consensus Declaration (GCD), a group of 30 states established to restrict access to abortion and promote traditional family values. Members of the GCD are attempting to weed out references to abortion in international legal documents, in UN resolutions and other multilateral fora, and the group has thus always been extremely active in Geneva.

Supported by the Trump administration and his conservative Christian Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the GCD suffered an important setback when, in one of the first decisions of his presidency, Joe Biden decided to withdraw from the group.

Last week’s ruling by the US Supreme Court, however, was seen as a major game changer for the GCD. Valerie Huber, who served as the US special representative for Global Women’s Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services in the Trump administration before founding the pro-life Institute for Women’s Health (IWH), is the group’s de facto coordinator. She immediately claimed that the decision should be considered a full validation of their positions, and that the ruling would have a major positive impact internationally.

“Abortion is not a fundamental human right internationally nor in the U.S.,” she tweeted after the Court’s decision, adding: “While this is a massive legal win for the pro-life movement in the U.S., this decision will have a significant effect throughout the world. Just as the IWH supports returning abortion legislative power to the 50 U.S. states, we also support the sovereign right of nation-states to determine their own laws regarding abortion without interference from the U.S. or other progressive allied nations.” Continuing, “we expect the Biden administration to continue imposing their radical abortion agenda across the globe,” she also insisted that the ruling “will empower nations to stand more firmly and confidently in their efforts to promote women’s health while defending life at every stage.”

Huber wasted no time in pushing her message in the US and abroad, and last week travelled to Brazil, where she was received by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. An abstinence-only activist, Huber is one of the most ideologically driven opponents of women’s reproductive rights, and was a central figure in shaping the language of the Geneva Consensus Declaration. In an op-ed written shortly before the Court’s expected decision, she directly attacked the World Health Organization (WHO), writing that the “organization was full of ideologues masquerading as experts.”


The reaction in New York and in Geneva was swift. Fearing that ultraconservative governments would step up their diplomatic efforts within the organization, the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General pointed out that criminalizing abortions would not prevent them, but merely make them more deadly. “A staggering 45% of all abortions around the world are unsafe, making this a leading cause of maternal death,” a statement by the United Nations Population Fund read.

In Geneva, WHO insisted that access to safe abortion care was “essential” and that removing it would “put more women and girls at risk of illegal abortions and the consequent safety issues that would bring.” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus himself tweeted that he was “concerned and disappointed” by the US ruling. He said it reduced both “women’s rights and access to health care.”

In a statement, Michelle Bachelet said that the ruling “represents a major setback after five decades of protection for sexual and reproductive health and rights in the US through Roe v Wade. It is a huge blow to women’s human rights and gender equality,” she added.

According to her office, the access to safe, legal and effective abortion is “firmly rooted” in international human rights law, and is at the core of women’s and girls’ autonomy and ability to make their own choices about their bodies and lives, free of discrimination, violence and coercion—the very view that, with the help of conservative academics, the GCD opposes.

“If the Court chooses to consult international law in this case, it will find there is no treaty that recognizes a so-called human right to abortion, nor has such a right been established through customary law,” they claim, in an “Amici Curiae” brief to the Supreme Court:

“[… T]he practice across all regions demonstrates a consistent State prerogative to protect unborn life. Nor has any international court declared the existence of an international right to abortion, even in regions with the most permissive abortion regimes,” the authors of the brief argue, claiming that those governments or actors seeking to “invent a new right to abortion” commit a misinterpretation of key international instruments, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Rome Statute, and the International Conference on Population and Development. “The clear language in those documents defies any attempt to repurpose them to create an international human right to abortion,” they write.

They underline that, to the contrary, provisions recognizing the unborn child as a rights-holder can be found in many international human rights instruments, including the American Convention on Human Rights, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

According to the UN, more than 50 countries with previously restrictive laws have liberalized their abortion legislation over the past 25 years. For many hardline religious, populist and autocratic states, such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Pakistan and South Sudan, the legal position taken by the conservative majority of the US Supreme Court offers new arguments to strengthen their position against those international agreements and treaties which have been negotiated over the years and are today legally binding.

- JC, with PHM


By Daniel Warner

Should President Biden meet Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to try to persuade him to increase his country’s oil production? Should he speak directly to Vladimir Putin to try to end the war in Ukraine? Neither outreach would represent a form of endorsement; and they are arguably both necessary for much larger considerations.

To the first question, Biden has already said yes; he will go to Riyadh in July. The argument for the visit is obvious: With oil prices rising, inflation growing, and mid-term elections in November, it is imperative for Biden and the Democrats that the world’s oil production is increased, so that supply can respond to demand and decrease the price at the pump. The assumption behind the visit is that if Saudi Arabia increases its oil output, the world’s supply will increase, prices will go down, inflation will be lowered, and Democrats will have better chances at the polls in the November mid-terms.

The arguments against the visit are also obvious. “Meeting Mohammed bin Salman without human rights commitments would vindicate Saudi leaders who believe there are no consequences for egregious rights violations,” said a Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. Biden had said during his 2020 campaign that he would seek to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are.” He specified that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

The link between the crown prince and the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has been documented, as have war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Besides the human rights argument, there are no guarantees that increased oil production by Saudi Arabia or other members of OPEC will reduce prices and slow inflation.

Asked about the decision to take the trip despite Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record, Biden replied in terms of his overall strategy of bringing peace to the Middle East: “I’m not going to change my view on human rights, but as President of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre repeated this “peace” argument: “The President views Saudi Arabia as an important partner on a host of initiatives that we are working on, both in the region and around the world.”

The administration’s argument for a Biden-MBS meeting is that it is in the interest of peace in the Middle East and “around the world” that the two should talk. Overall peace—as well as increased oil production—overrides the horrendous human rights record of the Saudi leader, according to the Biden team.

If “pariah” was the term Biden used to describe MBS during his campaign before apparently changing his mind, what about the President’s views on Vladimir Putin? If the Biden team sees meeting MBS face-to-face as a positive step to increase oil production and reduce tensions in the Middle East, surely there is a more pressing need to have another Biden-Putin summit to stop the carnage in Ukraine and increase grain delivery. But the last—and only—summit between the two, in Geneva on June 16, 2021, led to no concrete results. On the contrary, eight months later, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Putin was obviously not impressed enough with Biden to alter his plans for military aggression. For the moment, no mention is being made of a follow-up meeting.

If Biden can’t talk to Putin, who can? The most promising candidate is French President Emmanuel Macron. According to reports, Macron has had a hundred hours of telephone conversations with the Russian President since December. To what avail? While the dialogue may have solidified Macron’s self-image as a big-league international leader, the war continues to rage in Ukraine.

The fundamental question is one of the value of conversation. Any proposal to have Biden meet with Putin again brings comparisons with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 talks with Hitler, and the ‘appeasement’ agreed in Munich, which failed to prevent World War II. Macron is already being criticized along these lines; Biden would certainly be rebuked for even proposing a second summit.

For the Biden team, talking to MBS is acceptable; talking to Putin is not. Perhaps the fact that Putin’s human rights violations are more egregious serves as the logic behind this. However, the evidence appears to be that the war in Ukraine has more immediate and grave consequences than the price of oil or any slim progress towards Middle East peace, and one might think that this would be reason enough to engage in discussions.

The Biden team will argue that they see no positive results from negotiating with Putin. The failure of the Geneva summit will be their point of reference, as will the failed attempts by Macron to deescalate the conflict through telephone conversations. For the moment, only autocrats like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus have managed to convene any major peace negotiations.

President Biden’s planned trip to meet with MBS raises serious questions about the criteria for deciding whom to talk to: If speaking to a human rights violator like MBS is deemed acceptable because it is in some general interest, surely speaking directly to Vladimir Putin follows that same logic. Indeed, if “meeting jaw-to-jaw is [always] better than war,” according to Churchill, then some form of Biden outreach to Russia should at least be on the cards.

- DW

This piece originally appeared in French in a slightly different version in Le Temps.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade

Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue

Edited by: Dan Wheeler