An Innocuous UN Breastfeeding Resolution Becomes an Opportunity to Shill for Business and Bully Other Countries—Except Russia
Does our government represent 325 million Americans or just the Chamber of Commerce? Does it really put corporate profit over public health? Can Trump recognize any issue that involves women without being offensive?
The questions may have seemed ridiculous until Trump and his cabinet of billionaires decided to turn the U.S. government into an organization to shill for American business, including its interests, and the basis of Trump’s America First slogans that have led to ignoring climate change, enforcing U.S. trade tariffs and abrogating existing treaties.
Over the weekend, even that policy was topped by U.S. opposition to a United Nations-affiliated World Health Organization vote to encourage breastfeeding. A routine health measure based on decades of research to endorse the idea that mother’s milk is the healthiest for children fell apart when, ogre-like, U.S. delegates disrupted the procedures to defend the interests of infant formula manufacturers.
Worse, the United States then threatened that Ecuador, sponsor of the resolution, drop the measure or face trade barriers and a loss of U.S. military aid.
In other words, the United States of America, beacon of the Free World, is using the weapon of the almighty dollar to force other countries to pay allegiance to American business. Is this making America Great Again or what?
Yesterday, Trump backtracked, tweeting that the U.S. “strongly supports breastfeeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.”
The resolution said countries should recognize the health of mother’s milk by advising countries to limit the inaccurate or misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes. Pretty Draconian, right? According to The New York Times, U.S. delegates sought to water down the resolution by removing language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding” and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children. According to those taking part in the discussions, when that effort failed, the United States used threats.
“The Americans were blunt: If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced,” reported The Times.
The Times said they got the story from more than a dozen participants.
The news organization said that health advocates tried to find another sponsor for the resolution, but at least a dozen countries, most of them poor nations in Africa and Latin America, backed off, citing fears of retaliation, according to officials from Uruguay, Mexico and the United States. The Times quoted Patti Rundall, policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, who has attended meetings of the assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, since the late 1980s. “What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on the best way to protect infant and young child health,” she said.
Ultimately – and ironically — it was the Russians who ultimately stepped in to introduce the measure — and the Americans did not threaten them. Maybe Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin want to include breastfeeding as a topic in their coming summit. One Russian delegate explained that they reacted to the effort to push around little countries.
The State Department said nothing. The Department of Health and Human Services, the lead agency in the effort to modify the resolution, offered an explanation of the attempt to lessen the impact of the language but said it was not involved in the threats.
The $70 billion formula industry led by a handful of American and European companies has seen sales flatten in wealthy countries in recent years, as more women embrace breastfeeding.
The Times said, “The intensity of the administration’s opposition to the breastfeeding resolution stunned public health officials and foreign diplomats, who described it as a marked contrast to the Obama administration, which largely supported W.H.O.’s longstanding policy of encouraging breastfeeding.”
Breastfeeding is not the only target. In talks to renegotiate the NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, the United States has been pushing for language that would limit placing labels on junk food and sugary beverages, according to a draft of the proposal reviewed by The New York Times. During the same Geneva meeting where the breastfeeding resolution was debated, the United States succeeded in removing statements supporting soda taxes from a document that advises countries grappling with soaring rates of obesity. The Americans also sought, unsuccessfully, to thwart a W.H.O. effort aimed at helping poor countries obtain access to lifesaving medicines, apparently in support of Big Pharma.
In the end, the United States was largely unsuccessful. The final resolution preserved most of the original wording, though American negotiators did get language removed that called on the W.H.O. to provide technical support to member states seeking to halt “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children.”
The real losers here are children, of course. But there also is a discernible loss for Americans whose core values continue to veer sharply toward support for international corporations over the needs and health of people.