The UN Breastfeeding Resolution, Ecuador, and a Negative Pattern

The current US administration has shown a consistent tendency to defer to the interests of private industry over those of human health and well-being, often despite overwhelming scientific consensus. In a similar disturbing pattern, the administration has shown an active disregard for multilateral organizations, treaties, and trade agreements.  Earlier this summer, both of these tendencies converged during a UN world health meeting in which a resolution was set to be introduced, one designed to offer global encouragement for the breastfeeding of infants and newborns.

The resolution contained separate elements targeting the promotion of breastfeeding as the healthiest option for new parents, and a call to end the “promotion of inappropriate” food choices for babies and young children.

Though the resolution ultimately passed (with changes to the wording of the second section at the insistence of the US delegation), the entire resolution appeared to be in jeopardy for several days, due to the US administration’s interest in placating the $70 billion infant formula industry. And on the path to the final passage, the US delegation engaged in a series of troubling tactics. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, but they raised alarm among all delegations and gained the brief attention of US and world media outlets.

We believe the attention paid to this series of events to be insufficient, and far more notable than their fleeting media spotlight might suggest. We live in an age of constant distractions and a news cycle that churns at unprecedented speed, but this issue—and the behavior of the administration regarding the resolution—seemed unusual, even by current standards. Read more about the breastfeeding resolution here, here, and here.

In summary, to try to prevent the passage of the resolution, the US threatened to cut its contributions to the World Health Organization (the US contributes almost 15% of the agency's budget). More egregious, the US threatened to place trade sanctions on Ecuador, a small country that relies heavily on US military aid, if the resolution were to succeed. The US insisted on the removal of language calling on governments to “protect, promote, and support breastfeeding.”  

While the US leveled threats against Ecuador, it did not direct the same threats toward Russia. Russia ultimately stepped up to back and help pass the resolution, with success.

The United States also tried and failed to thwart a W.H.O. effort aimed at helping poor countries obtain access to lifesaving medicines. In support of the pharmaceutical industry, The US has resisted modified patent laws that might make drugs more available in the developing world, but health advocates say this opposition has increased with the current administration.

We like to draw a moment of additional attention to the kinds of events that are too quickly swept off the stage, and this falls into that category. Follow us to learn more.