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Sauerbrey Appointed: Advocates Await First Acts and Replacement at the United Nations

On January 4 th , with Congress in recess, President Bush appointed Ellen Sauerbrey as Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees, Population and Migration. In this office at the State Department, Sauerbrey will be responsible for coordinating the delivery of life-sustaining emergency aid to refugees of foreign wars, persecution, and natural disasters. The recess appointment appears to be an effort to avoid a contentious fight in the Senate over a vote on her confirmation, as many stakeholders—not the least of which are advocates and relief workers immersed in the refugee community—opposed Sauerbrey’s nomination.

Sauerbrey has a track record of promoting radical-right ideology, having served as the U.S. Representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), with the rank of ambassador. In this role, she has opposed ratification of the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a United Nations treaty agreed to by more than 180 countries (excluding the United States ). Despite being charged with advancing women’s well-being and rights, she also objected to language in UN documents that requires countries to “condemn violence against women and refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination as set out in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.”1

Sauerbrey has been one of many official representatives of the current Administration whose work has distanced the U.S. government from the international community. For example, her March 4, 2005 remarks at a UN global women’s conference drew “jeers and catcalls” from the audience, including “some of the 6,000 activists who came from around the world.” She stressed Washington ‘s opposition to abortion and support for sexual abstinence and fidelity. According to Deborah Zabarenko of Rueters, “the loudest catcalls, unusual at the world body, came when she articulated U.S. policy on AIDS prevention for adolescents: ‘We emphasize the value of the ABC—abstinence, be faithful, and correct and consistent condom use where appropriate—approach in comprehensive strategies to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS and the promotion of abstinence as the healthiest and most responsible choice for adolescents.’”2 These policy positions have drawn criticism from experts around the world as undermining efforts to improve women’s health and to curtail the AIDS pandemic.

Not only is her conservative ideology aligned with the Administration but, like many Bush appointees, her qualifications have been questioned. Refugee International wrote, “Ambassador Sauerbrey must demonstrate that she would bring more to the job than her opposition to abortion rights. Her views on women’s education and economic empowerment are admirable and important; approximately 80% of displaced people are women and children, and education and empowerment of women are crucial to refugee protection. But these views alone aren’t enough to qualify her for a job that will put her on the front lines of responding to manmade and natural disasters as well as the human rights and security violations that drive refugees from their homes.”3 More than 30 newspaper editorials nationwide have opposed her nomination, calling it the kind of cronyism that gave us Michael Brown, whose tenure as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency proved so disastrous after Hurricane Katrina.4

Sauerbrey’s blend of radical-right appeal and lack of relevant experience led to early disapproval in the Senate. During her October Senate hearings, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) said, “it doesn’t appear that you have very specific experience.” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) convinced the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to put off a vote on her nomination until after the winter break. Sauerbrey’s lack of qualifications are so glaring that two of the last three people to hold the position—Democrat Phyllis E. Oakley and Republican Julia Taft, both of whom served under Clinton—signed a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opposing her confirmation. Such widespread concerns indicated a slim possibility that the appointment would be confirmed.5

The recess appointment, however, sidesteps a fight in the Senate. In her new position, Sauerbrey’s opposition to sexuality education and sexual health services are likely to affect millions of refugees. With a $700 million annual budget, the department formulates America ‘s response to refugee crises all over the world.

Now, advocates await the two-fold fall out from the Sauerbrey appointment: her first actions in her new role and the appointment of her replacement as Ambassador the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Already, a group of organizations, including SIECUS, has sent a letter to the President, requesting that Sauerbrey’s replacement to the Commission on Status of Women be sufficiently qualified. In addition to experience, the organizations encourage the President to consider a nominee recognized by the broad international community as a leader in the field, with a deep knowledge of human rights instruments, and a commitment to taking action to close the gaps and ensure human rights and equality for all.6


  1. Betsy Illingworth, Who Is Ellen Sauerbrey, Planned Parenthood (5 October 2005), accessed 23 January 2006, < portal/webzine/globaldispatch/gd-051005-ellen-sauerbrey.xml>.
  2. Deborah Zabarenko, “US Draws Jeers for Abortion Comments at UN,” Reuters , 4 March 2005, accessed 23 January 2006, <>.
  3. Kenneth H. Bacon, Statement on the Nomination of Ellen Sauerbrey as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Refugees International, 1 September 2005, accessed 23 January 2006, <>.
  4. “Bush Resorts to Recess Appointment for Sauerbrey,” , 5 January 2006, accessed 16 January 2006, <>.
  5. Michelle Goldberg , “A Disastrous Appointment: Bush’s Backdoor Choice of Unqualified Right-winger Ellen Sauerbrey to Head the US Refugee-response Team Raises the specter of Michael Brown,”, 6 January 2006.
  6. Letter to President George W. Bush, 13 January 2006.