The Human Rights Council (HRC) is the UN’s main “political” human rights body, meaning it’s the main place where governments discuss human rights issues, negotiate human rights standards, and hold one another accountable for human rights violations. The HRC meets a few times a year, and recently concluded its 47th session in July.
For many years, the HRC has been a key scene of high-profile anti-rights moves at the international policy level, while remaining a site of the most overall progress on sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR). Feminist mobilization and advocacy have been at the forefront of these advancements, including efforts to resist and challenge the current onslaught of anti-rights backlash. Below we highlight a number of tactics and discourses employed by anti-rights actors during HRC 47 and share the growing challenges faced by feminist and human rights advocates working in this space, especially in the context of Covid-19.
Blocking and disrupting: conservative states
Throughout negotiations of resolutions, we heard many familiar strategies and discourses employed in a bid to resist progressive language coming from states. In efforts to water down rights related to gender and sexuality at the HRC, conservative states and blocs of states often aggressively negotiate out rights-affirming language and introduce hostile amendments to resolutions. The return of Russia to the HRC saw the country lead a series of hostile amendments against resolutions related to gender and sexuality while actively blocking and disrupting language on SRHR during negotiations. Russia tabled 10 hostile amendments to the resolution on human rights and HIV and AIDS, along with several other joint amendments with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt to the resolution on preventable maternal mortality and morbidity, as well as the resolution on violence against women and girls with disabilities. These amendments were all defeated by vote.
Appeals to cultural relativism to argue for dilution of human rights protections
In the negotiations of various resolutions, some states argued for the need to take into account the “cultural specificities” of different countries, or existing national laws. For example, Egypt, Russia, and Iraq argued against the use of “key populations” in their hostile amendments against the HIV and AIDS resolution. The states argued that the “culture and most affected people differ from one country to another.” UN agencies such as UNAIDS define the term as populations with higher risk of contracting infections, including sex workers, men who have sex with men, among others. Many countries have also created and implemented policies to address HIV and AIDS using this concept. Arguing that each country should “define its own vulnerable populations based on their local epidemiological context” is a move to avoid accountability for violations and rights protection of marginalized communities in their country. Similarly, Egypt and Saudi Arabia tabled an amendment against the inclusion of comprehensive sexuality education in the resolution on violence against women and girls with disabilities, on the basis that it contradicts their “culture.”
“Protection of the family”
Instrumentalizing the Covid-19 crisis, Côte d’Ivoire led a statement on the obligation of states to “protect the family” and implement “family oriented policies” given the family’s “crucial role.” There were many rumors that a specific resolution on the theme would be tabled this session, posing a risk for regressive language to be solidified into accepted human rights language. It was a relief for many feminist activists that a statement took place instead, as it has much less political weight compared to a resolution. However, the fact that the statement was endorsed by 98 countries signals significant support for its rhetoric. This statement echoes previous resolutions on “protection of the family” that refuse to recognize the family as a possible site of violence for women, gender-diverse people and marginalized individuals and instils a narrow patriarchal and heteronormative conception of the family.
Infiltrating and co-opting: anti-rights civil society actors
These anti-rights trends in the HRC are already familiar to feminists, who have persistently raised alarm over the substantial increase of anti-rights civil society mobilization in UN spaces in New York, particularly the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW). Christian right civil society organizations, such as C-Fam and Family Watch International, have built regressive coalitions within the CSW, such as the UN Family Rights Caucus, and persistently lobby states to keep the CSW Agreed Conclusions text unambitious and watered-down compared to other gender-related UN negotiated text. It is then unsurprising that feminist groups are finding it harder and harder to advance rights at CSW, as so much energy is taken up trying to hold ground against anti-rights backlash.
While coordinated state pushback against rights related to gender and sexuality have been more significant at the HRC, mobilization of anti-rights civil society actors have been less prominent and impactful in Geneva. However, with expanding resources and strategic transnational alliances, anti-rights civil society actors such as CitizenGo and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) are becoming increasingly visible and engaged at the HRC. Adopting an inside/outside approach, anti-rights actors have outrightly attacked particular UN Special Procedure mandate holders in an attempt to delegitimize the UN human rights system as a whole, while actively advocating for anti-rights agendas from within.
Find out more about anti-rights civil society actors
Collusion between states and anti-rights civil society organizations
The increasing influence of anti-rights civil society on state delegations in the HRC is becoming a significant source of concern for feminist activists. Activists have reported instances of lengthy consultations between anti-rights civil society organizations and states such as Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, and noted how the same states deliver statements in the HRC that closely mirror anti-rights organizations’ talking points. During this particular session, Pakistan and Bangladesh objected to the inclusion of the right to safe abortion in the resolution on violence against women and girls with disabilities, using “the protection of the right to life” as an argument. Typically the focus of the right wing and Christian fundamentalist anti-abortion rhetoric, such as ADF, “the right to life’’ has not been prominent in Bangladesh and Pakistan’s discourse at home or within international policy spaces. This crossover is not a mere coincidence but appears to be an outcome of an ongoing “Trojan horse” strategy that aims to undermine and water down human rights standards from inside of the human rights system.
Cooptation of disability rights to undermine the right to abortion
The push for exclusion of safe abortion by Bangladesh and Pakistan during the violence against women resolution negotiations was immediately backed by ADF. While not outrightly rejecting the inclusion of the right to safe abortion in the text, ADF stressed that “in cases where children are unwanted because they have disabilities...we will never accept this is a part of health service.” Echoing a common anti-rights tactic in the UN, ADF further argued to revert to “agreed upon language” of weaker texts like the ICPD, to stress that abortion “should never be promoted as a method of family planning.”
These arguments are in line with an overall tactical shift by ADF and other anti-rights actors in recent years. These groups have moved from explicitly religious and anti-rights narratives towards those that co-opt progressive human rights language instead. In this particular instance, ADF has co-opted the real concerns of disability rights advocates to push for restriction or elimination of abortion access. Anti-rights actors pitch reproductive rights as being in opposition to the interests of marginalized groups. A comprehensive and intersectional framework of reproductive justice affirms the rights of all to bodily autonomy and encompasses disability justice.
“Gender ideology” and the victimhood narrative
Another Christian right organization, HazteOir, delivered an oral statement in response to the report of the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (IE on SOGI), regarding the “law of inclusion” on the basis of gender and gender identity. The organization accused “proponents of gender ideology and the LGBT agenda” of “silencing, eliminating, and vilifying anyone who opposes their agenda.” Anti-rights actors often weaponize this victimhood narrative to claim being a "moral voice" under attack and to serve their anti-rights campaigns to mobilize the public.
In HazteOir’s statement, the “gender ideology” discourse was employed to delegitimize gender and social justice advocates by painting them as “authoritarian” lobbyists that seek to “impose their ideologies as absolute truths”, and threaten the “natural order’’ of “the family.” Calling on the OHCHR and mandate holders to “protect all fundamental rights effectively without creating exclusions or postulates of gender ideology or the LGBT agenda,” HazteOir attempts to delegitimize rights related to gender and sexuality as “new rights” that have no foundation under the human rights framework (a common anti-rights tactic).
Erosion of civil society space in the HRC
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the shift towards online proceedings have undeniably opened up some avenues for remote participation to the benefit of activists outside Geneva, and in particular, the Global South. However, as pointed out by joint statements from feminist and civil society organizations, overall, the move online has negatively affected civil society’s ability to monitor and hold states accountable.
The vast majority of HRC discussions available online take place without closed captions and sign language interpretation, thus excluding people with certain disabilities, particularly deaf people, as well as those who do not speak English from engaging in the session. Details to access online informal negotiations, the space where states negotiate the language of HRC resolutions, were removed from the session’s formal schedule. It was up to states to share access, favouring civil society organizations based in Geneva or with existing diplomatic contacts, and leaving others shut out. The cancellation of General Debates, an important space for reports and discussions related to gender and women’s rights, has left many feminist groups without speaking slots to address the Council.
These measures take place within the context of the systematic underfunding of the OHCHR and states’ failure to pay their contributions to the UN human rights system. As a response, in 2019, the Council initiated a series of long-term “efficiency” measures in order to save money and time. As highlighted in a civil society statement from the previous HRC session, “concepts such as “efficiency” and “rationalization” and the processes and outcomes that flow from them are not neutral and are a product of corporate managerialism, often used to obscure and justify exclusion and a range of human rights violations.”
By its end, the 47th HRC session revealed the increasing transnational collusion between anti-rights civil society actors and states in the HRC, reflecting the global trends of right wing and religious fundamentalist mobilization. As the 47th session took place, Hungary passed an “anti-gay propaganda” law, banning the “portrayal and the promotion of homosexual content” for those under 18. The World Congress of Families, an American but partly Russian-funded right-wing organization was strongly involved in bringing about the law.1
While anti-rights actors in the UN and around the world advance their agenda with increasing coordination and impact, civil society space is being eroded at an alarming rate. Still, feminist activists and human rights defenders hold the front in pushing for state accountability and human rights protections. More than ever, anti-rights tactics and their impacts on the UN system must be exposed and disrupted. The UN must take concrete measures to strengthen and enable feminist engagement in the HRC, not diminish it.
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