The Human Rights Council (HRC) is the UN’s main 'political' human rights body. It is the main place where governments discuss and negotiate human rights issues, challenge one another about their national contexts and hold one another accountable for violations. As we reflect on its recently-concluded 53rd session taking place in June and July 2023, we revisit some of the details to better understand how states and anti-rights organizations seek to avoid scrutiny for human rights violations and undermine the system as a whole.
Negotiating Language on Gender and Sexuality: Stuck in a Gridlock
At the 53rd session, the Council was presented with two resolutions directly concerning gender justice: Accelerating efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls: preventing and responding to all forms of violence against women and girls in criminal justice detention and Child, early and forced marriage: ending and preventing forced marriage.
Throughout negotiations of these resolutions, we heard many familiar strategies employed by states such as Russia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Egypt to block progressive language on gender and sexuality, including introducing hostile amendments.1 As states such as Canada, Mexico and the EU pushed to include references to comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and the right to bodily autonomy, Egypt and Russia labelled these concepts as ‘controversial’ and not a part of international consensus or any legally binding instruments. The inclusion of language on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for example, was claimed to encourage abortion on demand, while CSE was argued to ‘highly sexualize children,’ and encourage them to make uninformed decisions about their bodies, which in turn would supposedly cause their inability to ‘maintain stable families.’
All the proposed amendments were defeated by a vote. The full extent of language proposed by feminists was not reflected, but the final text contained progressive language, and was still welcomed. However, these dynamics leave us feminists with a bigger unanswered question: where do we go from here? This year’s negotiations reflect the trajectory of the Council’s political dynamics and polarization that have been cemented over the past years. States blocking progressive language on gender and sexuality have solidified their coalition, consolidated their strategies and tactics, while collaborating with anti-rights organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom. On the other hand, the European Union (EU) and the US along with Latin American states such as Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile have persistently emphasized their roles as ‘gender champions’ in multilateral spaces. This presents several challenges for feminists. Not least, advocacy efforts to ‘move’ state positions and work with ‘middle ground’ states is becoming increasingly difficult. Further, how do we ensure that our feminist demands are not co-opted by Global North states that have themselves proven to be the biggest barriers to feminist demands for climate justice, access to medicines and accountability for harm caused by corporations? As feminists, we cannot afford to be narrow and siloed in our demands for justice and accountability. This leaves us many questions on how we can do advocacy differently and intersectionally, given the current political landscape of multilateralism.
‘Single Sex Spaces’ in Detention
Feminists saw the focus of this year’s resolution on violence against women as an opportunity to highlight the obligation of states to address the carceral system as a form of structural violence, as well as address the root causes of detention, including racism, poverty and homelessness. However, during the negotiations of the resolution, states such as Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Egypt focused on inclusion of references to ‘single sex spaces’ in detention centres, echoing common anti-trans talking points circulating in countries such as the UK, Australia and the US. Co-opting progressive language, they described the lack of single sex spaces in detention centres as a 'root cause of systemic violence' to be addressed.
While this reference may seem reasonable on the surface, feminists have debunked this narrative as one that does not actually uphold the rights of women (cis and trans women alike), and disproportionately targets trans women.2 Emanating from anti-trans organizations in the UK3, the discourse around the supposed threat posed by trans women prisoners has proven to be a part of a larger ‘sex-based rights’ and ‘gender critical’ agenda that seeks to establish a new and narrow meaning of what being a woman is. At its core, it is part of an orchestrated moral panic which is fuelling the violence and discrimination against trans people, which have greatly intensified over the past years. Further, it dangerously misrepresents the causes, consequences and impacts of gender-based violence against all people.
Unfortunately, these narratives have made ripples in other parts of the world and infiltrated UN human rights spaces, all under the guise of ‘protecting cis women from violence.’ While international human rights law is clear on the indivisibility of rights of all, some UN actors such as Reem Alsalem, the current UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls has misrepresented the fulfilment of the rights of trans women and cis women as conflicting and incompatible.4 During the resolution negotiations, several states referred to the current Rapporteur’s harmful statements to justify including language on single sex spaces. While the final text did not contain these references, it is clear that the pushback against intersectional feminist demands and agendas in the UN is mounting from all directions, including from within the system.
OIC and the Christian Right Joining Forces for 'The Family'
During this Council session, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the League of Arab States, African Union and Gulf Cooperation Council co-organized a side event, Role of the Family in Accelerating Development and Building Resilience. Consistent with efforts in previous years to make 'protection of the family' a subject of the Councils’ resolutions,5 the side-event emphasized the 'the family' as the centre of social and economic policies, as well as 'women’s empowerment' programmes.
As the 2017 Rights at Risk report highlights, this narrative aims to shift the subject of human rights to already powerful institutions, namely the family, rather than individual family members, and police norms around gender and sexuality. Further, feminists have highlighted how relying on ‘kinship’ through the family unit forces the family - and ultimately feminized labour - to undertake what organized welfare systems might otherwise be expected to do.6 This points towards the way many states have carried out neoliberal privatization and deregulation of welfare and care services on the back of such a focus on the family unit.
The side event panel demonstrated how the anti-rights actors have developed holistic, integrated and transnational approaches in their advocacy within the UN. States and anti-rights organizations are covering all grounds. Not only are they building ‘family oriented’ policies nationally,7 they invest heavily in promoting and legitimizing their agendas in international fora by strengthening alliances transnationally, conducting strategic advocacy and ‘evidence based research.’
The panel featured two well funded Christian rights organizations and institutions, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and Brigham Young University based in the US. While the representative of the former weaponized technical and legal arguments to portray the family as the fundamental unit of protection under international human rights law, the latter primarily used development language, arguing that the family unit ‘prevents poverty’ and brings about ‘peace and cohesion.’
Also present on the panel was a representative from Doha International Family Institute (DIFI), which claims to be the first think tank in the world to produce a policy report on Family-focused Social Protection. The Institute representative reiterated ADF’s points by sharing the report’s findings, claiming a direct correlation between traditional family structures and better mental health outcomes for individual members. DIFI also announced an international Conference in 2024 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the International Year of the Family.
States have an obligation to protect freedom of expression, and also put an end to racism and xenophobia
Towards the end of the 53rd Council session, the Permanent Mission of Pakistan to the United Nations in Geneva, on behalf of the Member States of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), tabled a resolution on ‘countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.’ As highlighted by states and NGOs concerns,8 the resolution sought to reintroduce language on the ‘defamation of religions’ and impose undue restrictions on the right to freedom of expression. It seeks to go beyond the scope of international human rights law in attempting to protect not individuals, but rather religious books.
Rightfully, UN and regional human rights experts have emphasized the ‘difference between criticism of a religion, belief or school of thought and attacks on individuals because of their adherence to that religion or belief.’ In countries such as Malaysia, overbroad laws claiming to ‘protect Islam’ and penalize those who ‘insult Islam’ are used to target marginalized and queer communities. Pakistan, the country tabling the resolution, has recently tightened its laws against blasphemy, and these have been used against the government’s political opponents.9
While Global North states opposed the resolution and put their weight behind defending the right to freedom of expression, it is hard not to think of the systemic violence faced by Brown and Black people (many of which also identify as Muslim) in these countries. Although some Global North states recognized that burning of the Quran “fuels hatred and violence” there was an overall reluctance to address the act within the continuum of violence and discrimination faced by racialized communities in Europe.10 Driven by the legacy of colonization, racism and xenophobia, states such as France, the UK and the US have often used the guise of fighting Islamic extremism - as well as racially-coded notions of ‘western values’ and secularism - to ramp up surveillance, justify police brutality and xenophobic immigration policies against Black and Brown people. Set against this reality, it was hard for the statements of Global North states to land as anything but disingenuous.
Anti-rights attacks in intergovernmental negotiations and multilateral spaces present real threats. It is important to remember that they come from all directions. As feminists, upholding the indivisibility of rights also requires us to think of more holistic strategies that are responsive to the current landscape of multilateralism, while upholding the full range of rights for all, especially the most marginalized communities.
1 Hostile amendments are made by states aimed at undermining the resolution and its purpose. For more information: https://www.awid.org/key-impacts-international-human-rights-system
4 Nov 2022 Letter to the Scottish Parliament, pg. 6, para.27
5 2017 OURs Rights at Risk Report, pg.59
7 In the event Saudi Arabia shared the long list of family oriented policies and actions established by the state, this includes: the Saudi vision established in 2016 on national family strategy, with the objective of enabling families to make informed decisions, empowers family to operate in environment that is safe, just, prosperous. In June 2023 they approved the first early child development policies approved last week, national policy to prevent child labour, which included a guide on best interest of child.
10 The most recent incident of burning of the Quran in Sweden was carried out by white nationalists https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/27/burning-of-quran-in-stockholm-funded-by-journalist-with-kremlin-ties-sweden-nato-russia