HRC35: Keeping feminist demands on the table at the Human Rights Council
| By Isabel Marler
AWID took to Geneva this June to participate in the 35th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC). The HRC is the key intergovernmental body within the United Nations system responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.
The driving desire behind our ongoing engagement at the Council is to raise feminist and activist voices, and to push intersectional feminist demands to the table. Through this work, alongside our partners and allies, we also take up space as a counterweight to rising ultra-conservative presence and impact, and we let member states know that the international feminist movement is working to hold them accountable.
Each year, the June session of the HRC is the session that focuses most heavily on rights related to gender and sexuality, including resolutions tabled on discrimination against women (DAW); violence against women (VAW); child, early and forced marriage (CEFM); and reports presented by the Special Rapporteur on VAW and the Working Group on DAW in law and practice.
The main focus of our engagement this session was on:
Challenging corporate power and building feminist support for a UN binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights
Monitoring and challenging anti-rights actors, and upholding the universality of human rights
Strengthening young feminist engagement at the HRC
Challenging Corporate Power
Corporate human rights abuse in the form of displacement of communities, environmental degradation, and contamination of air and water affects women in particular ways. As recent research by AWID and WHRDIC shows, violations against human rights defenders, like criminalization, stigmatization, and violence by private and public security forces, also take gender-specific forms in relation to Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs). Still, WHRDs worldwide continue to resist corporate power under life-threatening conditions.
Given the realities of corporate human rights abuse, it was not surprising that civil society and many states responded with concern to an announcement of a $5 million grant from Microsoft to the UN Human Rights Office, an unprecedented donation from a private company. Against this backdrop, AWID’s Inna Michaeli took part in a public event organized by CIVICUS entitled “The Business Case for Civic Space,” on a varied panel including UN leadership and a representative of Microsoft.
Inna highlighted the systematic violations, including killings, committed against WHRDs as a result of corporate power. She cautioned against calls for partnerships between human rights bodies and corporations, reminding the audience that “any dialogue with corporations will continue to be problematic in the current climate of global impunity”.
Another public event “Women Challenging Corporate Power: Feminists for a Binding Treaty” presented a feminist analysis of corporate impunity for human rights abuse. In light of the process for a UN Binding Treaty to hold transnational corporations accountable, the panelists discussed how to make the treaty meaningful and accessible to communities, and particularly women and WHRDs. Co-organized by WILPF, PODER, FIDH and AWID, with the participation of the Ecuador Mission to the UN (who initiated the treaty process), the event amplified a collective voice for a critical gender justice perspective in this future instrument.
Upholding the universality of rights
As charted in the first Trends Report from the Observatory on the Universality of Rights (OURs), Rights at Risk, the HRC has been the scene of a number of damaging anti-human rights moves led by coordinated coalitions of ultra-conservative actors, especially around rights relating to gender and sexuality. An important statement by multiple UN experts recently raised the alarm at this backlash against women’s rights, echoing many of the concerns of the OURs research:
“We need more than ever to protect the fundamental principle that all rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated [...] we are witnessing efforts by fundamentalist groups to undermine the foundation on which the whole human rights system is based. Some of these efforts are based on a misuse of culture, including religion and tradition, or on claims related to State sovereignty [...] [We] need to continue denouncing any anti-rights rhetoric and actions which hinder the implementation of human rights standards, in particular regarding gender equality.”
One of our main objectives for this session was to monitor the strategies and discourses employed by regressive states and organizations, to advocate for the inclusion of progressive language on gender and sexuality, and against regressive resolutions that uphold patriarchy and heteronormativity, and undermine universal human rights. We undertook this work collaboratively with our allies, including members of the Observatory on the Universality of Rights (OURs) and the newly-formed Feminist Caucus.
In the negotiations of resolutions, and during state responses to reports of Special Procedures, we heard many familiar discourses employed in a bid to water down language or express resistance to progressive inclusions, including:
Appeals to notions of 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 the existing national laws. For example, Paraguay and Peru argued for caveats (“where such services are permitted by national law”) to be added in a section of the resolution on VAW referring to reproductive health and rights services. In negotiations around Child Early and Forced Marriage, Pakistan argued that references to sexuality could not be assumed to be universal and a qualifier should be added to this effect.
Read more: Religion, Culture, and Tradition
Dismissal of or undermining of the mandates of certain Special Procedures - For example, during negotiations on the resolution on VAW, Russia questioned the reliability of the work of the Working Group on DAW and the CEDAW Committee, in order to argue against including the progressive recommendations of those bodies in the text.
Questioning and undermining of the term “human rights defenders” and the WHRD framework - During negotiations, several member states attempted to remove references to rights for human rights defenders altogether from resolutions, and questioned the existence of Women Human Rights Defenders with an eye to erode gender-sensitive policies and practices and the ensuring of an effective structural framework for WHRDs’ protection.
We also witnessed the subversion of the right to freedom of conscience, with anti-rights actors arguing for an understanding of conscientious objection that aims to undermine universal rights to equality and to health, and to promote discrimination, through giving a pass to medical practitioners, parliamentarians, or civil servants who oppose abortion, contraceptive use, or marriage equality. Notably, the Alliance Defending Freedom (a US-based Christian anti-rights group) and the Holy See organized a side event on this theme.
Other tactics included states requesting to revert to “agreed upon language”, especially to that of weaker texts like the Agreed Conclusions of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), along with describing progress in rights as “adding new rights” not covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the research from OURs shows, these tactics are all part of an evolving repertoire of those working to stall progress and undermine the universality of human rights.
Strengthening Youth Engagement at the HRC
The Young Feminist Activism (YFA) program partnered with the World YWCA and several youth organisations to bring together nearly 100 participants for the Second Annual Youth Forum ahead of the United Nations Human Rights Council on June 2, 2017.
Our main aim was to ensure that young feminists’ contributions, activism, perspectives, and needs are accurately reflected in the debates and resolutions of the HRC. This was crucial especially in light of findings from the recently launched Trends Report from OURs, Rights at Risk, pointing to the fact that “conservative actors have successfully mobilized a growing number of activists under the age of thirty to push for regressive agenda at the world stage”.
To this end, we shared findings on young feminist organising from our joint report with FRIDA| The Feminist Fund: Brave, Creative & Resilient: The Global State of Young Feminist Organising, both offline and online via the hashtag #YouForHumanRights. The report highlights the diverse characteristics of young feminist groups and the contexts in which they work, including young feminist groups impacted by violence condoned or perpetrated by the state. It highlights key concerns of young feminists regarding the state of human rights, with top challenges faced being backlash and fundamentalism, threats to safety and security, political instability, and shrinking democratic spaces.
Another dangerous Protection of the Family resolution passed
The session saw another dangerous resolution on “Protection of the Family” tabled, this time focused on older persons. As with previous years, the resolution is deeply concerning to progressive civil society, not least because it looks to empower a patriarchal and heteronormative conception of ‘the family’ as the subject of human rights, moving rights out of the hands of the key stakeholders in this context, family-members.
Continuing the trajectory started by the 2016 resolution that focussed on persons with disabilities, the resolution instrumentalizes a set of genuine concerns in service of a regressive agenda.
AWID was co-signatory to a joint statement rejecting the resolution on the basis that it reinforces ageist stereotypes, fails to adequately recognize older persons as individual rights-holders, and falls far short of States’ obligations to respect, protect and fulfil their rights.
Despite strong civil society organizing, the resolution was passed. Disappointingly, the core group refused to accept language to support the rights of individual rights-holders within families, and amendments to recognize that various forms of the family exist were also rejected.
Resolution on Discrimination Against Women
The annual resolution is led by Colombia and Mexico, and focused this year on the implementation of good and promising practices to eliminate discrimination against women, linked to the UN Working Group’s report to the HRC.
The final text contains significant progressive language - naming patriarchy explicitly, calling for legal frameworks and good practices that respect bodily autonomy, recognising that legal change alone is not enough to bring about equality, highlighting the importance of Women Human Rights Defenders, and recognizing the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of gender (a first for a UN document in this context).
Hostile amendments calling for the removal of references to “human rights defenders” and “comprehensive sexuality education” were unsuccessful, as was an unorthodox last-minute oral amendment to replace the word “gender” with “sex”. It was also positive that the resolution was passed by consensus without a vote. However, the United States, Bangladesh and others - continuing a rising anti-rights trend of making reservations to undermine the universal applicability of human rights - made statements of disassociation from sections of the resolution after it was passed.
Resolution on Violence Against Women
Despite a focus on the role of men and boys - which to some extent diminished the focus on key women’s rights issues - the resolution text contains several progressive clauses.
The resolution calls on States to engage men and boys to take responsibility and be held accountable for their actions in public and private spheres and to challenge gender stereotypes and negative social norms, behaviors and attitudes. Importantly, the resolution asks States to ensure that resources for initiatives to engage men and boys do not compromise resources for women and girls.
Again, hostile amendments calling for the removal of references to “human rights defenders” and “comprehensive sexuality education” were unsuccessful. The resolution was adopted by consensus without a vote.
Resolution on Child Early and Forced Marriage
This resolution, the second on the topic of Child Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM) focussed on humanitarian settings. It was passed by consensus without a vote.
The text notes with concern the incidence and risk of child, early and forced marriage is highly exacerbated in humanitarian settings due to a number of factors specific to the setting, but goes on to recognizes gender inequality as the root cause of CEFM.
It also states that CEFM constitutes a serious threat to the full realization of the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health of women and girls, including to their sexual and reproductive health.