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Human rights are under attack by an ultra-conservative agenda

The advance of actors pushing fundamentalist agendas within international policy spaces is cause for concern this Human Rights Day. Feminists and other social justice activists must act now to reaffirm and safeguard our human rights.

Each week a conservative group based in the United States sends out an email message to its followers across the globe.

These newsletters are replete with warnings that “UN radicals” and “deliberately barren radical feminists” pose a threat to the moral order with their “devilish gospel of contraception, population control, p*rnography, abortion, gay rights, and all the other aspects of the sexual revolution”.1 They have included such items as “Gay Parents Might Make You Sad and Fat” and “Gender Ideology Leads to Child Abuse”.2

Those of us invested in social justice work may dismiss this kind of rhetoric. However, the scale and power of the global anti-human rights movement warrants serious attention, especially in the context of the striking rise of right-wing movements around the world, including Brexit and the U.S. election this past year.

Take, for example, the World Congress of Families (WCF), whose 35-partner network has a combined annual budget of over $200 million, and, according to WCF, has a reach of over 50 million people worldwide.3 In addition to a regular stream of declarations, “social science” publications, and policy papers, WCF’s key contribution to the global anti-human rights scene is its regular international conference, self-described as the “Olympics” of social conservatism.

The latest WCF convening was held in Tbilisi, Georgia, the first to be hosted in an Orthodox country, and brought together ultra-conservative religious figures and scholars from around the world to network and hash out new strategies.

The WCF crowd riffed on “the family” to back up their arguments against gender equality and to demonize feminists and other social justice actors. References to the welfare of children and parental rights were interspersed throughout the four-day conference, providing the thinnest of veils for the reality of their oppressively narrow conceptualization of family.

The WCF is just one initiative enthusiastically taken up by diverse global anti-human rights milieu. There exists a large constellation of diverse initiatives that have found innovative ways to mobilize those who feel that the gains of feminism, and increased acceptance of “non-traditional” or non-heteronormative relationships and families, pose some threat to the fabric of society. Many have managed to tap into segments of the millennial generation and mobilize them as the next generation of advocates for extreme conservative causes.

The discursive tactics used by these actors can be very subtle. Some groups work to disguise the conservative religious doctrine that drives them, by strategically employing secularized discourses or pseudo-science, presenting themselves as research bodies or “think tanks”. Indeed, the output of many conservative actors is nothing short of expert double-speak, co-opting the language of human rights to attack rights themselves. Take a passage from the mission statement of UK-based Voice for Justice, which reads like that of a rights-based social justice organization: “Our call is to fight for the disadvantaged and marginalised, and to defend all who face exploitation and/or oppression from the imposition of an increasingly totalitarian worldview.”

Particularly disquieting is the growing number of groups and institutions that claim to represent an alternate vision of women’s rights or feminism. In this line of arguing, women’s rights are not criticized qua women’s rights. Instead, conservative actors present feminist activists as self-interested advocates of a Western, sexualized radical ideology, and themselves as advocates for “real” women around the world, protecting their “dignity” and links to family and the home. This clever discursive device was first promulgated by the Holy See, and today employed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as well as many conservative Christian NGOs who also speak in this tenor. These tactics have also managed to gain legitimacy within human rights spaces, illustrated by, for example, UN bodies and actors referencing the OIC’s role in empowering women.

Beyond deconstructing the discursive tactics used by these groups, what is most important is that we, as feminists and other social justice advocates, understand these examples as part of a larger, extremely alarming, phenomenon. Religious fundamentalists are now operating with increased frequency, resources, and support in international human rights spaces. Furthermore, these actors are extremely well coordinated, building dynamic, issue-oriented affiliations between civil society actors, intergovernmental organizations, and states, and across regions and religions.

Indeed, the strategies employed by anti-human rights actors have already had a substantive effect on the international and regional human rights systems, especially in areas related to gender and sexuality. Here we outline four areas in which fundamental rights and freedoms have been threatened.

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)

The CSW, held annually in March, has long been one of the most contested sites in the UN system for anti-human rights actors. In March 2015, conservative efforts set the tone before events or negotiations even began. Not only was the 20th anniversary of Beijing not taken up as an opportunity for a Fifth World Conference because of real concerns about potential erosion of decades old commitments; the outcome document of the Commission was a weak Declaration negotiated before any women’s rights activists even arrived on the ground. The final Declaration was watered down to the point of irrelevance. Glaring omissions included lack of reference to feminist organizations, gender-based violence, or sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and very few mentions even of states’ obligations to upholding human rights.

Subsequently, at the 60th CSW, the new Youth Caucus was infiltrated by large numbers of vocal anti- abortion and anti-SRHR actors. Progressive youth organizations reported being outnumbered and shouted down by anti-rights actors in attendance. And again, intensive negotiations were followed by a lacklustre text. One notable regression - met with celebration by Christian Rights NGOs - was that the final draft of the Agreed Conclusions included reference to “the family as a contributor to development, including in the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals for women and girls.” In the end, the text of the Agreed Conclusions bolstered a unitary, and implicitly patriarchal, hierarchical and heteronormative vision of the family and its place in development.

Precisely when addressing women’s human rights is of urgent importance, the CSW has been rendered a depoliticized space. Using it to advance rights has become harder and harder since much of our energy is taken up trying to hold the ground against conservative backlash.

The Human Rights Council (HRC)

As the intergovernmental body responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe, the HRC is a key entry point for conservative actors in their campaigns to erode and shape human rights protections. In recent years, this mechanism has been the scene for a number of damaging anti- human rights moves. In conversation with other anti-rights actors, one strategy of conservative states, and blocs of states, is to aggressively negotiate out positive language and to introduce hostile amendments to resolutions, a move most often seen with resolutions that focus on rights related to gender and sexuality.

To take one example, during the June 2016 session of the HRC, opposition was mounted towards a resolution on discrimination against women by the member states of the OIC and allies, on the basis of that they were “offensive” regarding culture and tradition. However, during contentious negotiations, multiple provisions were removed, including women’s and girls’ right to have control over their sexuality, sexual and reproductive health, and reproductive rights; the need to repeal laws which perpetuate the patriarchal oppression of women and girls in families, those criminalizing adultery or pardoning marital rape; and the importance of comprehensive sexuality education in addressing gender inequalities.

The HRC has also been the site of pernicious conservative initiatives to co-opt human rights norms and enact conservative ‘human rights’ language, such as that of the Russia-led “traditional values” resolutions, and more recently the “Protection of the Family” agenda.

Three related resolutions have passed so far, from 2014 to 2016. This multi-country initiative aims to enshrine a patriarchal, heteronormative, and nuclear concept of “family” that does not reflect lived realities in human rights language, translating ultra-conservative support for the ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ family and ‘family values’ to the international level. It also emphasizes the role of this unitary form of family over obligations to respect, protect and fulfill individual human rights, glossing over the realities of the rights violations that take place within families, in particular gender-based violence.

Human Rights Committee

In 2015, moving their sights to another front, a number of religious right organizations began to target the Human Rights Committee, the treaty monitoring body for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR is a pivotal human rights instrument, a binding multilateral treaty that along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights forms part of the long-standing International Bill of Human Rights.

Anti-human rights groups mobilized in hopes of cementing their anti-abortion rhetoric into the treaty. When the Committee announced it was drafting a new authoritative interpretation of the right to life,over 30 conservative non-state actors sent in written submissions, advocating their inaccurate and misleading discourse on ‘right to life’, that life begins at conception and that abortion is a violation of the right, be incorporated in the Committee’s interpretation of article 6.

Conservative groups targeting the Human Rights Committee was a shift considering that historically anti- rights actors have repeatedly attempted to undermine and invalidate the essential work of the treaty monitoring bodies, including the Human Rights Committee, characterizing their authoritative interpretations of binding human rights language as biased or “activist”. This move is one indication of the pro-active approach of anti-right actors in seeking out new spaces within the United Nations that can be used to further their subversion of fundamental human rights.

SDG negotiations and Agenda 2030

Anti-human rights actors were involved in lobbying towards the development of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through fall 2015, focusing again on rights relating to gender and sexuality. These efforts gained less traction in influencing Agenda 2030 in UN spaces. For instance, their cornerstone ask of a stand-alone family goal - the key objective of a new 25-state bloc, led by Belarus, and calling itself the Group of Friends of the Family - did not come to fruition.

However, after successfully pushing back against strong human rights, SRHR, and sexual orientation and gender identity language in the final text, conservative actors then pivoted to another strategy. In an attempt to evade state accountability and undermine the universality of rights, several states have repeatedly made reservations to the Goals. Notable reservations came from Qatar, the African Group, Ecuador, Egypt, Sudan, Chad, and the Holy See.

On behalf of the African Group, Senegal claimed that African states would only “implement the goals in line with the cultural and religious values of its countries.”

The Holy See also made a number of reservations, and also stated that it was “confident that the related pledge ‘no one will be left behind’ would serve as the perspective through which the entire Agenda would be read” in order to protect “the right to life of the person, from conception until natural death.” Saudi Arabia went one step further after reservations, declaring that the country would not follow any international rules relating to the Sustainable Development Goals that reference sexual orientation or gender identity, describing them as running “counter to Islamic law.”

Time to act

The power of conservative religious actors, both state and non-state, to erode the very basis of human rights, is not to be taken lightly. These are but a few examples - a range of our rights related to gender and sexuality are under canny and coordinated attack. Conservative states and NGOs are working in new and more coordinated ways to undermine existing human rights systems.

In fact, the religious right, no longer content to tinker at the edges of agreements and block certain language, can be said to be working to transform the human rights framework conceptually and develop parallel tracks of influence, standards, and norm production. This reflects conservative groups’ higher level of engagement and long-term investment in the UN as an institution, including their investment in organizing strategies to anti-human rights agendas.

With governments the world over shifting to the right, and most recently the election of Donald Trump in the United States, more power and legitimacy has been given to anti-human rights actors at both national and international levels. Given this situation, feminists and other social justice advocates face the challenge of defending our existing human rights standards, and best preparing ourselves to stave off further attempts to erode them, while we continue to push for changes that offer better protections and accountability.

The first step in this struggle is to amass the necessary knowledge of the opposition - to understand the trends of their efforts so far, their strengths and weaknesses, and their trajectories for the future. We can then come together in renewed efforts to work across issues and spaces to reclaim and reaffirm our human rights.


1 C-Fam (Center for Family and Human Rights) email August 5, 2016, paraphrased
2 C-Fam Friday Fax email newsletters, Vol. 19, No. 29 (July 13, 2016) and Vol. 19, No. 34 (August 18, 2016) respectively
3 WCF newsletter
This article is in part adapted from the forthcoming trends report from the Observatory on the Universality of Rights (OURs)