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OURs Side Event at HRC47 - Rights at Risk: Time for Action

On 13 July, as part of the 47th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC), the Observatory on the Universality of Rights held a side event, ‘Rights at Risk: Time for Action,’ along with the Center for Reproductive Rights, ILGA World, International Service for Human Rights, International Planned Planned Parenthood Federation and the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations, Geneva.

The event highlighted key discourses and tactics used by anti-rights actors to undermine rights related to gender and sexuality, as well as their impact, at the national, regional and UN level. 

As our moderator, Ishita Dutta from IWRAW Asia Pacific, noted:

“The co-optation of human rights language by anti-rights actors, instrumentalization of human language and pitting human rights language against each other and sheer amount of funding that is being poured into anti-rights actors have very real ramifications on (our) rights at the national level.”

The event brought together feminist and human rights activists, and UN mandate holders to explore collaborative and strategic opportunities and actions to resist and disrupt anti-rights backlash. The newly-released 2021 Observatory on the Universality of Rights (OURs) Trends Report, Rights at Risk: Time for Action was identified as a key tool to support the work of activists and policy makers.

This conversation was important because, as Ishita put it, “women and human rights activists are organizing tirelessly in the face of extreme odds to ensure that the terms “justice, dignity and human rights’’ are not rendered meaningless.” 

Watch the recording

Link to video: English, Spanish, French.

Highlights from the presenters

Umyra Ahmad
Coordinator at AWID and the Observatory on the Universality of Rights

  • Consolidation and collusion of nationalism; diverse and evolving forms of fundamentalisms; corporate capture of the state; and white supremacy and neo-colonialism have propelled anti-rights mobilization in the UN and at the regional and national level.
  • State and non-state anti-right actors are mobilizing across issue, faith and regions to pushback on rights with increasing coordination, resources and mobilization. AWID’s recent Where is the Money? report noted that in the US, over $280 million USD from the Christian right funded activities to undermine human rights in the UN.
  • Anti-rights actors co-opt and manipulate human rights language. In the recent HRC session, a joint statement on ‘Protection of the family’ was presented by a group of conservative states. Covid-19 was instrumentalized to push for ‘family oriented policies’ that refused to recognize family as a site of violence for women and many marginalized communities.
  • In the UN, anti-rights actors advocate for the creation of “new rights,” for example, through their persistent attempt to construct “parental rights” as a category to be pitted against sexual and reproductive rights, in particular, comprehensive sexuality education.
  • To stem the anti-rights tide, feminist and human rights movements need to build understanding across contexts, regions, issues and organize collectively, leveraging on different entry points, strategies and narratives.
  • Activists and UN mandate holders can leverage on tools such as the Rights at Risk report and UN human rights reports to understand how anti-rights actors work, to build a collective front and talk back together.
  • The OURs recently launched a Call to Action, calling on collective mobilization against the anti-rights tide as a matter of urgency and priority. It demands that UN mandate holders resist legitimizing anti-rights actors and draw stronger red lines.

Morena Herrera
feminist activist and Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local, El Salvador

  • There is a concentration of countries in Central America criminalizing abortion. In El Salvador, penalization has become an anchor of patriarchy and neoliberal hegemony. The reproductive capacities of women are used to control and coerce their social submission. 
  • The Covid-19 crisis demonstrated the collapse of public services provoked by neoliberal policies that have pillaged and privatized public services for decades. The support available in order to confront the impacts of social and economic inequalities are reduced to a minimum.
  • Conservative and neoconservative actors work together with the government and large corporations to deny protection of rights, and to quash and suppress feminist  organizations or any organization that demands respect for human rights.
  • Neoconservative actors block the use of UN human rights instruments nationally using arguments related to sovereignty and self-determination of the nation. At the same time, they refuse to recognize the right to self-determination of each woman. 
  • El Salvador was one of the first countries in the region to include the “recognition of the human person from the instant they are conceived”  in its national constitution. In reality, they are only interested in the presence of fetal life, irrespective of the life and rights of the mother, and rights of the child once it is born.
  • We celebrate internationalist feminism. Regional and international human rights structures are very far from the lived realities but there is hope that the Inter-American human rights court could soon issue a ruling on the case of Manuela for transformative reparations for a woman who was criminalized for a miscarriage and died in prison. 
  • Understanding how anti-rights organizations work, and how they impact the decisions of human rights systems is key.  It should give us strength and push us to continue fighting for our rights. 

Melissa Upreti
Chair, UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls

  • The Working Group released a new report highlighting key factors and trends that undermine and threaten the sexual and reproductive health and autonomy of women and girls, before and during the Covid-19 crisis.
  • The Working Group has reiterated that arguments framed in terms of cultural diversity and freedom of religion cannot be invoked to justify discrimination against women.
  • More recently, some States have misleadingly alleged that proponents of gender equality are advancing a harmful “gender ideology,” to deepen and instrumentalize the ideological divide and undermine legally guaranteed protections.
  • In the context of the pandemic, many countries have restricted access to specific reproductive health services including access to contraception and safe abortion which been deemed non-essential, and further rollbacks of existing laws and policies have been attempted.
  • The Working Group has urged states to actively push back against conservative religious and racialized political ideologies that undermine gender equality and oppose misinformation and religious positions that subvert women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health rights.
  • UN Special Procedures have play a key role in curbing the influence of anti-rights actors by consistently reaffirming human rights standards and principles as well as the obligations of Member States and calling for their implementation.

Nada Awad
Advocacy officer, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

  • Pinkwashing as colonial violence can help us understand how Israel oppresses, and erases Palestinians on the basis of gender and sexuality. While Israel promotes itself as a supporter and saviour of LGBTQI rights, in reality it has systematically erased queer Palestinian voices to serve and maintain its colonial interest and narrative.
  • Equating anti-semitism with mobilization against Israeli crimes: In the HRC, anti-semitism is weaponized to silence and undermine civil society and human rights defenders demanding accountability and fighting against apertheid occupations by Israel.
  • Women and queer people are disproportionately affected by Israel's settler colonialism and apartheid, including from policies such as housing demolitions, forced evictions and child arrest. On the other hand, within the liberation struggle, women's rights are considered as a secondary issue that should be addressed after national liberation.
  • The international community plays a role in sustaining Israel’s impunity: in 2018 for example, the US withdrew from the HRC citing “the Council’s anti-Israel bias.”
  • Connecting struggles, such as the feminist struggle and struggle against colonialism is key. 
  • The Commission of Inquiry, established during 47th HRC session is a huge and positive development. It requires states not only to look at the symptoms of violations but to address the root causes of the issue which is settler colonialism and apartheid.

    Highlights from the Audience

  • In New Zealand, some groups are co-opting feminist language to attack the rights of transgender and nonbinary people. Anti-rights actors in groups such as "Speak Up For Women New Zealand" are so dedicated to anti-trans efforts they are willing to ally with ultra conservative sympathisers. These conservative "allies" include some who oppose sexual and reproductive rights for women.
  • In Bulgaria, conservative and religious groups got the Constitutional Court to declare the Istanbul Convention incompatible with the Constitution because of the term “gender” despite wide spread violence against women. Violence against women and homophobia have increased exponentially since then.
  • Over decades, we see a growing influence of right wing and conservative anti feminist/ anti-rights actors in Germany. Medical physicians and staff administering abortion are attacked, and medical universities have stopped teaching how to do an abortion. Anti right actors even bring doctors before the court. Some doctors have been fighting back, and themselves become WHRDs! We must intensify our fight.
  • It's always more challenging to address discrimination that is built into political ideologies. Many Carribean countries that have signed on to human rights conventions and treaties only to push conservative values on women and LGBTQ+ persons by suppressing their voices under archaic colonial laws. Multilateral agencies like the UN need to do more to address this glaring discrepancy of international policy contrasting with national legislation and action on the ground.
  • Especially in contexts where patriarchal understandings of religion are sources of law & practice, discriminatory family laws are a crucial impediment to achieving gender equality. To learn more: