Statement on the independence of the African Commission and the holding of the 64th ordinary session of the African commission

By holding its 64th session in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) demonstrates again its lack of commitment to the protection and the promotion of human rights in Africa.

Human rights organisations signatories to this statement made a decision to boycott the NGO Forum and the 64thsession of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) opening on 24 April 2019 in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt. Egypt has taken a leadership role in dismantling the African human rights system through its regressive participation in the passing of the decision 1015 by the Executive Council of the African Union. By accepting the invitation of Egypt to host its ordinary session, the ACHPR is contributing to white-washing the human rights abuses that the Egyptian State is perpetrating and its current attacks on regional accountability institutions, human rights defenders, and the right of women and marginalised people to bodily autonomy.

As civil society organisations that have been working at the African commission for over 14 years, we refuse to follow suit and bow to State tyranny especially at the hands of a State that has a horrendous track record of serious human rights violations – including arbitrary executions – and which has rejected calls from the same African Commission to stop the gross violations that the current regime has  committed against any dissenting voice, including journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders, women’s rights activists and sexual and gender diverse communities.

We are concerned by the lack of firm and clear leadership from the NGO Forum in preserving  a meaningful space for engagement, and concerned about the safety of civil society delegates who have travelled to Egypt and who are under state surveillance and therefore at a heightened risk of arrest as we issue this statement.

In October 2018, the NGO Forum refusal in Banjul to adopt and publish a joint resolution that was supported by civil society ahead of the 63rd session, which explicitly requested the ACHPR to reject the invitation by Egypt to host the 64thsession in Egypt, plays into the hands of States behind the dismantling of the ACHPR project, and facilitates the dissolution of the only remaining regional accountability system on the continent. In doing so, the NGO forum indirectly participates in the erosion of the African human rights system and weakens the ACHPR.

The acceptance of Egypt’s invitation to host this session further serves as a demonstration that the ACHPR has surrendered its independence to African States following Decision 1015 of the Executive Council. The NGO Forum further failed to honour a proposal put forward by Civil society organisations that met on 23 October 2018 in Banjul,  to hold a “Peoples’ Commission” as an alternative to Egypt’s hosting of the African Commision and adopt appropriate resolutions. This is a betrayal of the peoples of Africa and the constituents represented through the NGO Forum.

We are disappointed that the NGO Forum chose to be a follower of tyranny and the oppressors of African peoples in failing to speak truth to power and to uphold the demands and resolution of more than 100 civil society organisations that met and deliberated on the threats to the independence of the African Commission on 23rd October 2018 in Banjul. By proposing an alternative venue to deliberate as civil society and citizens of this continent, our message was loud and clear: that peoples, activists, human rights defenders and others on the continent cannot bow to the pressure of the Executive Council and  States exporting dictatorship, oppression, and suppression of civil society voices, amongst which Egypt plays a leading role. That is not the Africa we want.

Our decision to boycott the 64th session and the preceding NGO Forum is not in any way an expression of lack of solidarity with Egyptian civil society organisations that have been operating under extreme state pressure and persecution. It is a gesture of empathy and support to survivors of the suppression of liberties and fundamental freedoms the Egyptian State has adopted as policy in the name of security and anti-terrorism.

We stand in solidarity with victims, survivors and all those who have been forced to flee the country due to their human rights activism and their dissenting voice, which are ruthlessly suppressed by the Egyptian government.

We therefore:

    1. Demand that African states that believe in human and peoples’ rights as enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Charter) speak out and preserve the independence of the African Commission, the primary organ tasked with holding states accountable and for advancement of human and peoples’ rights on our continent;
    2. Request that the African Commission work closely with the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Committee on the Rights and the Welfare of the Child to develop a joint response to Decision 1015 of the Executive council; Affirming the independence, autonomy and complementarity of various organs of the African human rights system;
    3. Demand that the NGO Forum organise elections and change leadership to ensure an inclusive, young and innovative governance structure that listens to and upholds all CSOs’ voices and advances a peoples’ focused agenda;
    4. Urge civil society representatives who travelled to Egypt to exert caution in their movements, internet searches, and social media use, given the ruthlessness of the hosting country and the realisation that neither the NGO Forum nor the African Commission can guarantee their safety and security;
    5. Call on sister organisations that boycotted the 64th session and the preceding NGO Forum to endorse this statement and engage various stakeholders for action to address the increasing threats against the African human rights system.
    6. Call upon partners technically and financially supporting the African Union to request guarantees that such support is not used to dismantle the African human rights accountability system by undermining the independence of the African Commission.

Issued by:

African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR)

& Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL)

OURs - News piece

Women human rights defenders must be protected, say UN experts

GENEVA (28 November 2018) – States must live up to their commitments to protect women human rights defenders, who are increasingly under attack and inadequately protected, a group of UN human rights experts* said. They issued the following joint statement to mark International Women Human Rights Defenders Day on 29 November:

“The current global context of unchecked authoritarianism as well as the rise of populism, of corporate power and of fundamentalist groups are contributing towards closing the space for civil society. This is being done through the enactment of laws and practices that effectively impede human rights work, including the misapplication of certain laws such as counter-terrorism and public assembly laws. In this context, women human rights defenders face additional barriers of economic and structural discrimination and unique challenges driven by deep-rooted discrimination against women and stereotypes entrenched in patriarchal societies related to gender and sexuality.

In addition to the risks of threats, attacks and violence faced by all human rights defenders, women human rights defenders are exposed to specific risks such as sexual violence, defamation, intimidation, including against their family members, in order to deter them from continuing their valuable work. In 2017, Front Line Defenders recorded the killings of 44 women human rights defenders, an increase from 40 in 2016 and 30 in 2015.

Those working on rights contested by fundamentalist groups such as women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights and those denouncing the actions of extractive industries and businesses that often leads to the violation of the rights of specific groups, i.e. indigenous people, racial and ethnic minorities, and rural and other marginalised communities, become at heightened risk of attacks and violence.

Women human rights defenders also face particular threats in conflict and post-conflict situations. Situations of armed conflict, and the subsequent break down of the rule of law, create a dangerous environment for women and girls. Women human rights defenders are pivotal in promoting sustainable peace, yet they are constantly excluded from peace processes and politics, often criminalised, and they experience gender-based violence, which hampers their participation in decision-making processes.

Women human rights defenders often face abuses perpetrated by non-State actors including members of their own family, community and faith-based groups, non-State armed groups, private security agencies, corporations, organised crime.

Women human rights defenders make essential contributions to the effective promotion, protection and realization of international human rights law and play an important role in raising awareness and mobilizing civil society in identifying human rights violations and in contributing to the development of genuine solutions that incorporate a gender perspective.

Women human rights defenders lead movements that have swept the globe calling for gender equality and an end to gender-based violence against women. They have flooded the streets, the airwaves, and the internet with their energy and their testimonials, bringing to light truths that are too often buried in darkness.

They are making immeasurable contributions to the advancement of human rights all over the world. They are raising their voices, frequently at great personal risk, to stand up for human rights and justice for all. Often these women are at the forefront of challenging social and cultural norms that limit women’s human rights. They take stands that are necessary to progress but unpopular, taking on the most powerful and providing support for the most vulnerable.

As United Nations human rights experts, we condemn all attacks on women human rights defenders. We are particularly concerned regarding those who have suffered reprisals for their efforts to work with the United Nations and regional bodies. Participation in the work of the international human rights system is in itself a right and must never be met with intimidation or attacks.”

On this day of celebration of the crucial work of women human rights defenders, we call on States to fulfil their commitment to enable that work, proclaimed almost 20 years ago in the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and reaffirmed five years ago in General Assembly resolution 68/181 on protecting women human rights defenders. In order to put an end to all attacks on women human rights defenders, we call for:

(i) public recognition, by the highest State authorities, of the importance and legitimacy of the work of women human rights defenders, and a commitment that no violence or threats against them will be tolerated;

(ii) repeal of any State legislation or elimination of any measures intended to penalize or obstruct the work of defenders;

(iii) strengthening of State institutions responsible for safeguarding the work of defenders;

(iv) investigating and punishing any form of violence or threat against defenders, including in relation to reprisals for engaging with the United Nations System, and;

(v) due diligence of States in protecting women human rights defenders that are threatened by non-state actors.

But most of all, we express our gratitude and admiration for the actions of these women, for their courage, strength, dedication, effectiveness and relentless fight for human rights.

The globalisation of anti-gender campaigns

Transnational anti-gender movements in Europe and Latin America create unlikely alliances

By Sonia Corrêa, David Paternotte, Roman Kuhar

In 2012 and 2013, thousands of people demonstrated against same-sex marriage in Paris and other French cities. The success of these protests came as a surprise in a country often associated with secularism and sexual freedom.

The organisation La Manif pour Tous led some of the demonstrations, taking to the streets with pink and blue flags. It urged activists abroad to emulate the French with slogans, posters and strategies travelling across borders. While similar mobilisations happened earlier in Spain, Italy, Croatia and Slovenia, 2012 appears to have been a turning point.

Spectacular mobilisations have also taken place in Latin America, which is both a key target and a production hub of anti-gender campaigns. A first flare was registered in 2011 in Paraguay, when the term ‘gender’ was contested by the Catholic right during discussions on the national education plan. In 2013, in one of his weekly TV programmes, Ecuador’s leftist president Rafael Corrêa similarly denounced ‘gender ideology’ as an instrument aimed at destroying the family. Since 2014, these attacks have intensified, with massive demonstrations in numerous countries, and they decisively impacted the Colombian peace agreement referendum in 2016.

It culminated in November 2017, when American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler was viciously attacked in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Although the attack received global attention, it is only the tip of the iceberg in Latin America.

Transnational campaigns

In both regions, these movements contest what they call gender ideology. Sometimes referred to as gender theory or genderism, it is presented as the matrix of the combatted policy reforms, and should therefore not be confused with gender studies or specific equality policies. No less importantly, gender ideology is seen by some as the cover for a totalitarian plan by radical feminists, LGBTQI activists and gender scholars to seize political power.

Numerous scholars have traced the origins of gender ideology back to the Vatican and their political allies.

Crucially, this discourse recaptures and reframes Cold War Catholic discourses against Marxism and stirs anti-communist sentiments in Eastern Europe as well as in Latin America. There, the ‘evils of gender’ are entangled by right-wing activists with the ‘spectres of Venezuela’ or calls for a military intervention. Although national triggers vary (abortion and reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, LGBTI parental rights, gender mainstreaming, gender violence, sex education, anti-discrimination policies and so on), the explanation given by anti-gender campaigners is always the same: all this is due to gender ideology.

These movements not only share a common enemy, they display similar discourses and strategies as well as a distinctive style of action. We label them transnational anti-gender campaigns to emphasise their global scope and underline their particular profile in the wider landscape of opposition to feminism and LGBTI rights.

A Catholic cradle

Numerous scholars have traced the origins of gender ideology back to the Vatican and their political allies. Building on previous projects such as Pope John-Paul II’s Theology of the Body lectures or the New Evangelization, it was designed in response to the 1994 Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, when the term ‘gender’ entered the United Nations vocabulary, surrounded by demands for rights relating to reproduction and sexuality.

This discourse, which relies on ideas espoused by Cardinal Ratzinger in the early 1980s, was developed in Europe and Latin America in the late 1990s and early 2000s, leading to the Lexicon: Ambiguous and Debatable Terms Regarding Family Life and Ethical Questions (2003) and the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and World (2004).

Gender ideology is not only a lens through which to analyse what happened at the UN, but also a Catholic strategy of action. Based on philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, it propagates its alternative interpretation of gender through means that subvert the notions it opposes. While John-Paul II and Benedict XVI designed this project, Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his support, describing gender as a form of  ‘ideological colonisation’.

Campaigns on the ground

Contemporary mobilisations, however, cannot be reduced to a Catholic enterprise, but intersect with other political projects and wider sets of actors. First, present strategies are reminiscent of the US Christian Right, and US organisations are active across continents, propelling transnational networks such as the World Congress of Families.

Since evangelical voices, which are new in Latin America, are more strident, the intellectual role of the Catholic hierarchy is often overlooked.

Second, while the Vatican has been instrumental in elaborating a frame of action, actors on the ground are more diverse. They include other religious groups as well as secular voices, and form coalitions that vary considerably according to local contexts.

The European situation cannot not be understood without looking at intersections with right-wing populisms. Both rely on attacks against corrupt elites and pretend to defend ‘innocent children’. They invoke common sense against decadent ideas and claim that things have ‘gone too far’, depicting themselves as the defenders of a majority silenced by powerful lobbies. These encounters explain why, in several European countries, right-wing populists have joined anti-gender campaigns without being particularly religious. This overlap offers a springboard to anti-genderists while fuelling anti-liberal discourses and sentiments.

Campaigns in Russia and the parts of Europe under Russian influence have been directly engineered from the Kremlin with the support of the Russian Orthodox church. As part of the state machinery, they are instrumentalised to restore the international status of Russia through a global defence of national sovereignty and ‘traditional values’. Poland and Hungary are currently following this path, with Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orban, increasingly vocal on the issue.

Latin America campaigns displays distinctive features. First, more than anywhere else, the criticism of gender ideology is no monopoly of the right, even though right-wingers are usually on the front lines. Second, these campaigns involve both conservative Catholics and evangelicals (mostly neo-Pentecostals). Since evangelical voices, which are new in the region, are more strident, the intellectual role of the Catholic hierarchy is often overlooked. However, Latin American Catholics have significantly contributed to the development of the anti-gender discourse and current anti-gender formations rely on older Catholic anti-abortion structures.

Third, anti-gender political formations are not exclusively religious but encompass secular actors whose profile differs substantially across countries. In Brazil, they include politicians playing electoral games, extreme-right actors, centre-liberals articulating anti-state arguments alongside anti-gender arguments, middle-class activists longing for social order and transnationally connected Jewish right-wing activists.

Indeed, if anti-gender campaigns are so efficient, it is precisely because they amalgamate actors who would not usually work together.

Despite this unexpected diversity, however, the populist analytical frame, so common in Europe and the US, is inappropriate. Indeed, populist practices have long been deeply ingrained in the regional political culture. As a result, populism has no side and cannot be easily mapped on to the left-right divide in the region.

A complex constellation

Anti-gender movements include a complex constellation of actors that goes far beyond specific religious affiliations. Research has shown that ‘gender ideology’ is an empty signifier, which can tap into different fears and anxieties in specific contexts and therefore be shaped to fit distinct political projects. Furthermore, as stressed by Andrea Peto, Eszter Kováts, Maari Põim and Weronika Grzebalska, the vague notion of gender ideology operates as a ‘symbolic glue’ that facilitates cooperation between actors despite their divergences.

This is precisely what must be understood: what are the specific constellations of actors in each context and how can different sorts of actors, who usually do not work together and can even compete with each other, find a common ground on which to collaborate?

In brief, how to explain joint ventures between believers and atheists, Catholic and Russian Orthodox or Latin American evangelical, or opposed strands within contemporary Roman Catholicism? It must also be reiterated that the debate is not about faith against atheism, and that not all believers of a specific denomination are involved in these campaigns.

A more sophisticated analytical frame would allow us to move away from simplistic grids such as populism, the global right or a global backlash, and pay more attention to the specific political formations at play on the ground. It would also avoid narrow binary frames opposing ‘us’ to ‘them’ that unduly homogenise distinctive contextual conditions and a complex array of forces and actors.

Finally, contextualisation and complexification are not only needed analytically, but are politically essential. Indeed, if anti-gender campaigns are so efficient, it is precisely because they amalgamate actors who would not usually work together. Today, it is crucial to further understand how these mysterious coalitions are forged and sustained.

Originally published by the International Politics and Society Journal