Rights at Risk: Key impacts on the human rights system

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Anti-rights actors have had a substantive impact on our human rights framework and the progressive interpretation of human rights standards, especially rights related to gender and sexuality.

When it comes to the impact of conservative actors in international policy spaces, the overall picture today is of stasis and regressions.

We have witnessed the watering down of existing agreements and commitment; deadlock in negotiations; sustained undermining of UN agencies, treaty review bodies and Special Procedures; and success in pushing through regressive language in international human rights documents.

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. In March 2015, conservative efforts set the tone before events or negotiations even began; the outcome document of the Commission was a weak Declaration negotiated before any women’s rights activists even arrived on the ground.

At 2016’s CSW, the new Youth Caucus was infiltrated by large numbers of vocal anti-abortion and anti-SRHR actors, who shouted down progressive youth organizations. Again, intensive negotiations resulted in a lacklustre text, which included regressive language on ‘the family.’

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

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 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, most often resolutions focusing 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 Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and allies. 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; and the need to repeal laws which perpetuate the patriarchal oppression of women and girls in families, and those criminalizing adultery or pardoning marital rape.

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.

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), a pivotal human rights instrument.

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 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-human rights actors have repeatedly attempted to undermine and invalidate the essential work of the treaty monitoring bodies, including the Human Rights Committee.

SDG negotiations and Agenda 2030

Anti-human rights actors were involved in lobbying towards the development of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, focusing again on rights relating to gender and sexuality. These efforts had limited traction in their attempts to embed regressive language in Agenda 2030.

However, after successfully pushing back against progressive 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.

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, stating it was “confident that the related pledge ‘no one will be left behind’ would be read” as meaning “the right to life of the person, from conception until natural death.”

Saudi Arabia went one step further, declaring that the country would not follow any international rules relating to the SDGs that reference sexual orientation or gender identity, describing them as running “counter to Islamic law.”

General Assembly (GA)

Anti-rights actors have made increasing headway at the UN General Assembly (GA).  Most recently, during the 71st session in 2016, the GA was the scene of feverish anti-rights organizing in opposition to the new mandate created by the Human Rights Council resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity in June 2016: the Independent Expert on SOGI. Four separate attempts were made to undercut the mandate in GA spaces.

One approach was to introduce a hostile resolution at the Third Committee, led by the African Group, which in essence aimed to indefinitely defer the new mandate. While this approach was not successful, such an attempt in the GA to retroactively block the creation of a mandate brought forward by the Human Rights Council represented a new and troubling tactic – anti-right actors are now working to directly undermine the HRC’s authority respective to the General Assembly.

Another approach targeted the Fifth Committee (responsible for administration and budgetary matters) as an entry point to attack the mandate. In an unprecedented move a number of States attempted (again, unsuccessfully) to block the funding of UN human rights experts, including the new IE on SOGI.

While these multiple efforts were unsuccessful in blocking the creation and continuation of the new mandate, the significant support they received, the novel strategizing employed, and the strong alliances built along regional lines through negotiations point to difficulties ahead.


This is one chapter of Rights at Risk: The Observatory on the Universality of Rights Trends Report 2017

Other chapters:

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