Rights at Risk: Key opposition strategies and tactics


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Despite their rigidity in matters of doctrine and worldview, anti-rights actors have demonstrated an openness to building new kinds of strategic alliances, to new organizing techniques, and to new forms of rhetoric. As a result, their power in international spaces has increased.

There has been a notable evolution in the strategies of ultra conservative actors operating at this level. They do not only attempt to tinker at the edges of agreements and block certain language, but to transform the framework conceptually and develop alternative standards and norms, and avenues for influence.

Strategy 1: Training of UN delegates

Ultra conservative actors work to create and sustain their relationships with State delegates through regular training opportunities – such as the yearly Global Family Policy Forum – and targeted training materials.

These regular trainings and resources systematically brief delegates on talking points and negotiating techniques to further collaboration towards anti-rights objectives in the human rights system. Delegates also receive curated compilations of ‘consensus language’ and references to pseudo-scientific or statistical information to bolster their arguments.

The consolidated transmission of these messages explains in part why State delegates who take ultra-conservative positions in international human rights debates frequently do so in contradiction with their own domestic legislation and policies.

Strategy 2: Holding international convenings

Anti-rights actors’ regional and international web of meetings help create closer links between ultra conservative Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), States and State blocs, and powerful intergovernmental bodies. The yearly international World Congress of Families is one key example.

These convenings reinforce personal connections and strategic alliances, a key element for building and sustaining movements. They facilitate transnational, trans-religious and dynamic relationship-building around shared issues and interests, which leads to a more proactive approach and more holistic sets of asks at the international policy level on the part of anti-rights actors.

Strategy 3: Placing reservations on human rights agreements

States and State blocs have historically sought to undermine international consensus or national accountability under international human rights norms through reservations to human rights agreements, threatening the universal applicability of human rights.

The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has received by far the most reservations, most of which are based on alleged conflict with religious law. It is well-established international human rights law that evocations of tradition, culture or religion cannot justify violations of human rights, and many reservations to CEDAW are invalid as they are “incompatible with the object and purpose” of CEDAW. Nevertheless, reference to these reservations is continually used by States to dodge their human rights responsibilities.

‘Reservations’ to UN documents and agreements that are not formal treaties – such as Human Rights Council and General Assembly resolutions – are also on the rise.

Strategy 4: Creating a parallel human rights framework

In an alarming development, regressive actors at the UN have begun to co-opt existing rights standards and campaign to develop agreed language that is deeply anti-rights.

The aim is to create and then propagate language in international human rights spaces that validates patriarchal, hierarchical, discriminatory, and culturally relativist norms.

One step towards this end is the drafting of declarative texts, such as the World Family Declaration and the San Jose Articles, that pose as soft human rights law. Sign-ons are gathered from multiple civil society, state, and institutional actors; and they are then used a basis for advocacy and lobbying.

Strategy 5: Developing  alternative ‘scientific’ sources

As part of a strategic shift towards the use of non-religious discourses, anti-rights actors have significantly invested in their own ‘social science’ think tanks. Given oxygen by the growing conservative media, materials from these think tanks are then widely disseminated by conservative civil society groups. The same materials are used as the basis for advocacy at the international human rights level.

While the goals and motivation of conservative actors derive from their extreme interpretations of religion, culture, and tradition, such regressive arguments are often reinforced through studies that claim intellectual authority. A counter-discourse is thus produced through a heady mix of traditionalist doctrine and social science.

Strategy 6: Mobilizing Youth

This is one of the most effective strategies employed by the religious right and represents a major investment in the future of anti-rights organizing.

Youth recruitment and leadership development, starting at the local level with churches and campuses, are a priority for many conservative actors engaged at the international policy level.

This strategy has allowed for infiltration of youth-specific spaces at the United Nations, including at the Commission on the Status of Women, and creates a strong counterpoint to progressive youth networks and organizations.

Strategy 7: Defunding and delegitimizing human rights mechanisms

When it comes to authoritative expert mechanisms like the UN Special Procedures and Treaty Monitoring Bodies and operative bodies like the UN agencies, regressive groups realize their potential for influence is much lower than with political mechanisms.

In response, anti-rights groups spread the idea that UN agencies are ‘overstepping their mandate,’ that the CEDAW Committee and other Treaty Bodies have no authority to interpret their treaties, or that Special Procedures are partisan experts working outside of their mandate. Anti-rights groups have also successfully lobbied for the defunding of agencies such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

This invalidation of UN mechanisms gives fuel to state impunity. Governments, when under international scrutiny, can defend their action on the basis that the reviewing mechanism is itself faulty or overreaching.

Strategy 8: Organizing online

Conservative non-state actors increasingly invest in social media and other online platforms to promote their activities, campaign, and widely share information from international human rights spaces.

The Spanish organization CitizenGo, for example, markets itself as the conservative version of Change.org, spearheading petitions and letter-writing campaigns. One recent petition, opposing the establishment of a UN international day on safe abortion, gathered over 172,000 signatures.

Overarching Trends:

  • Learning from the organizing strategies of feminists and other progressives.
  • Replicating and adapting successful national-level tactics for the international sphere.
  • Moving from an emphasis on ‘symbolic protest’ to becoming subversive system ‘insiders.’

By understanding the strategies employed by anti-rights actors, we can be more effective in countering them.

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

Other chapters:
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