An extract from the first report of a new initiative tracks how fundamentalist groups have embraced the UN as a site to foster conservative social change.
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By the Observatory on the Universality of Rights (OURs)
The trend is unmistakable and deeply alarming: in international human rights spaces, religious fundamentalists are now operating with increased impact, frequency, coordination, resources, and support.
The worldwide rise in religious fundamentalist actors is not happening in a vacuum. This growing phenomenon is inextricably linked to geopolitics, systemic and growing inequalities and economic disparities, conflict, militarism, and other political, social, and economic factors. In turn, these factors drive religious fundamentalists to regional and international policy spaces in search of increased impact.
Our ongoing analysis of religious fundamentalisms and fundamentalist discourses and strategies underpins our understanding of the forces currently at play at the United Nations. Religious fundamentalisms are about the strategic use and misuse of religion by particular state and non-state actors to gain power and control. They are about the authoritarian manipulation of religion, as well as references to culture and tradition, rhetoric linked to sovereignty, and employment of patriarchal and absolutist interpretations of religion to achieve political, social and/or economic power. Across regions and religious contexts, fundamentalisms seek to employ references to religion, culture, and tradition to justify violence and discrimination.
A common theme amongst conservative and anti-rights actors is their fixation on gender and sexuality. Gender justice is greatly undermined by the strategies of religious fundamentalisms, which use the bodies of women, girls, and individuals with non-conforming gender identities or sexual orientations as a battlefield in their struggles to appropriate and maintain institutional and social power. Time and again, across regions and levels, women are turned into symbols of community, embodiments of the nation’s ‘culture and tradition’ and its future reproduction. Women and non-conforming bodies and sexualities become key sites of religio-political preoccupation and control, as they are considered the custodians of family norms and honor.
Unsurprisingly then, in a recent study on young feminist organising worldwide, a significant percentage of the 1,400 survey participants described fundamentalisms as a top challenge to their work, and a significant threat to their safety and security. In a previous survey of over 1,600 Women Human Rights Defenders worldwide, activists listed the top negative impacts of religious fundamentalists as: limited health rights and reduced fulfillment of reproductive rights; less autonomy for women; increased gender-based violence; restrictions on sexual rights; and diminished rights for women in the public sphere.
We now watch as these fundamentalist strategies and preoccupations manifest themselves at the international human rights level. The United Nations has become another space in which bodies and autonomy are used as pawns in a struggle to appropriate institutional power. But here the impact of religious fundamentalisms is not to violate our rights directly, but to erode the very basis on which we can make claims at all. If, according to their arguments, we have no rights to violate, then there will be no basis to claim rights or hold our governments accountable.
Anti-rights actors are chipping away at the very content and structure of our human rights concepts, institutions, and protections, with disastrous consequences for human rights and gender justice. These manifest in sexual rights, including rights to bodily integrity, the right to choose one’s partner, and the right to decide on sexual relations; rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI); reproductive rights and health, including access to comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), contraception, and safe abortion; equal property and inheritance rights; equal rights in all aspects of family law including marriage, divorce, and custody of children; freedom of expression, belief, assembly, and opinion; the right to reclaim, reaffirm, and participate in all aspects of religious and cultural life; the right to live free from gender-based violence; and women’s full equality.
Anti-rights mobilisation at the international level constitutes a response to the significant feminist and progressive organising and impact therein over the past three decades. It also represents ultra-conservative actors’ new commitment to multilateral processes as a space of influence. Today we are witnessing a set of interlocking factors that paint an unsettling picture of our human rights system under attack: increased coordination of religious fundamentalists across regional, institutional, and religious lines in human rights spaces, and the strategic and proactive undermining and co-optation of our human rights framework.
Although fundamentalisms are often shaped in opposition to globalisation, they also embrace the international realm as a site to foster conservative social change. Similarly, while their messaging is often situated in an opposition to modernity, they are both a product of modernity and happy to fight using ‘modern’ tools. Fundamentalist discourses are strongly focused on the primacy of ‘state sovereignty’ and question the very legitimacy of international standards and their universal application to all. Their engagement in the international arena operates as a Trojan horse meant to undercut the objectives and operation of human rights systems, transform the human rights framework, and transmit new rights norms infused with their values and messaging.
In international human rights spaces anti-rights actors are misusing religion, along with arguments based on culture, tradition, and national sovereignty, to erode and undermine the universality of human rights. Common themes emerge in their advocacy: emphasis of the ‘traditional family,’ ‘morality,’ protection, and fixed gender roles; emotive and divisive language; misleading and co-opted discourses and misinformation; charges of elitism; and arguments based on ideas of moral superiority and cultural ‘authenticity.’
Feminist and other progressive activists have worked hard to hold our ground and to push back against these hostile initiatives to protect and further our rights. We now need a sharper understanding of these trends, including key actors, discourses, and their current impact, in order to continue countering them. Based on this knowledge, we need to organise collectively and creatively to maintain and continue developing human right standards to reclaim our rights, protect universality, and hold governments accountable for their rights violations.
The Observatory on the Universality of Rights (OURs) is a new collaborative initiative to monitor, analyse, and share information on anti-rights initiatives. The focus of its first report is the international human rights sphere. It includes information on anti-rights actors, their discourses, strategies, and significant impacts in 2015 and 2016.
This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy is available by clicking here. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.